Unrecognized Spatial Disorientation
MAJ. DOUGLAS R. HOGOBOOM
School of Army Aviation Medicine
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Spatial disorientation is a significant concern in aviation. What’s even more worrisome is that it often goes unrecognized and can result in catastrophic consequences. As a flight surgeon, I was involved in the evaluation of a crew that experienced spatial disorientation which, for the most part, went unrecognized until it was almost too late. Fortunately, with assistance from air traffic control (ATC), they were able to land safely and learn from the experience.
New to the local area, the crew was ferrying an aircraft under instrument flight rules in heavy clouds. They were in a prolonged right turn to reach final into the airfield for a fuel stop when ATC suddenly came over the radio and requested an immediate left turn. There was no reason given, but the pilots responded appropriately by making the left. However, this created a concerning situation for the crew.
When they rolled out, the pilots disagreed on the correct orientation of the aircraft as well as the proper inputs to make to continue the flight plan. In fact, both pilots stated there were times when they were both on the flight controls. Although none of the crewmembers were able to identify exactly how long this went on, they did all agree it lasted at least a few minutes and caused an uncomfortable environment for all involved.
The aircraft made a number of different heading and speed changes as well as climbs and descents during this time. ATC recognized through the aircraft’s various attitudes and stress in the crewmembers’ voices that they were likely experiencing spatial disorientation. ATC spoke calmly to the crew, giving them direct orders. The pilot in command eventually recognized what was occurring. He took control of the aircraft and, believing his instruments and ATC, followed exactly what he was being told. At that time, the aircraft was handed off to the airfield tower and a ground controlled approach (GCA) was initiated. Through assistance from the GCA, the aircraft was able to make a safe landing, breaking free of the clouds just above the airfield.
From a flight surgeon’s perspective, there was nothing medically wrong with the crew besides some understandable stress. Reflecting on the experience, the crew recognized they all were experiencing spatial disorientation. They acknowledged that the calming and directive voice of ATC was significant in avoiding what could have become a catastrophic situation and provided a great learning experience.
The aviation environment is conducive to spatial disorientation, often unrecognized. It is important for aircrew members to review and understand the causes of spatial disorientation. This situation provides another example for learning without the catastrophic outcome that is all too common.