Spatial Disorientation: How and When Does it Affect Pilots

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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Five Unique Ways of Paying for Flight Training

Secrets from Successful Pilots

Let’s face it, paying for flight training is very expensive. Airplane flight school is going to cost $35K to $70K for fixed wing training, and $90K to $150K for helicopter training. Unless you have a trust fund from your rich dad, the costs to become commercial pilots can seem to be an impassable mountain. But is it? Learn how people with dreams found a way to pay for flight school.

5. Get a job with a big flight school: The top flight schools hire people for all kinds of jobs. Start at the bottom if you have to, but have the ambition to move up the ladder to the higher paying jobs. Some flight schools offer their employees discounts when paying for flight training.

If you are an exceptional employee (highly valued) you might be able to negotiate a good trade with your employer. There are no guarantees, but employers look for ways to reward the top contributors.

4. Become a “hanger rat” and get a job with a small flight training school: I have known people who were known as “hangar rats”. These hangar rats are alway hanging around the hangar – willing to do anything and everything to help out. Hangar rats are sponges, always willing and wanting to learn.

Even if you have to sweep the floors, or take the trash out – whatever it takes. If you can find some way to impress a owner of the flight school (and flight instructor), you might be able to get a discount when it comes to paying for flight training.

Professional pilots love people who have total passion for flying – willing to do whatever it takes to get flight time. I have heard stories where student pilots paid for gas and the instructor discounted their fees. Its rare, but it does happen.

3. Become a Cadet with Civil Air Patrol (CAP): CAP does not advertise that they will provide flight training to their members. However many CAP members (CFI’s) have been known to discount their rates to members who have the drive, passion, and desire to become pilots.

If you have the right attitude, and are willing to “give back”, there maybe someone in the ranks that will match your desire and help you get your Private Pilot’s license. In the end, people without funding, need to network with as many aviation people as they can. And remember, once you become a commercial pilot, be willing to give back to the CAP – pay it forward!

2. Apply for every Scholarship Available: Make yourself exceptional. You have to take this seriously. Organizations are more than willing to choose exceptional people with scholarships. There are many aviation scholarships, but only the most exceptional people receive the awards. Research the foundations that offer scholarships and interview their people. Find out exactly what they are looking for, and position yourself to be the recipient of the awards.

1. Save Money and Earn a Perfect Credit Score: This is going to take some time to achieve, but you should do it even if you are not going to become a commercial pilot. If you are willing to live a certain low-cost lifestyle, one that will allow you to save a good chunk of money, you might be able to get a student/private loan to cover the remaining financial needs. This route will take longer, and your schedule will be full for several years, but many have take this route and succeeded. Of course you will have debt too! However, if it leads to landing the job of your dreams, it will be worth it.

Always keep in mind that thousands of aspiring pilots have found a way.

I know of a husband and wife team that where the pilot’s wife finished college and nursing school, and got a really good job as an Registered Nurse. Both the husband and wife worked and saved as much money as they could. The plan was for the husband (propsective pilot) to keep his job as long as he could after the couple saved enough money to pay for the Private Pilot certificate. Once the husband got the Private Pilot rating, he planned to continue to move forward to earn his Instrument, Commercial, and CFI as time and money allowed. Improving their credit score was also a part of the plan.

This couple chose to start the flight training process while keeping both of their jobs as long as they could, and continued to save money. They lived off the wife’s salary and saved the rest. They suffered a bit, but they were committed.

I also know of folks who have joined the Reserves (Army, Marines, Air Force, etc.) to help fund flight school. Their goal was to stay in college or keep working, save money, and earn partial VA Educational Benefits to be used later. Unfortunately, a few were called up for active duty and had to do tours in Afghanistan (this is the obvious risk). However, when they finished their duty they had earned partial funding for flight school (one particular gentlemen I know earned 60% funding). Once out of the military the got the best job they could (earning the highest income possible) and utilized student loans and scholarships to finance the shortfall that the VA educational benefits did not cover.

There are countless prospective pilots that have taken two and three jobs to save enough money to start paying for flight training. There are some that have bought fixer upper homes, fixed them up (working evenings and weekends) and flipped the homes for a profit (to be used paying for flight training). There are some pilots who have started a side business, such as an eCommerce website, to make extra cash. It is truly amazing to hear of all the ways people have found of paying for flight training. Each of these pilots had a dream, they developed a plan, and persevered until their dream was realized.

Start Your Training With or Without Funding

Start your journey with or without funding – take the steps you can afford, steps that you will have to do anyway. In doing so, you will be making progress toward your goal, giving you a better chance to realize your dream.

A. Get your Medical: Find an FAA approved Aviation Medical Examiner. The FAA has a “doctor locator” function on their website. Go to https://www.faa.gov/pilots/amelocator/ and find the nearest AME. Get your medical done. At the very least, you will know whether or not you can pass a medical (peace of mind). Without the medical you can’t become a commercial pilot.

B. Enroll into Ground School Courses: At the very least you can watch Youtube videos online. Or, purchase flight manuals, DVD’s, or other related resource manuals. From there you can be brave and enroll into an affordable online ground school.

