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Key Takeaways

  • A flat spin is caused by tail loading when the aircraft’s nose is pointed upward as it begins to rotate downward at an angle smaller than 45 degrees.
  • Flat spins are extremely dangerous because the pilot has little to no control of the aircraft in this aviation condition.
  • Recovering from a flat spin is very difficult and it can only be achieved in certain light aircraft, aerobatic planes, and fighter jets.

If you are just getting started as a pilot, an aerodynamic condition that you will be warned about during your training is a flat spin, but what is it?

A flat spin is generally caused by tail loading. An aircraft’s nose will be pointed upward as it begins to rotate downward at an angle smaller than 45 degrees, which prevents the pilot from having control of the plane. Recovering from a flat spin can be very dangerous and potentially impossible.

After extensively researching aviation safety and flight protocols, I have gathered enough information to determine what a flat spin is. My research has indicated that a flat spin is a very dangerous flight condition that can, in many cases, be unrecoverable.

Table of contents


What is a Flat Spin?

In aviation dynamics, a flat spin is a flight condition that is best described as a boomerang-like motion similar to a downward spiral. This is a very dangerous category of stalling in an aircraft that can often be fatal if not responded to immediately and effectively.

A flat spin can be identified when the aircraft’s nose is upward and the plane begins to rotate downward at a smaller angle than 45 degrees. Once a flat spin is in effect, the aircraft will spin downwards, in many ways like a spinning top, until it eventually hits the ground.

Flat spins are life-threatening and pilots are trained to avoid them at all costs. There are emergency protocols for dealing with flat spins, but they are not guaranteed.

What Causes a Flat Spin?

A flat spin is caused by tail loading. When the tail end of the aircraft has more weight than the front, gravity will pull the plane down in the rear. Once this happens, the nose will shoot up and the aircraft will begin to rotate and lose altitude.

The plane will then continue to spiral down in this motion unless recovery action is taken by the pilot. With that said, a flat spin can potentially be caused by a mechanical failure which results in the aircraft stalling and falling at this same angle.

Many professional aviators will describe a flat spin as the worst mistake that a pilot can make while operating a plane - with catastrophic outcomes being likely. Experienced pilots that have been trained properly will understand the procedure for avoiding a flat spin, which is why they are rare on commercial airliners.

However, without aviation knowledge and flight experience, a flat spin can happen due to poor maneuvering and a lack of readiness to combat the situation. That is why intro pilots are given extensive training to understand how to prevent flat spins.

It is Possible to Recover from a Flat Spin?

Encountering a flat spin is very dangerous and many people within the aviation industry will often claim that they are impossible to recover from. The truth is that it is possible to recover from a flat spin, but not with every type of aircraft.

Some planes can recover from a flat spin considerably easier than others, particularly those that were designed for aerobatics. Fighter jets and aerobatic planes are built to handle a variety of different adverse flying conditions so that they can perform complex maneuvers in the sky.

In fact, some pilots that operate these types of planes will even intentionally go into a flat spin as an aerobatic trick - with the recovery being part of the act. That is not to say that every aerobatic plane and fighter jet is guaranteed to recover with ease. To successfully recover from a flat spin in an aircraft, you need a skilled and trained pilot that knows how to handle the situation, as not everyone who gets into the seat of a cock pit is equipped to do so.

While aerobatic planes and fighter jets are traditionally the aircraft with the best potential for recovery from a flat spin, that does not mean that other planes can’t get out of this aviation condition. You will find that many light aircraft have the potential to escape a flat spin, but the type of plane will influence the chances of recovery.

With that said, some planes are very difficult to fall into a flat spin. Keep in mind that a flat spin is often initiated due to tail loading. If the structure of the plane prevents tail loading and keeps the weight of the aircraft balanced, a flat spin will be hard or even impossible to achieve, which is particularly common with older planes.

On the other hand, large aircraft such as commercial airlines like 747s will be virtually impossible to recover during a flat spin. Any plane that has roll spoilers rather than ailerons will essentially be unrecoverable.

How Do Pilots Recover from a Flat Spin?

Despite some people insisting that all flat spins are unrecoverable, that is certainly not the case. A pilot’s ability to recover from a flat spin is heavily influenced by the aircraft that they are operating, as well as their skill and experience level in a cockpit.

If the pilot is flying an airliner, then yes - recovery is not likely, with a crash being imminent. However, skilled pilots flying the right planes can potentially escape a flat spin and recover safely by using the right aviation techniques and making the right moves.

That is not to say that recovery will be guaranteed. A pilot must act appropriately to increase the chances of recovery, which is much more realistic in a light aircraft.

What to Do During a Flat Spin

When pilots encounter a flat spin, taking immediate action to prevent a crash is necessary. Virtually every pilot will undergo some form of training that teaches them how to get out of a flat spin - with some having firsthand experience. This is the standardized procedure for recovering from a flat spin:

  1. Power to idle
  2. Ailerons to neutral
  3. Rudder opposite the spin
  4. Elevator forward

Following this procedure, a light aircraft, aerobatic plane, or fighter jet should be able to get trained pilots out of a flat spin. With that said, unless you are a skilled pilot practicing aerobatics or training in a fighter jet, by no means should you do a test run on a flat spin - even with the above-mentioned procedural tips.

If a pilot is able to get control of the plane by following this procedure, they will have successfully recovered from the flat spin. However, there are plenty of situations where recovery is impossible, which is when emergency ejection is the next best solution (if an option).

Why Are Flat Spins So Dangerous?

The reason that flat spins are so dangerous is that they can be very difficult, or even impossible, to recover from. Over the years, there have been numerous crashes linked to flat spins and many of them have been fatal.

In many crash incidents that involve mechanical or engine failure, pilots have a window of opportunity to prepare for an emergency landing. Even in the case of a controlled emergency landing, the chances of severe injury or death are highly likely. Pilots can follow safety protocols and take preventative action to mitigate the chances of fatalities by attempting to land in a safe place during an emergency.

Whereas in the case of an unrecoverable flat spin, evading a fatal crash is much less likely. Given that the pilot will have zero control over the aircraft in this situation, the odds of them surviving are incredibly small.

How Common Are Flat Spins?

Flat spins do happen, but they are not very common. There is a reason that aviation is still considered to be the safest mode of transport - the chances of getting into a crash are highly unlikely.

The most common flat spins are initiated intentionally by aerobatic planes and fighter jet pilots, as a form of practice or sport. A flat spin in commercial airlines is practically unheard of in today’s aviation industry, which is why large plane crashes are quite rare.