Preventing spacial disorientation

A version of this story was first published here.

It was 9:45 on a clear, moonless night when I lifted off from the small airport in Western North Carolina, leaving all lights behind. Along with the lights went any reference to the world around me. As I ascended, I searched for a horizontal landmark. Lights on the horizon. A road. River. Anything. The mountainous terrain and the night left me with nothing to see. 

“If you lose sight of the horizon, look down at the instruments, they will tell you the truth” my instructor always said in training. Right! But by the time I Iooked down at my instruments I was already in a 20 degree left hand turn.

In 3 to 4 seconds my body had betrayed me. I had no sense of the airplane turning. It was gradual and unnoticed.

Thankfully my training took over to prevent what could have been a simple but devastating problem.  Had I been tired or complacent, my fun night flight of only 6 miles to another airport in town could have ended differently.

The thing is, while my instruments were correct and directly in my line of vision, and modern training does stress trusting those instruments. But there is something else and a much more difficult thing to reconcile: I also had to recognize that the airplane was in fact rolling. A single engine plane has a natural tendency to turn to the left on its own. Not only that, but it happens too slowly for your inner ear to pick up on the change. Left uncorrected, most single engine aircraft will enter into a steep spiral dive. 

Had I been in a different state of mind, had my training been something I just recited instead of studied and believed in, I might have not have noticed in time. If I had a passenger who was talking, or a flock of birds had crossed in front of us, who knows what would have happened.

My own experience is a well documented problem and a solution has long been searched for. I suffered from momentary spatial disorientation. The thing inside us that gives us our sense of direction, my inner ear, was completely deceived by the gyroscopic motions of the airplane. My eyes, which are normally our body’s back up sensors, were not able to tell my brain where the horizon was. In aviation, this is generally considered “not good.”

Spacial disorientation is a mitigatable problem. The attitude indicator in airplanes has been around for almost 100 years and is very capable of telling you what is happening. Of course in order for that instrument to be of any use, you have to remember to look at it, understand what it’s telling you, and believe that it’s telling you the truth. 

Spatial disorientation can happen in all types of aircraft, and to any pilot. One of the most famous of these incidents involved the death of John F Kennedy Jr in 1999. Mr Kennedy took off from Essex county airport in Fairfield, NJ on a flight to Martha’s Vineyard. While we won’t ever know for certain, it’s believed that Kennedy most likely lost sight of the horizon. Some pilots in the area reported some haze over the open water that evening. Conditions like this would make it almost impossible to judge what was sky and what was ocean. The plane slowly entered into a spiral dive and impacted the water, killing Mr Kennedy, his wife Caroline, and his sister, Lauren.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched an investigation and eventually concluded that the crash had been caused by “the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was the result of spacial disorientation.”

Spacial disorientation is also a problem for highly experienced pilots. I was sitting with my friend Jerry a few weeks ago as he told me stories of his time as an F-4 Phantom pilot in Vietnam.  He flew 221 combat missions in 1968 and 1969. He told me a chilling story about a flight at the end of one of his missions. He was returning back to base when he and his wingman flew into some clouds and Jerry lost sight of the horizon. Despite being a veteran combat pilot, he didn’t notice his problem until he heard his wingman making repeated calls to him over the radio. 

“Where are you headed, lead?”

At that moment, they broke through the clouds and he pulled up. It was then that Jerry realized he had somehow threaded his way into a narrow valley with high mountains to either side of him, reaching far above his current altitude. He considers this the most dangerous flight of the war for him. Imagine coming back night after night with bullet holes in his fighter and then citing that one time he didn’t know which way was up on a flight home as the thing that almost killed him. His instruments were working. He knew better. And yet it was someone else’s voice on the radio that got him home alive. His story certainly got my attention.

In our cars we enjoy safety options like traction control and anti-lock brakes. In General Aviation, complex systems present both a technical challenge and a complicated regulatory environment, the latter being more hurdle than help.

I’m an engineer and inventor by trade, so in the days following my incident I investigated solutions and put my inventor hat on.

I fly a Diamond DA-20-C1. A single engine 2 seat aircraft with excellent visibility and a great glide ratio. It’s a terrific ride. It was built in 1998 and is relatively new for a General Aviation aircraft. Many of the other planes at our small airport have been flying since the 1970s or earlier. It has a standard set of round gauges similar to most aircraft of this size.  Flight controls are cables directly connected to my hands and feet via pedals and a control stick. The airplane does have electric trim, but that’s the only flight control that could be manipulated directly.