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You won’t be able to fly without completing ground school, AND you will learn everything you will need to know to pass future FAA exams. You’ll eventually have to do ground school anyway. However, by completing ground school courses you will know a whole lot more about flying – and by doing so you will know for sure that being a pilot is truly in your blood.

Essentially, we are recommending that you invest into the process; learn, study, and get involved with the information that you will eventually have to master to become a commercial pilot.

Ground school will teach you all about flight and aircraft operation, and aeronautical knowledge (weather, sectionals, cross country). Ground school will also help you to prepare to answer the FAA exam questions (“knowledge tests”).

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C. Find a Mentor(s): Find a pilot who has gone before you, an experienced commercial pilot who can guide you through the process acting as your coach. Find someone who has been in your shoes and understands your passion. Perhaps they can help you to discover options to overcome the financial obstacles. Your mentor (or mentors) needs to be someone who will inspire you when the going gets tough.

D. Get the best paying job you can and earn the best credit score you possibly can: Many of today’s commercial pilots found a good paying job and then saved a bunch of money. This is the long-term plan, but for those that took this route will tell you that they are glad they did.

Earn as much money as you can, live frugally, and save. Save enough to pay at least for your private pilot’s license. You can earn a private pilot’s license in 6 months easy (training early mornings, late afternoons, and weekends). And, keep your job while getting your private pilots license (you will need a good job to get a private loan, or to pay for the advanced courses).

Find a way to continue to work while knocking your private license certificate out of the way. Keep your job as long as you can. There will be a time when you need to leave your job and jump into flying with both feet. But the income from your job will help you to make the transition.

Once you have earned your private pilot’s license, you will know whether or not you continue to seek a commercial license (the BIG commitment). To become a commercial pilot you will have to get your Instrument, and Commercial Ratings done (helicopter pilots will need their CFI and maybe even their CFII as well). This requires a tremendous commitment.

But let’s say that you’re having second thoughts after getting your private pilot’s license? Let’s say you discover that flying is not what you wanted? As a licensed private pilot you have not wasted anything, because you can always fly recreationally. You’re a pilot, and you can enjoy flying. You just can’t get paid to fly. You can stop the journey right now without hindering your future financial situation.

E. Earn a Good Credit Score: Supplement your savings with good credit score you can supplement their savings with personal loans or even a student loan. Keep your job while getting your private pilots license. Find a way to continue to work while knocking your private license certificate out of the way.

F. Earn a Degree: There are several powerful reasons you should seek your degree through while getting your commercial pilot ratings. One, the flight hours you need to become a commercial pilot (paid pilot) will be less (especially for airplane pilots).

Two, you might be able to supplement your funds with FASFA or Pell Grants. You might be eligible for cheaper student loans as well. And, you might qualify for one or more scholarships. Any amount of money you can get will help lower the overall “out of pocket costs” of flight training.

The third powerful reason you should get a college degree while earning your flight certificates is to position yourself for the best jobs. Aviation employers will cherish your degree, and possibly put your resume on the top of the stack. Moreover, in the aviation world, there are more non-pilot jobs for professional people (good paying jobs) than there are pilot jobs.

The college degree is your back up plan. What if something goes wrong with your body, eyes, or hearing? Every year pilots have to pass a physical exam. If you fail, you can’t earn a living. So, the college degree is your insurance policy.

Furthermore, many pilots with 10 to 15 years of flying choose to transition into good paying aviation jobs in administration, sales, and marketing. Moreover, most aviation companies have been started by pilots. You never know what awesome opportunities will come way 10 to 20 years down the line, but you want to position yourself for the best opportunities from day one – get your degree.

Important Links to Follow:

Tier 1 Helicopter Pilot Jobs – Your Career Path to becoming a successful Commercial Pilot

Landing a Tier 2 Helicopter Pilot Job – Career Development

The Top Jobs on the Planet – Types of Tier 3 Helicopter Pilot Jobs

Partial List of Available Aviation Scholarships

University Aviation Association (UAA) Aviation Scholarship Guide

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Flight Training Scholarship Program

Experimental Aircraft Association Scholarships

National Air Transportation Foundation Scholarships

National Business Aviation Association Scholarships

The Ninety-Nines Section and Chapter Scholarships

The Ninety-Nines Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarships & Awards

AeroClub of New England’s Scholarship Program

Aircraft Electronics Association Scholarships

Astronaut Scholarship Foundation

Boeing Scholarships

Girls With Wings Scholarship

LeRoy W. Homer Jr. Scholarship

National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education (NCASE)

Women in Aviation International Scholarships

Whirly-Girls Scholarships

The Alaska Airmen’s Association Scholarships

Montana Aviation Scholarships

Minnesota Aviation Trades Association Grants/Scholarships

The Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund

Fred Kacena Flight Training Scholarship (Tri-State Area)

AeroClub of New England (ACONE) Scholarships

Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) Scholarships

Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Scholarships

National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA) Scholarships

Aviation Distributors and Manufacturers Association (ADMA) Scholarships

Upwind Summer Scholarship Program

Sennheiser’s “Live Your Dream” Scholarships

Lightspeed Aviation Foundation Scholarships

Helicentre Aviation’s Professional Pilot scholarships

Idaho Aviation Association scholarships

Flight training and aviation maintenance scholarships

NAAA/BASF Agricultural Aviation Scholarship

The Vicki Cruse Memorial Scholarship

Greg Koontz Aerobatic Instructor Scholarship

The Douglas Youst Memorial Aerobatic Scholarship

Southern California Aviation Association

Get Started With Your Flight Training Today

You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (844) 435-9338, or click here to start a live chat with us.

