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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Succumbing to spatial disorientation

We are VFR creatures by nature. Our sensory systems give especially high priority to vision. Without the ability to see, we'd have a difficult time maintaining balance or orienting ourselves to the world around us. 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.

The pilot contacted ground control and received clearance for an instrument flight to Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Savannah, Georgia. He 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.--three minutes after takeoff--the airplane began a right turn to the south.

At 1:56 p.m., the controller again instructed the pilot to fly a 90-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 90 degrees, and the pilot then asked if that was a right turn.

The controller instructed the pilot to turn left to 90 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 to 3,500 feet. The controller asked the pilot what he was doing, and 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 in a wooded, swampy area less than two miles east of the airport. At the time of the accident, the winds were 110 degrees at eight knots, visibility was two miles, 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 before 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. 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.

For more information on spatial disorientation, read the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Spatial Disorientation Safety Advisor.

Kristen Hummel holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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