So, for this very typical aircraft in the GA fleet, what do we need to build to solve the spacial disorientation problem? 

The solution is more obvious in a modern fly by wire aircraft with a glass panel display. We’d do some fancy algorithm work with sensors and take advantage of cheap computing power and could design a system much like the traction control in your car. A computer could make decisions much quicker than your brain. We’d just let it nudge the airplane back to a good flight envelope. This isn’t quite as simple as it sounds to actually implement, but it’s not insurmountable. 25 years from now I suspect this will be standard equipment, just like traction control and anti-lock brakes on your car.

On the other hand, there are many thousands upon thousands of perfectly flyable aircraft that fit the description of the Diamond I fly- an older aircraft with directly connected cable flight controls and a mechanical set of instruments whose designs predate WWII. Creating a fix for that platform isn’t so obvious. Planes like this usually don’t have access to automated manipulation of flight controls. Replacing instruments is expensive. In addition many of the instruments you might make changes to are often part of the flight certification of the aircraft itself. Few owners will want to make expensive changes to a system that they perceive to be working just fine.

The quickest solution is most likely a small general purpose secondary informational system that is portable or semi portable. Computing power is constantly getting cheaper and faster. How cheap? I built an ADS-B receiver with bluetooth and a 4 inch touch display for $100 US with off the shelf parts, over one weekend. I could have also done this with a repurposed cell phone.

Just like the portable GPS units you see in older General Aviation aircraft, what if we build a secondary display “for informational purposes and planning.” What do we put on it? How do we grab the pilot’s attention when he is in trouble and doesn’t know it?

Much of my research, as I prototype possible solutions to this problem, concentrates on the display of information to a pilot. First we want him to be aware there is a problem. Then we want to help him do something about it.  If we look back at my own spacial disorientation experience and that of my friend Jerry, however, all of the visual input in the world won’t help if the pilot doesn’t look down at the indicator. The addition of a secondary sensory input is needed. 

“Where are you going, lead?” was a very helpful reminder to Jerry. That works great if you’re a combat pilot with a wingman. We need something automated for everyone else. If we connect this secondary sensor and display system to the intercom of the aircraft, or the mp3 player input of the pilot’s headset, we can set normal flight envelope ranges and notify the pilot with both sight references and a voice that tells us when something is wrong. A red arrow accompanied by the phrase “bank left” would have kept me out of trouble nicely.

A computer suggesting I “Pull up” or “Bank right” is certainly better than a letter to your family that starts “We regret to inform you…”

Posted on August 17, 2015 and filed under Adventure, Learning, Aviation.

A new category and maybe a little help from you

DA 20

Starting today, we're going to start telling stories and helping to solve problems in Aviation. This is both a personal and professional change for me and I could use your help. You like airplanes don't you?

What's going on, or could be going on in the General Aviation industry that you'd like to see change?

Where are the disruption points?

Who are the garage builders and hackers who need to have their stories told?




Posted on February 11, 2015 and filed under Uncategorized.

Are there enough ghosts in your closet?


I watched the Google I/O keynote this week and was not surprised to see people complain about projects that Google has touted in the past which are now abandoned.  Google Wave, Google Buzz, Reader (I still miss Reader), the Nexus Q, etc. But there are some really cool things that are coming out of the Googleplex right now and SOME of them will stick.

This isn't a commentary on which of the Google announcements I'm excited about. It's about attitude.

When you're doing something hard, or in the case of something like Space Exploration, close to impossible you have to try, fail, and try again.

Science works like this. Technology startups work this way. Experimental medicine works this way.

It's a good way to work. Just make sure you're learning from the past.

The ghosts of the stuff that didn't work inform the new work. -Gina Trapani

As we head into the weekend, think about what your failed work can teach you about the work you're doing now.


Posted on June 27, 2014 and filed under Think.

Why not?


In case you haven't noticed, I backed away from space exploration writing and podcasting for more or less 2 years now. I found myself getting bogged down in bad politics, disappointing announcements and overall negativity. I spent all my time asking "why?".

When trying to do something that's really really hard like create a private space INDUSTRY it's easy to get caught up in "can't". Then a couple weeks ago two things happened...

Will Pomerantz reminded me that negativity doesn't get anyone anywhere.

Then my son Caleb reminded me that I used to talk about inspiring kids in space because "kids don't know it can't be done".

Well enough with the can't. Enough with the "it's too hard". Enough with the "I can't come up with a business plan for this."


