Do you remember the fatal airplane wreck of John F Kennedy Jr.? In July of 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr, and two other passengers on board crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts. The official NTSB report concluded that Kennedy experienced spatial disorientation while descending at night over water. He lost control of the aircraft and crashed. How often do pilots experience spatial disorientation?

Interesting is the fact that Kennedy did not hold an Instrument Rating and was only certified to fly under VFR (Visual Flight Rules). Although Kennedy’s ill-fated flight was legal (barely), it was not safe. This tragic event happens all to often to recreational pilots, but it is something that we call can learn from.

178 Seconds to Live – a Dramatic Video on Sensory Disorientation:

Obviously, spatial disorientation, something very important that all student pilots should know about before starting flight school. This article offers a lot more than just interesting tidbits, however by no means does it cover all the information related to spacial disorientation. It is only a brief introduction meant to compel student pilots to dig deeper.

This article will briefly discuss one of many spacial disorientation effects, specfically the “leans”. Our recommendation is that you do your homework and find out everything there is about spatial disorientation and the “leans”.

What are Spatial Disorientation, Spatial Illusion and the “Leans” Effect?

”Spatial Disorientation”, including what is known as the “leans”, is the cause of many airplane accidents. Good training, and pilot awareness is the key to preventing certain disaster associated with the “leans”. This article is only meant to bring awareness to the important concept of spatial disorientation created by the “leans” effect.

Do the best pilots fly by the seat of their pants? Do great pilots rely on “feel” and their “senses”? We think not.

Humans were not built to fly, and certainly not constructed to navigate flying through the air by our sensory organs alone. Our bodies, brains, and sensory systems are built to help us navigate on the ground while standing upright. To fly using our senses alone, is very dangerous and could cost us our lives.

The video below describes the contributing factors which can lead to this condition and its many associated illusions.

Don’t Trust Your Sensory Organs

While flying, our sensory organs do not accurately reflect the movements of the aircraft in space. In effect, our sensory mechanisms do not properly read the 3-D environment around us, and can cause us to experience what is known as “sensory illusions”.

One very dangerous sensory illusion is the “leans”. The “leans” can be caused by level flight after a rapid roll of the aircraft. It’s where the process of the aircraft’s roll causes our body to lean in a direction that is contrary to the actual direction of the turn, and this effect can continue even after the aircraft roll is complete. In essence, our sensory readings coming from our sensory mechanisms send us faulty info.

When experiencing a “leans”, if our sensory mechanisms send us false readings, we may feel something that is not actually happening, and therefore react or respond inappropriately. While experiencing the “leans” effect, if we trust our faulty sensory readings, our physical reactions and responses will lead to our demise.

Spatial Orientation is our ability to maintain our bodies orientation to the ground. Again, humans are built to use our sensory mechanisms to maintain spatial orientation to the ground (our surroundings on the ground). When we get up in the air, we experience a three-dimensional world, which is totally unfamiliar to our sensory organs. This can cause sensory conflicts, and what we see and feel is not real. In this situation, we cannot rely on what we see, feel, or sense (gut).

How important is this? Well, statistics show that 5 to 10% of all general aviation accidents are caused by spatial disorientation affect, 90% of which are fatal.

When experiencing spatial disorientation, it can be difficult to correct. We can actually panic as the information on our instruments do not jive with how we feel (sensory input). Moreover, if we respond to our feelings, we can make things worse fast, causing more panic. If we do not correct quickly, in a very short period of time we can lose control of the aircraft and plummet into the ground.

Unless you have an instrument rating, and you are not legally able to fly unless you can see the horizon. You are only able to fly by Visual Flight Rules. A licensed instrument pilot can fly both VFR and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).

If you are not licensed to fly by instrument, you should never fly into a cloud (bad weather that diminishes your vision), nor should you fly after dark. Flying into a cloud can certainly cause spatial illusions and disorientation. Unless you can see the horizon, and see all around you, as a non-instrument rated pilot you are susceptible to spatial disorientation, including the “lean”.

When flying, our bodies sensory systems are actually doing what they were designed to do. It’s just that our sensory systems are not designed to navigate airspace while flying aircraft. When we experience sensory illusions our sensory systems are functioning just they way they were designed.

Our spatial orientation systems, which create the lean illusion, were designed to protect us. During the course of our lives we have come to trust our spatial orientation systems – making it very difficult for some pilots to accept that their orientation (feedback from their sensory mechanisms) is incorrect during flight. If this happens to you, as a pilot, you can make a bad situation worse while you think you are correcting the problem.

Supporting Sources for this article:

John F. Kennedy Jr. Plane Crash

The Leans

Sensory Illusions in Aviation

Visual Illusions

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