It’s tempting—and risky—for a current instrument pilot to think of spatial disorientation as something that afflicts only VFR pilots who stumble uninvited into the clouds or other pilots who knowingly push marginal conditions.
Just add a touch of uncertainty or automation deprivation to an orderly IFR operation and any instrument pilot could have trouble telling up from down.
“Accident statistics show that the pilot who has not been trained in attitude instrument flying, or one whose instrument skills have eroded,” loses aircraft control “in about 10 minutes once forced to rely solely on instrument reference,” cautions the Airplane Flying Handbook (page 17-15).
Experiences shared in Aviation Safety Reporting System filings show how even minor disruptions of routine operations can provoke disorientation. In one instance, a twin-engine Piper PA–30 pilot who usually flies RNAV approaches decided to perform an ILS approach with the autopilot on—but the bearing pointer never appeared, and air traffic control inquired why the pilot had not captured the localizer. The pilot requested a missed approach to troubleshoot the avionics. “At some point I realized that I was in what I thought was an unusual attitude, and maneuvered to level the wings and raise the nose to stop the descent,” the pilot reported.
Another ATC inquiry “resulted in my focusing on whether the autopilot was on or not and, another pitch up and slight bank occurred,” reported the pilot, having become “uneasy and unsure of myself.” On breaking out of the clouds and “decompressing,” the pilot requested clearance back to the departure point.
A pilot flying to drop off a Cessna 182 at an avionics shop reported an “unnerving” encounter beginning on descent from VFR conditions for an instrument approach at the destination after switching off the autopilot.
“I was in a descending right turn that resulted in an unusual attitude, and then into an upset. I recognized the situation on the VSI and then the attitude indicator,” the pilot reported. Acting on the “repetitive” unusual attitude training received during training, the pilot responded—but like the Piper PA–30 pilot, experienced further control difficulties before restoring order and breaking out.
Everyone enjoys flying approaches and holds when logging proficiency time, but next time, why not invest some of your efforts in practicing that “repetitive” attitude instrument flying?