Spin Recovery in the P-39
The first time I was in a spin it was in a sailplane with very docile handling characteristics, the Schweizer 2-33. Spin recovery is a necessary skill to master in a sailplane, since you spend a lot of time turning inside a thermal a few miles an hour above stall speed. Misjudge that, let your speed drop, tighten the turn a little bit too much, and you depart controlled flight.
But not to worry, not in the 2-33. Center the controls to break the rotation, stick a little forward to pick up airspeed, and the sailplane is flying again.
That’s two pretty simple, even instinctive moves. You can do it in a second or less.
The pilot’s manual for the P-39 Airacobra sets out a recovery technique that’s a little more complicated. There are two phases, pre-recovery and recovery. In the pre-recovery phase, the pilot has to close the throttle, set the propeller control to the low RPM position, and pull the control stick into your lap. Get it? The throttle is at your left hand, the propeller control is just behind the throttle, so that’s a one-two movement as you pull the stick back into your lap.
Now remember the airplane is not in a controlled maneuver. The manual describes the spin as being oscillatory in rate. Sometimes it spins fast, sometimes it spins slow. You don’t have any control over the rate. You have to decide when the airplane is slowing down or speeding up. You have to know that because, to effect recovery, you have to apply full opposite rudder when spin is at its slowest. All this time your surroundings — clouds, ground, horizon — are spinning around you. Imagine standing on one of those old playground merry-go-rounds, right in the center, as your friends push on it to make it go faster. That’s a start on what it would be like, except this spin happens in three dimensions, not two. So you wait for the rudder to take effect and push the stick full forward while applying ailerons against the spin. The actual language used in the manual is interesting: “The spin is usually oscillatory in rate, and it is mandatory that the opposite rudder be applied when the spin is at its slowest.” I particularly like that word “mandatory.” It’s the sort of emphasis you don’t often find in a pilot’s manual.
If you follow the procedure above, “…the airplane will recover in one-half turn. If the procedure is not followed closely, the airplane may not recover.” I think the implications of that last sentence deserve examination. You must follow the procedure closely, i.e., you do exactly what the manual says, or you’re going in.
No wonder the manual begins the section on spins with the statement “Deliberate spinning is not recommended.”
Just for a little context, follow the link below, which takes you to a War Department film on spin and tumble tests in the P-39. Bell Aircraft test pilots did these tests because pilots flying the P-39 insisted that the airplane would, in the right circumstances, literally tumble end over end. You’ll probably also see why the manual included words like “mandatory” and “closely.”