Starting right now we're going to work on things that are just outside of what's possible. The kind of work that uses prior accomplishments to build upon to make us better. I'm not talking about a faster smart phone or a new way to share pictures of our lunch.

I'm talking about the kind of things that make us look up into the sky and say "why not?".

Posted on June 19, 2014 and filed under Evadot Announcements, Space, Think.

I got Google Glass wrong

Google Glass in 2014

Right around the first of the year we were sitting around a table at a Chinese restaurant and Gary says “We need a vision, a "wow factor" at our conference. What if we get Google Glass and have you wear it while you’re there? Then we can give it away on Friday night!” Many brilliant ideas start at as a conversation over Chinese food. I get to play with Google Glass, review it, work with it, talk about it, and give it away? AWESOME.

A few weeks later it arrived.  I wasn't sure why I was excited, but it was a new toy and I do love a new toy.

I played with it for the evening and took it to work the next day. By 10am it was back in it’s awkward case and I put it on just a handful of times over the next month. I didn’t really put it on for a full day until the first day of TUGConnects 2014.

The TUGConnects conference is an unusual one for me. It’s a group of small to medium sized local and regional distributors. Not my normal crowd, but they like technology, I like technology, and the food is killer.

I donned Google Glass on the first day and wore it for about 12 hours. There were a lot of questions and a lot of  selfies that I helped clog the internet with that day.  A fair number of people obviously had never even heard of it so I got a lot of stares as I walked by.

What? Do I have a booger or something?

The conference MC, Glenn Thayer asked me to come onstage the following day and spend 5 minutes talking about it.

Uh oh.

Normally additional exposure to a large captive audience is a good thing. But there I was that evening struggling for what to say. What could possibly be interesting about Google Glass to a large group of regional distributors? I had struggled myself to come up with a use for it in my own work for people with special needs and moon rovers.

In the shower the next morning I came up with an idea. Why do some of the best ideas come in the shower?

Imagine for a second...

On stage it went something like this:

"Imagine for a second that you are the operations manager on a warehouse floor. As you walk down an isle you pass a pallet full of shoes. The boxes of shoes have RFID tags on them. RFID has been around for a long time and has had limited adoption, but it works pretty well. Since you’re wearing glass version 3 you see hovering above the pallet some information that’s pertinent to you as the operations manager. This pallet will be here for 2 weeks, it’s scheduled to be moved to isle 9 by Mark the forklift operator this afternoon.

As you walk past the next isle you can see some pallets of styrofoam containers. Hovering above these is information about this shipment of fish that originated in Hawaii and is destined for New York in an hour. These are all transmitting temperature data via bluetooth low energy sensors and you see that one of them has been marked for random inspection by the FDA before it leaves here today. Linda will be handling the inspection and she’s in the building and has been notified by text message that this pallet needs to leave soon and it’s in isle 12, section b.

You pass two more rows and Glass picks up the barcodes on the side of some boxes as you walk by and instantly talks to the servers in the warehouse to give you pertinent information about this shipment critical to your particular role in the warehouse in real time.

This isn’t a vision of the far future. This is next year. "

For the rest of the day conversations with me had a theme.

"I didn't get the vision for our future in technology until you told a story of THAT thing on MY head."


Sometimes we're so busy thinking about the technology that we forget that the outcome for people is the point of the technology in the first place.

Ever since I imagined myself into that story I've had a flood of  ideas for what I want to do with wearable computers. And yet, I had to give the Google Glass away that evening.

This version of Glass is like my Palm V was in 1999. The Palm V was okay, a little clunky and a paper organizer was probably faster.  I needed  to think of the concept of wearable computers by connecting that Palm V 10 years into the future to an iPhone or Moto X. I got it wrong because I thought about the current implementation instead of the potential.

I wish I had my Google Glass back.

Now I want my Glass back

Posted on March 20, 2014 and filed under Engineering, Hacking, Tech, Think.

Bill Nye's Open Letter to President Barack Obama


Planetary exploration not only brings us astonishing discoveries from other worlds, it inherently leads to innovation, because we invest in solving problems which have never been solved before. That in turn creates new businesses and economic growth. But more importantly, supporting a robust space program raises everyone's expectation of what's possible. With a space program, everyone in our society comes to believe and expect that any problem we face can be solved. It's inherently optimistic. It's part of our national character.

Read the full text of his letter.

What do YOU think?

