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.