A lasting impression: the power of spatial disorientation

The future is just a bunch of nows that haven’t happened yet. So here we are, this moment, the sum of all previous moments. Most moments simply slip by, others leave indelible marks–impressions really: a first love, birth of a child, the passing of a hero or prominent figure, our first solo.

I remember vividly the AME who conducted my student pilot certificate medical exam. He was a crusty older aviator who reeked of experience. Even I, a fledgling soon-to-be student pilot, could tell instantly this was a man who had acquired several lifetimes’ worth of wisdom. I felt like he should have been wearing the novelty t-shirt which reads, “If my lips are moving, you should be taking notes.”

Aside from the mundane tasks associated with the exam, there was something more. Out of nowhere he spoke deliberately, but in a casual monotone. I’ll never forget his words: “Turn towards the city … okay. Turn away, be veeeery careful.” A weighty utterance with innate import, not needing correct syntax or structure to make it solid, strong. A nugget of that wisdom. Yoda-esque in its delivery, the words seemed to be channeled rather than spoken. I nearly expected him to start talking in tongues. I had an inkling about what he was alluding to, but, as a student pilot without any context, I couldn’t quite piece it together.

Florida at night
The contrast between the glowing coasts and the dark middle is stark.

Spatial disorientation.

It wasn’t until weeks later that his words would be associated to this new (to me) concept and internalized. An impression made.

Florida’s coasts are well populated. From altitude, at night, you can see the lights of cities along each coast, with the Florida Everglades–basically a large black hole–in the middle. One night during my early training as a student, I had that urge to just go up. Not for a lesson, but rather just to get in the air. It turned out my regular instructor was unavailable so Sam, another CFI and the flight school owner’s son, offered to be my surrogate instructor, if only this one time. As is often the case, you rarely visit the sky without learning something.

Sam was wise beyond his years and decided to show me what it’s like to fly over the Florida Everglades, at night. We departed our east coast airport in a cozy 152 and headed west toward our normal practice area. So far, so good. As the saying goes I was fat, dumb, and happy, enjoying the smooth night air when suddenly all sense of relative motion was lost. I felt as if we were hanging by a string in a dark closet. It was peaceful and yet unnerving at the same time. I was so drawn to the lack of visual references I had to remind myself to bring concentration back inside the cockpit to the attitude indicator.

The nothingness outside was mesmerizing. To say that I was fixating on the AI would be an understatement. After a few minutes, Sam gave a gentle, caring laugh and pointed to the altimeter. It turns out that we had gained 500 feet, the result of my slight, unconscious back pressure on the yoke. An attempt to compensate somehow for the odd lack of sensation and to put more space between us (me) and the alligator shoes at the bottom of this dark, Everglades closet. Lasting impression indeed.

A few years later I lost a friend and fellow coworker to what was chalked up as spatial disorientation. He was flying a 152, over the Everglades, at night.

As a naïve student pilot I remember thinking, I use the same instruments as instrument pilots. How different could instrument flying be? I believe the impression that Everglades flight made on me did more for my subsequent flying – instrument and otherwise – than just about any other flying experience. And it didn’t take unusual attitudes or even all-out spatial disorientation to do it. I learned to respect the night, regardless of the weather; take nothing for granted; keep my head about me when something compels me to do otherwise, especially when things suddenly feel weird. Thanks, Sam.

Though it’s been said many times and in many different ways, it needs to be said again: it doesn’t matter if it’s clear and a million. Flying over water or other seemingly featureless, unlit terrain at night is as IMC as IMC gets. Period.

Instrument panel in Cessna
The instruments are always there, but you have to trust them.

Much has been written and reported about the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident so let’s not rehash it here. However, I do think it worth revisiting, albeit briefly. The details of the flight are readily available. Pull the information, then fly the flight in or on your favorite sim. You’ll discover that the initial part of the flight is over lighted, densely-populated areas. But the stretch soon after, the leg toward Martha’s Vineyard, is eerily dark.

Retracing the flight in the sim, it may surprise you just how difficult this flight would be to do VFR. (The visibility that night would have created a challenging VFR flight in the daytime!) There simply was no safe way to accomplish this inconspicuously benign flight without doing it IFR – on the gauges. When you look at the area near Martha’s Vineyard on a chart it looks deceptively close to the mainland. This is a ruse, just like that sucker’s hole in the clouds. Go try this flight in the sim. A lasting impression awaits.

Confirmation bias is our enemy here. The very fact that we may have made the same flight dozens of times is no consolation. There is no “same flight.” Each and every flight is different, even if the departure and destination IDs are identical to those of previous flights. Confirmation bias is an insidious companion that cloaks itself cleverly, whether confirming/affirming actions of the past 5,000 hours, the past five flights, or the past five minutes.

We’ve all been there. We read the accident reports and can see what’s coming a mile away. We all think, that couldn’t, wouldn’t be me. But the other guy is you. Spatial disorientation is just the tip of the self-awareness iceberg. Accept that it can happen to you but plan accordingly so that it doesn’t catch you unaware as it did in the case of John F. Kennedy Jr.

The greatest struggles are with ourselves. Whatever you do, don’t argue with yourself when aviating. Whether that is before a flight, during a flight, dealing with a crisis, or what may appear to be one unfolding. Sometimes you just need to ask yourself, “What is the most conservative thing I can do at this moment?” No argument, no sides to choose. Just a single action that could change an outcome, break a chain, and allow you to ruminate over it another day. It’ll make a lasting impression.

3 Comments

  • Good reminder. Thanks for sharing.

    My “AHA” moment was during a night go-around on runway 4 at Cross City, FL (KCTY). Throttle went in, nose went up, and the only way I knew we were climbing and moving was from the airspeed indicator and altimeter. I would have sworn that we were standing still. Total blackness ahead, to the left, and to the right.

  • My good luck was exercised on a “simple” 3 full stops around the pattern for night currency. I was a 2000 hr VFR pilot with an upcoming twilight mission. I lifted off on a moonless night, turned away from town (!) and very suddenly realized the lights were coming back into my field of vision about 30 degrees higher than I expected. The second surprise was the increasing airspeed.

    I don’t know how close I came to the ground. My pulse came down in a few minutes and I returned to land and a take a short walk.

    I am now a 2500 hr instrument rated pilot.

  • Mine was a beautiful night VFR approach into Marietta KRYY RW 9 over 20 years ago. RW 9 lies just past a berm that you don’t typically notice in the daytime. About 5 miles out and cleared to land all the runway lights go out. Huh? I believe to this day God Almighty made me throttle up and raise the nose before I actually figured it out. A quick look at the altimeter showed us maybe 500 ft too low.
    I think of it often. I’ll never know just how close I came to killing my wife and I that evening. Still curls my toes thinking about it.

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