Posted on December 6, 2013 and filed under Awesome Organizations, Commercial Space, Exploration, NASA, Science, Space, Think, video, Why Space.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Star Wars Edition


Press "CC" in the player for the lyrics! Based on "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen and STAR WARS created by George Lucas. Performed by the Star Wars cosplayers of the Arizona geek community!

Produced by the Students and Faculty of the Digital Video Program at University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona (

"Star Wars Edition" Lyrics by Stephen Panagiotis, Jamall Richards and Paul DeNigris

"Star Wars Edition" Vocals Produced by Joey Sawhill & Adam Newton All vocals by Adam Newton Engineered & Mixed by Joey Sawhil

Bohemian Rhapsody: Star Wars Edition

Happy Friday!

Posted on December 6, 2013 and filed under Fun, video.

Get the Wolfram Language and Mathematica on the Raspberry Pi for FREE


Today Raspberry Pi, the awesome $35 Linux computer and  Wolfram Research announced a partnership to offer Mathematics and The Wolfram Language on the Raspberry Pi for free. Future releases of Rasbian, the defacto OS for the Pi will include it preinstalled. If you need a Raspberry Pi, even Amazon has them.

To get it on your Pi today, just open up a terminal window and do:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install wolfram-engine

Happy mathing!

Posted on November 21, 2013 and filed under Education.

NASA paywalls first papers arising from Curiosity rover, I am setting them free

Found this one on Hackernews this morning, what do YOU think?

The Mars Curiosity rover has been a huge boon for NASA – tapping into the public’s fascination with space exploration and the search for life on other planets. Its landing was watched live by millions of people, and interest in the photos and videos it is collecting is so great, that NASA has had to relocate its servers to deal with the capacity.

So what does NASA do to reward this outpouring of public interest (not to mention to $2.5 billion taxpayer dollars that made it possible)? They publish the first papers to arise from the project behind a Science magazine’s paywall

NASA paywalls first papers arising from Curiosity rover, I am setting them free.

Posted on September 27, 2013 and filed under Exploration, NASA.

Jetpack to be available in 2014


I guess this means I need to retire my "Where's my jetpack? Where's my flying car?" T-shirt.

New Zealand’s Martin Aircraft is developing the “first practical jetpack” and has done manned and unmanned flight tests of its latest prototype, Aviation Week reports.

When completed it will be aimed at first responders (such as fire services), planned to be available in 2014.

You will have to wait a bit longer for a personal JetPack.

Flight control is fly-by-wire (computer-controlled) and there’s a recovery parachute, linked to the engine so it deploys automatically if it malfunctions. The undercarriage and frame is impact-absorbing and there is a flotation device in case of a ditching.

Martin is aiming for a maximum speed of 46 mph, 30km range, and 30 minutes endurance. There is also interest from the military and for uses ranging from border patrol and search-and-rescue to corporate events and “jetpack experience” thrill rides.


via Jetpack to be available in 2014 | KurzweilAI.

Posted on September 23, 2013 and filed under Engineering, Tech.

Just keep going


Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working.

Seems like a great motto to me. Let's adopt this today.




Posted on September 17, 2013 and filed under Inspiration.

Zuckerberg, Brin join forces to extend life


It's really cool to see someone besides the XPRIZE foundation working on incentive prizes. Interesting that Sergey never talks about the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, along with their spouses, joined Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner to award 11 scientists $3 million each to launch the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

via Zuckerberg, Brin join forces to extend life - FRANCE 24.

Posted on February 21, 2013 and filed under Awesome Organizations, Biology, GLXP, Medical.

US no longer lists satellites as weapons


 Satellites are no longer weapons, according to a change in US anti-arms trafficking law. The move gives hope to commercial spaceflight companies wanting to sell their technology on the global market rather than just within the US. However, the focus on Earth-orbiting craft means deep-space missions could still be hampered by onerous security laws.

On 3 January, President Barack Obama authorised a revision of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations law. Since 1999, ITAR listed US satellites and related technology as munitions with strict limits on exports to foreign powers – much to the annoyance of satellite makers. They say they cannot earn what they need to stay innovative without selling advanced technology abroad.

The updated law takes Earth-orbiting satellites and technologies off the list, although the president retains veto power, and the ruling doesn't apply to some countries, including China, Iran and North Korea.

US no longer lists satellites as weapons - space - 09 January 2013 - New Scientist.

Posted on January 9, 2013 and filed under Commercial Space, Exploration, NASA, Space.