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Sensory Systems for Orientation: The Ear

by Flight Learnings

in Human Factors

The inner ear has two major parts concerned with orientation, the semicircular canals and the otolith organs. [Figure 1-3] The semicircular canals detect angular acceleration of the body while the otolith organs detect linear acceleration and gravity.  The semicircular canals consist of three tubes at right angles to each other, each located on one of three axes: pitch, roll, or yaw as illustrated in Figure 1-4. Each canal is filled with a fluid called endolymph fluid. In the center of the canal is the cupola, a gelatinous structure that rests upon sensory hairs located at the end of the vestibular nerves. It is the movement of these hairs within the fluid which causes sensations of motion.

Figure 1-3. Inner Ear Orientation.

Figure 1-3. Inner Ear Orientation.

Figure 1-4. Angular Acceleration and the Semicircular Tubes.

Figure 1-4. Angular Acceleration and the Semicircular Tubes.

Because of the friction between the fl uid and the canal, it may take about 15–20 seconds for the fluid in the ear canal to reach the same speed as the canal’s motion.  To illustrate what happens during a turn, visualize the aircraft in straight and level flight. With no acceleration of the aircraft, the hair cells are upright and the body senses that no turn has occurred. Therefore, the position of the hair cells and the actual sensation correspond.

Placing the aircraft into a turn puts the semicircular canal and its fluid into motion, with the fluid within the semicircular canal lagging behind the accelerated canal walls.[Figure 1-5]  This lag creates a relative movement of the fluid within the canal. The canal wall and the cupula move in the opposite direction from the motion of the fluid.

Figure 1-5. Angular Acceleration.

Figure 1-5. Angular Acceleration.

The brain interprets the movement of the hairs to be a turn in the same direction as the canal wall. The body correctly senses that a turn is being made. If the turn continues at a constant rate for several seconds or longer, the motion of the fluid in the canals catches up with the canal walls. The hairs are no longer bent, and the brain receives the false impression that turning has stopped. Thus, the position of the hair cells and the resulting sensation during a prolonged, constant turn in either direction will result in the false sensation of no turn.

When the aircraft returns to straight-and-level flight, the fluid in the canal moves briefly in the opposite direction. This sends a signal to the brain that is falsely interpreted as movement in the opposite direction. In an attempt to correct the falsely perceived turn, the pilot may reenter the turn placing the aircraft in an out of control situation.

The otolith organs detect linear acceleration and gravity in a similar way. Instead of being filled with a fluid, a gelatinous membrane containing chalk-like crystals covers the sensory hairs. When the pilot tilts his or her head, the weight of these crystals causes this membrane to shift due to gravity and the sensory hairs detect this shift. The brain orients this new position to what it perceives as vertical. Acceleration and deceleration also cause the membrane to shift in a similar manner. Forward acceleration gives the illusion of the head tilting backward. [Figure 1-6] As a result, during takeoff and while accelerating, the pilot may sense a steeper than normal climb resulting in a tendency to nose-down.

Figure 1-6. Linear Acceleration.

Figure 1-6. Linear Acceleration.

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