Free Fall

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It’s a shocking thing — an awesome kind of vertigo — gravity’s sudden upset.

“I figure it’s time to demonstrate spins,” my flight instructor said.

She pulled the yoke back and the plane started to climb, and without further explanation she smoothly pulled power. The engine idled back. I watched the airspeed indicator start to unwind. At about 50 knots the stall warning started sounding. I tried to brace for that sudden, awful break, when the plane lurched abruptly toward the ground.

I breathed in once, twice. The plane broke so fast it almost hurt: Free of its lift, unhinged, it twisted sideways, left wing dropping far beyond the vertical. In the same moment the tail catapulted over the nose. I actually saw the earth through the top cabin windows, spinning, upside down, it’s horizon curve all kinds of wrong. My mouth opened wide and without willing it I shouted.


It was good I wasn’t controlling the plane when our trusty Cessna 152 Aerobat flipped its wig. I wanted to think all my reading about spin recovery would have saved us. But in the moment, no.

It felt as though my insides had been pushed outside my body, then centrifuged. In that mad tumble I began to hear my instructor’s remote and calm sounding voice: “One and a half, two, two and a half” — with a hard thunk of rudder pedal the plane stopped spinning, then pitched forward into a dive as she thrust the yoke to the panel. Just as suddenly there was a deep g-force compression as she pulled back. My whole body jammed down into my seat like I was bottoming out on a roller coaster. In that moment I weighed 2.5 times my usual self.

The engine roared to life. And then — we were flying straight and level.

She looked at me and cackled “Let’s do it again!”


Later, while trying to drive home, I couldn’t keep from speeding. Seventy in a fifty-five zone was not fast enough. I told myself to stop the leadfoot before the cops yanked me over. This was it, I thought. This thing I just did — that was it. I knew the razor’s edge — I had glimpsed it from the other side. It was, after all, utterly controllable. The razor could be defeated, and if she could do it, so could I. In my bones I knew this, but my head held fast a vision of my contorted agony in that moment of uncontrolled descent.

My bones knew victory, but my brain was vying for defeat. It was like a mother’s voice yelling at a kid when they did something incredibly dumb: Have you have lost your ever-loving mind? That was unbelievably stupid! You should know better than that! You could have gotten killed!


Spins. Demonstrated:

Above: Barb MacLeod pilots N4951A with then owner Max Bell in the right hand seat counting down altitude. Barb is counting the spins. That is Bergstrom Airbase below them before it became Austin Bergstrom International Airport