Spencer Suderman doesn’t just break aerobatic records. He smashes them. The inverted flat spin is his forte. “Not dying” is his art. Suderman started flying as a kid. It quickly became his passion. Then a one-off safety course in how to recover from mid-flight tailspins led the pilot down a path of daredevil aerobatics. Fear became his fuel. The airplane became his medium.
Suderman operates on a different plane of existence than your average pilot, hell, your average person. One record isn’t good enough for him. If he can do it, someone else can break it. If someone else can break it, it’s not a good enough record for Suderman to set in the first place. So he needs to push his limits as a human and find the boundary between legend and madman. He’s pushing his own mettle to set the bar as high possible. Hopefully, without going down in a blaze of aeronautic glory in the process.
Most days, Arizona’s flat desert expanses serve as the stark backdrop to Suderman’s exploits. His bill-paying gig is as a data center strategist. When he’s not crunching business data, he’s crunching his own flight data. His hobby is the adrenaline found in the lean parts of aerodynamic maths. He applies that to a life lived in negative Gs as his plane does a maneuver that almost every other pilot on earth dreads — the inverted flat spin. Which, on paper, sounds… just… Crazy with a capital C.
For Suderman the flat spin is innate. It’s what his mind and body find pure passion in. So he’s embraced it to the point of zen like mastery.
“Something inside my brain said, ‘dude, do more of that,'” Suderman says with an excited comfort. And there’s the rub. When most of us are presented with danger — even in a simulation — we recognize it, master it, and move on, hoping we never have to deal with that situation again. Not Suderman. He was hooked on the minutiae of a single move an airplane makes when it’s disastrously plummeting towards the hard earth. Instead of fearing the situation he sought to master it in ways that defy reason and even gravity.
Suderman has succeeded because he’s failed so much through practice. After those failures, he works hard to figure out what went wrong — analyzing data and video from cameras mounted throughout his plane. He creates algorithms down to the half second for how he moves and how his plane moves.
“Some would look at this and say, ‘this is the sign of a madman,'” Suderman laments. “But I’ve found success in it because I’ve sought to understand it.” It’s in this exacting exploration of the science and math of his favorite aerial move that allows him to reach new heights.
All of this background work eventually led Suderman to the realization that for him to be the record setter in aerobatics, he had to change his plane to something more compact, but with the same engine. More numbers were crunched. More algorithms were created. And more tests were made. And then he went through all those processes again … and again.
After years of trial and error, upgrading planes, and reams of math, Suderman set out to break records over the dry and unforgiving deserts of Yuma, Arizona in 2016. Suderman was aiming to break the record of 81 spins, which he’d set back in 2014 (breaking the previous record of 78 spins, more on that later). Suderman smashed his record with 17 more spins with his new Sunbird S1X biplane. Which, in the man’s own words, was “f*cking gnarly.”
The story doesn’t end with Suderman setting the world record for inverted flat spins and walking away a legend. No, no, no. He’s still out there, crunching numbers and flight testing. He’s getting ready to set the bar so high that his record may stand alone forever.
This is where you start to wonder, does this end well? Aerobatic pilots die all the damn time. Often there’s not a reason why other than random mechanical failure or plain old human error. Afterall, what more does Suderman have left to prove? That he’s somehow above the constraints of G force and capable of withstanding more than any other aerobatic pilot? He’s the one breaking his own records at this point. It feels like he’s pushing the envelope against himself. He’s playing the game as both the villain and the hero.
The previous record holder for inverted flat spins set the bar at 78 turns back in 1999 before sustaining serious injuries during a stunt show that same year. He now works training other pilots.
It’s hard not to see a similar fate for Suderman until you look at what he’s doing. He has gone deeper into the math and dynamics of flying than anyone else could even conceive. There’s an understanding that Suderman has unlocked that puts him head and shoulders above the rest. Will that save his life one day? We hope so. But danger is only ever one tiny miscalculation or mechanical malfunction away.
Suderman is not deterred by risk, but he does respect it. “The air show environment is a serious business,” Suderman admits. “It’s unforgiving when mistakes happen.” Suderman has witnessed tragedy in the skies and on runways. He knows the risks. He calculates them. Suderman blinks some harsh truths, “I’m scared every time I get in the airplane.”
Suderman understands his fear and knows his risks. He doesn’t let those limits drive his experience. He’s planning on changing the parameters of the game to create even more records. This year, that means reinventing the rules by taking a plane that’s meant to fly at 10,000 feet up to 30,000 feet, in an attempt to complete at least 120 consecutive inverted flat spins while barreling towards the hard sandy earth of Arizona’s desert. There’s slew of potential consequences to taking a plane up that high. The least of which is simple breathable air for both Suderman and his engine.
And that’s the moment. The thin line between maniac and legend. If he pulls this move off, he’ll be immortalized as a hero. Someone who dared to dream the impossible and make it a reality. If he fails, he’ll be the madman who never had enough and pushed the envelope past the edge of reason. Either in record-breaking life or daredevil death, he’ll have inspired us to push our mettle and find our own version of the inverted flat spin.