Each day millions of people put their lives in the hands of pilots. Whether they are civilians or military personnel, these individuals depend on the pilot to get them to their destination safely. What they often overlook is that there are various aeromedical factors that are essential features in the lives of pilots. These aeromedical factors can surface at any given time and can ultimately affect how a pilot carries out his day-to-day responsibilities.
While there are many aeromedical factors that are essential features in the lives of pilots, including but not limited to, hypoxia, hyperventilation, and dehydration, one of the most common aeromedical factors that pilots often experience is spatial disorientation. In dealing with this aeromedical factor, it is important for a pilot to be able to recognize the symptoms of this factor and its causes. In addition, it is vital that the pilots possess knowledge on ways to avoid spatial disorientation and corrective actions that can be used in the event that he experiences same. This will enable a pilot to continue to carry out his job responsibilities in a safe and efficient manner and make the flight a more pleasurable one.
Spatial orientation, “the mistaken perception of one’s position and motion relative to the earth” is a common aeromedical factor experienced by pilots. (Retrieved January 9, 2010, http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/sa17.pdf). Spatial disorientation is caused when the visual system, the vestibular system, and the somatosensory system, the three sensory systems which provide individuals with the information to maintain their equilibrium, supply conflicting information to the brain. This conflicting information
in turn, will provide pilots with an inaccurate mental image of his position in relation to what is actually occurring to the aircraft or what one refers to as illusions. The major illusions that have been identified as leading to spatial disorientation include the graveyard spiral, the coriolis illusion, leans, false horizons, flicker vertigo, and runaways. (Retrieved January 9, 2010, http://www.aviatorthings.com/cfi-lesson-plans/aeromedical-factors.php#illusions).
Spatial orientation has been deemed one of the most contributing factors to fatal aircraft accidents by the Aeronautical Information Manual. (Retrieved January 9, 2010, http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/sa17.pdf). With this, it is important that pilots know that spatial orientation can be caused by any condition that will deprive them of visual references that will enable them to maintain orientation, such as clouds, haze, and darkness. In order to avoid experiencing spatial orientation, pilots should apply a safety approach, such as the following: (1) maintain visual flight rules (VFRs) by avoiding entering instrument meteorological conditions (IMC); (2) fly within their capabilities by establishing personal minimums and resisting any pressures to go beyond them; and (3) get an instrument rating in order to prevent themselves from being misled by illusions. In the event that a pilot enters IMC conditions and begins to experience symptoms related to spatial disorientation, he should remain calm. Thereafter, he should trust his instruments and scan them prior to making control inputs, remain alert for altitude changes, and if his aircraft is equipped with such a feature, he should use autopilot. (Retrieved January 9, 2010, http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/sa17.pdf). Further, in addition to the above, in order to ensure that pilots continue to maintain knowledge of spatial orientation, training requirements in relation to spatial orientation can be enforced.
The affects that spatial orientation can have on a pilot and the importance of safety approach were displayed on July 16, 1999, when John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was flying a Piper Saratoga, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing himself, his wife, and sister-in-law. The aircraft departed from Essex County Airport in Essex County, New Jersey, and was destined for Barnstable Municipal-Boardman/Polando Field (HYA), Hyannis, Massachusetts, with a scheduled stop at Martha’s Vineyard Airport (MVY), Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. An official statement released by the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the accident was determined to occur at night and that other pilots who were flying the vicinity at the time of the accident reported that there was no visible horizon over the water because of haze. John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was a non-instrument rated pilot, was determined to have failed to maintain control of the aircraft during a descent over the water, due to spatial orientation. (Retrieved on January 9, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy,_Jr._airplane_crash ).
In analyzing the above tragedy, one can assume that John F. Kennedy, Jr. did not apply an effective safety approach for that flight. Although the flight was initially scheduled to occur during the day, since Kennedy’s sister-in-law was delayed at work, it was postponed and did not actually depart until dark due to heavy traffic. In addition, as noted earlier, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was a non-instrument rated pilot, and an investigation revealed that he never received a weather briefing or filed a flight plan with any Flight Service Station. In relation to night flying and spatial orientation, the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, FAA-H-8083-3, chapter 10, states “Night flying requires that pilots be aware of, and operate within, their abilities and limitations… During poor visibility conditions over water, the horizon will become obscure, and may result in a loss of orientation. Even on clear nights, the stars may be reflected on the water surface, which could appear as a continuous array of lights, thus making the horizon difficult to identify.” (Retrieved January 10, 2010, http://ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief2.asp?ev_id=20001212X19354&ntsbno=NYC99MA178&akey=1 . Kennedy, knowing that the flight was delayed too long to depart during light hours, knowing that he did not possess an instrument rating, and knowing that he had little experience flying at night and never received a weather brief, should have postponed the flight to, at the earliest, the following day. In the event that he would have done so, he and his two passengers may have still been alive today.
Overall, spatial orientation has been deemed a contributing aeromedical factor in various airplane crashes. As exhibited in the real life example set forth above, it is important that pilots be able to recognize the symptoms of this factor and its causes. In addition, it is vital that pilots apply a safety approach in relation to spatial orientation and have knowledge of corrective actions that can be used in the event that he experiences same. In doing so, pilots in actuality, may avoid situations which may result in his life and the lives of his passengers being lost.
Certified Flight Instructor. (2009). Aeromedical Factors. Retrieved from http://www.aviatorthings.com/cfi-lesson-plans/aeromedical-actors.php#illusions National Transportation Safety Board. (December 12, 2000). Accident Report NYC99MA178. Retrieved from
http://ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief2.asp?ev_id=20001212X19354&ntsbno=NYC99MA178&akey=1 Wikimedia Foundation Inc. (Modified January 3, 2010). “John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Airplane Crash.” Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy,_Jr._airplane_crash Wynbrandt, James (2004). Spatial Disorientation: Confusion That Kills. Retrieved from