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Rules to Live By

SAFETY SPOTLIGHT: Spatial Disorientation

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Maintaining control of your aircraft can be reduced to three simple rules. Observe them and you can immunize yourself against spatial disorientation:

Maintain VFR

If you’re not instrument-rated, do not enter IMC. If you enter these conditions inadvertently make a 180-degree turn and exit these conditions as soon as possible.

Fly within your capabilities

Make a commitment to fly within your capabilities. Maintaining VFR isn’t always enough to avoid spatial disorientation. This is where judgment and discipline come in.

Get an instrument rating

There is nothing you can do, no piece of equipment you can put in the panel, that will do more to protect you from the confusion that kills than the ability to correctly interpret flight instruments and control the aircraft accordingly. Once you earn the rating, or if you already have the rating, here are three additional steps to assure you can use it safely:

  • Maintain pilot proficiency – Keep your instrument rating current and keep your partial panel skills polished.
  • Maintain your aircraft – Maintain your aircraft to manufacturer’s recommended IFR standards to minimize any chance that systems won’t work when you need them most.
  • Redundant power source – Install a redundant power source for your gyro instruments.

Keep these points in mind

  • No one is immune. All pilots are susceptible to spatial disorientation.
  • Remember the 180-degree turn. VFR into IMC leads to the most spatial disorientation accidents. If you unexpectedly encounter IMC, fly back to VFR conditions immediately.
  • Maintain proficiency. If you have an instrument rating, be sure to maintain instrument proficiency, not just currency.
  • Establish sensible personal minimums and resist the temptation and pressures to exceed them.
  • Be familiar with the aircraft you’re flying. Make sure you’re familiar with the instrument panel, the flight-handling characteristics, and the aircraft’s speed. This becomes more critical at night, when visibility inside the cockpit as well as outside is reduced.
  • Choose your route carefully. If flying in marginal conditions or at night, pick a route that provides the best outside visual reference, even if it lengthens the flight; over land rather than over water, for example, or over areas with ground lighting instead of undeveloped countryside.
  • Keep terrain in mind. Use the Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) on VFR sectional charts to determine the highest terrain and obstacle along your route of flight. On IFR enroute low altitude charts use the Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) or Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA) to ensure obstacle and terrain clearance.