We are VFR creatures by nature. The senses we need to maintain balance are unreliable without visual reference. So when pilots fly without visual references, they can succumb to spatial disorientation.
On February 6, 2002, the pilot of a Piper Cherokee Six and his three passengers were killed when the airplane crashed shortly after takeoff from Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.
At 1:41 p.m., the pilot contacted Dekalb-Peachtree ground control and received clearance for an instrument flight to Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Savannah, Georgia. At 1:52 p.m., the pilot was cleared for takeoff and told to fly a heading of 090 degrees. Two minutes later, the pilot contacted departure control and reported climbing through 1,500 feet. He was instructed to climb and maintain 4,000 feet. The pilot initially flew an eastbound heading, but at 1:55 p.m., the airplane began a right turn to the south.
At 1:56 p.m., the controller again instructed the pilot to fly a 090-degree heading, which the pilot acknowledged. Over the next few minutes, radar showed the airplane flying a wide right arc back over the airport. The controller asked the pilot his heading, and the pilot replied, "Two four zero." The controller told the pilot that he was assigned a heading of 090 degrees, and the pilot then asked if that was a right turn. The controller instructed the pilot to turn left to 090 degrees. The pilot initiated a left turn and leveled off at 4,000 feet.
At 2 p.m., the airplane began a right turn and descended 3,500 feet. The controller asked the pilot, "You want to inform me about what you're trying to do?" The pilot replied, "Trying to get out of a spin." The last recorded radar data showed the airplane in a right spiral pattern at an altitude of 2,200 feet.
The wreckage was found less than two miles east of the airport in a wooded, swampy area. Weather at the time of the accident had the winds at110 degrees at eight knots, two miles visibility, and the sky was overcast at 400 feet with light rain and mist.
The instrument-rated private pilot had 215 hours of experience with 8.6 hours in actual instrument conditions and 46 hours in simulated instrument conditions. The pilot had earned his instrument rating less than two months prior to the accident.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident was spatial disorientation, which resulted in the loss of control.
Spatial disorientation can happen slowly, and a pilot may not realize how serious the situation is until it is too late. A good instrument scan combined with trusting the instruments can help to prevent one of general aviation's killers: spatial disorientation. We as pilots need to ensure that the flight conditions we encounter are within our capabilities, especially when flying in instrument conditions. If the conditions are outside of those capabilities, land, divert, or ask for help as soon as possible.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.
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