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Spatial Disorientation and Illusions

in Aeromedical Factors

Spatial disorientation specifically refers to the lack of orientation with regard to the position, attitude, or movement of the airplane in space. The body uses three integrated systems working together to ascertain orientation and movement in space.

  • Vestibular system—organs found in the inner ear that sense position by the way we are balanced.
  • Somatosensory system—nerves in the skin, muscles, and joints, which, along with hearing, sense position based on gravity, feeling, and sound.
  • Visual system—eyes, which sense position based on what is seen.

All this information comes together in the brain and, most of the time, the three streams of information agree, giving a clear idea of where and how the body is moving. Flying can sometimes cause these systems to supply conflicting information to the brain, which can lead to disorientation. During flight in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), the eyes are the major orientation source and usually prevail over false sensations from other sensory systems. When these visual cues are removed, as they are in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), false sensations can cause a pilot to quickly become disoriented.

The vestibular system in the inner ear allows the pilot to sense movement and determine orientation in the surrounding environment. In both the left and right inner ear, three semicircular canals are positioned at approximate right angles to each other. [Figure 16-3] Each canal is filled with fluid and has a section full of fine hairs. Acceleration of the inner ear in any direction causes the tiny hairs to deflect, which in turn stimulates nerve impulses, sending messages to the brain. The vestibular nerve transmits the impulses from the utricle, saccule, and semicircular canals to the brain to interpret motion.

Figure 16-3. The semicircular canals lie in three planes and sense motions of roll, pitch, and yaw.

Figure 16-3. The semicircular canals lie in three planes and sense motions of roll, pitch, and yaw.

The somatosensory system sends signals from the skin, joints, and muscles to the brain that are interpreted in relation to the Earth’s gravitational pull. These signals determine posture. Inputs from each movement update the body’s position to the brain on a constant basis. “Seat of the pants” flying is largely dependent upon these signals. Used in conjunction with visual and vestibular clues, these sensations can be fairly reliable. However, the body cannot distinguish between acceleration forces due to gravity and those resulting from maneuvering the aircraft, which can lead to sensory illusions and false impressions of an aircraft’s orientation and movement.

Under normal flight conditions, when there is a visual reference to the horizon and ground, the sensory system in the inner ear helps to identify the pitch, roll, and yaw movements of the aircraft. When visual contact with the horizon is lost, the vestibular system becomes unreliable. Without visual references outside the aircraft, there are many situations in which combinations of normal motions and forces create convincing illusions that are difficult to overcome.

Prevention is usually the best remedy for spatial disorientation. Unless a pilot has many hours of training in instrument flight, flight should be avoided in reduced visibility or at night when the horizon is not visible. A pilot can reduce susceptibility to disorienting illusions through training and awareness, and learning to rely totally on flight instruments.


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