As pilots, we need to be aware of our physiology limitations, which can lead us into serious trouble, and know what to do about it.  A leading cause of non-survivable aviation incidents is the subject title of this article.

Spatial disorientation means our inability to determine our position and motion relative to our environment. We are all subject to this condition, including airline and military pilots. When flying our body is in motion. However, our body can sense one thing when in fact the plane is doing something else.

We all rely on our Sight, Hearing, and Balance to fly. Understanding this physical condition and knowing what to do about it can save your life. We can compensate for spatial disorientation with knowledge and experience.

Our Internal Gyroscope: The vestibular system in our inner ear is our primary balance system. It detects our body acceleration and deceleration, in yaw, pitch, and roll mode. Our body also depends on other senses to detect what is going on.  Our eyes have the primary stabilizing effect. Our nerve endings and hearing contribute to the information our brain receives.

Without visual reference, our balance and motion can be misleading, and we must compensate for Spatial Disorientation.

Also, our vestibular sensitivity DECREASES as we get older!!!

Some conditions creating spatial disorientation in flight:

  • Night Takeoff and night cross-country flight with few/no ground lights (e.g., dark night TO over water)
  • Haze, smoke, rain with no clearly visible horizon
  • Clouds around or in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions)
  • Quick movement of head – (e.g., looking for objects in the cockpit)
  • Distractions from flight instruments for prolonged period without visual horizon

Be aware of illusions in flight which can lead to spatial disorientation:

  • Somatogravic illusion – takeoff acceleration and excessive pitch up feeling
  • Coriolis illusion- quick head movements with feeling plane is in opposite turn
  • False horizon illusion – sloping/obscured clouds, night lights on ground are not stars
  • Autokinesis illusion – stationary light that appears to be moving

What to do about it:

  • Read, ask questions, comprehend what leads to Spatial Disorientation
  • Take on-line safety course (FAA, AOPA, etc.) on this subject
  • Plan ahead, be aware of flight risks with marginal visibility
  • Get Spatial Disorientation flight demonstrations and instructions from experienced CFI
  • Take training with CFI to recover from unusual attitudes using aircraft instruments

Our “seat of the pants” flying skills may be fine with good visibility but can seriously spoil our day in marginal visibility conditions. Knowledge, experience, and good judgment is your power and survivability.

Fly safe, train often. Proficiency counts.