If you’re a pilot or know anything about aviation, you’ve heard about the danger of spatial disorientation. The definition of spatial disorientation is: the inability of a person to correctly determine his/her body position in space. All pilots-in-training learn about this phenomenon.
When training for an instrument rating, we are forced to wear very unfashionable goggles, called “foggles.” They actually block your view outside of the plane. Yes, I know you’re asking yourself: “What kind of demented individual…..?” No kidding. This instructional time wearing these darling “foggles” is known as flying “under the hood.” You must learn to fly with limited visibility or no visibility. It’s during these conditions that you become most susceptible to spatial disorientation. Quick, sudden movements cause all kinds of problems attributed to your body’s vestibular system. If you must move your head, you should do so, slowly. That’s not always your automatic reaction when you need to reach for something.
Experiencing loss of control
While at the FAA training facility, I encountered spatial disorientation personally. Watching others go before me into the simulator, I assured myself that I wouldn’t fall prey to their game. Wrong. As you’re flying along, the simulator moves very slowly. You are asked to reach down for a pen on the floor and boom! Everything in your brain spins. All of a sudden, you have no idea what direction you’re going. The loss of control is unnerving. When you are experiencing spatial disorientation, your body plays tricks on your brain. You may believe you are in a climbing right turn, when you’re actually in a descending left bank. Not cool. I read about it in my training books, over and over, but experiencing it is an eye-opener. Every pilot is vulnerable, no matter how experienced.
It’s difficult to fathom. Humans are so intelligent and to think that we could actually be misled by our own brains is alarming. Spatial disorientation is something that can happen when pilots are flying in certain conditions: Complete darkness, with no horizon, is a prime example. This is most likely over large bodies of water or in rural areas with no ground or city lights for visual reference. This may also happen when there is heavy cloud coverage eliminating the view of stars in the sky or ground references. It was speculated that this is what likely led JFK, Jr. to his death while he piloted his own plane over the Atlantic towards Martha’s Vineyard in 1999.
Flying by the seat of your pants
This is what instrument flight training is all about: relying only on your airplane’s instruments. “Flying by the seat of your pants” could bring tragic results. Before pilots had all of the gadgets we have today, they commonly relied on their bodies to direct them and provide knowledge about their position relative to the earth with often grave results. We are fortunate to have all of the tools in airplanes today to help keep us alive during flights that can put us in conditions with little or no visual reference.
Learning to rely solely on instruments is extremely unnatural and awkward at first. We have to completely shut off and/or ignore some of our most valuable senses. It’s almost like being led in the dark by a complete stranger. In the beginning, my heart would actually start racing. In time, it has become more natural. Sometimes, when I’m actually not flying “under the hood,” I find myself NOT looking out the window. I’ve become so used to only using my instruments. My instructor stares blindly at me and says “you can look out the window!!” To which I reply, “Of course I knew that; I’m just sharpening my skills…”
Not just for pilots
To become more proficient, pilots have to do things that are sometimes uncomfortable. Isn’t that so true for anyone in life as well? You don’t have to be a pilot to understand that. Life can be disorienting for anyone, especially during different seasons or when faced with challenges. Things can be unpleasant. Decisions aren’t always straightforward. It’s during those times, that we should remain calm and not make quick decisions. We should rely on our instruments: friends and family. The people that want to guide us to safety, peace and fulfillment. We don’t always know which direction to go, but we can surround ourselves with the right people and the right tools to guide us.