Top Three Myths About Becoming a Commercial Pilot

Have you always dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot, either flying Helicopters or Fixed Wing Aircraft? Is it your dream to become a commercial pilot and fly for a living? Before you invest time and money into becoming a pilot, there are a few things you need to know.

You’ve probably heard that there is a high demand for pilots, and this is the perfect time to become a professional pilot – and it is. We talk to dozens of prospective flight school students every day. There are many myths and misconceptions that we attempt to correct. Below are the top 3 myths about becoming a commercial pilot.

Myth #3: There is a High Demand for Pilots.

This is perhaps not so much a myth as it is a controversy – the demand for qualified pilots. The controversy starts and finishes with the term “Qualified Pilots”.  In 2012, Boeing forecasted that 70,000 pilots will be needed in North America between now and 2031.

In 2012, Boeing forecasted that 70,000 pilots will be needed in North America between now and 2031. However, on July 10th, 2013, the FAA released the final rule for the Pilot Certification and Qualification Requirements for Air Carrier Operations. This ruling requires pilots to hold an air transport pilot certificate (ATP) in order to fly for an air carrier (which is a good thing). However, this made it harder to become a commercial pilot. The point is that fixed wing operators are looking for “quality pilots” to fulfill the forecasted demand.

To apply for an air transport pilot (ATP) certificate, applicants must have at least 1500 flight hours. Although there is a large demand for pilots presently and in the near future, the demand is for “experienced pilots” who are qualified to meet the FAA’s new ATP requirements. It is important to note that this FAA rule change only had an impact on Air Carrier Operations. Helicopter companies, looking to employ helicopter pilots, do not operate as “Air Carriers”. For this reason, helicopter operators were not affected by the FAA change.

What about commercial helicopter pilots? Is there a demand for commercial helicopter pilots? The truth is that experienced helicopter pilots who are well trained are in high demand – no doubt. There are incredible opportunities for helicopter pilots who have the right training and solid experience. The key factor is “where did you get your training?” If you have graduated from a reputable flight school, you will find that there is a demand for your services, and you will be positioned to get the best jobs.

Myth #2: You Can Begin a New Career as a Pilot in Mere Months.

There is a belief that someone who has never flown before, can get a Pilot’s License (Certificate) and start a new career as an aviator in mere months. While there is some truth to this myth, we need to clarify that it takes a great more to begin a career as a professional pilot. The truth of the matter is yes, a person can get a pilot certificate within a few months of training. However, the first certificate you will receive is a Private Pilot Certificate. This certificate does not allow you to fly for compensation or hire. If you want to fly for a living and start a new career as an aviator, you will need additional certificates and ratings.

The Ratings and Certificates needed for a top level aviation career will likely include:

•    Private Pilot License (PPL)
•    Instrument Rating (IR)
•    Commercial Pilot License (CPL)
•    Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)
•    Certified Flight Instructor of Instruments (CFII)
•    Air Transport Pilot (ATP)
•    Misc. Add-On Ratings (Airplane, Rotorcraft, Multi-Engine, Type Ratings etc…)

Everything listed above is not required to begin your aviation career. At a minimum, you will need a Private Pilot’s License and a Commercial Pilot’s License in order to legally fly for compensation. The Aviation Industry is a highly competitive field, so do not expect to get offered a job with the bare minimum. A new student pilot will have to dedicate 1-2 years to his or her flight training.

A new student pilot will have to dedicate 1-2 years of training in order to get the necessary certificates and ratings desired. You will then need to work an entry level job for 1-2 years, or more, as you build proficiency and gain flight experience. Before you know it, you will be ready to market yourself as a qualified pilot for many of the better paying jobs. Be ready to pay your dues before you start making the good money.

Myth #1: Instead of Becoming a Commercial Pilot, You Are Better Off Getting a Traditional Education Like Your Parents Did.

The average young adult, after dedicating 4-6 years of their life to college studies, can walk away with the once coveted Bachelor’s Degree. However, they quickly realize that it is tough to find a job in just about every field of study: Employers want ‘experience’ among other things. Well, where do you get that experience? Today, more than ever, you start from the bottom and scratch your way to the top. Get ready, it might take awhile.

All too often today’s college graduates have invested a great deal money to gain an education that they may never end up using. Many college grads are taking any job they can find. Simply type “College Grad” into a Google search window, and the results are peppered with entries about how tough it is for college grads to find jobs. The number of college graduates working minimum wage jobs in 2012 was nearly 71 percent higher than it was a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest figures. I’m sure the 2013 figures are much worse.

However, aviators with a college degree are finding jobs.  As a matter of fact, college educated aviators are in high demand. There are many different degree choices for professional pilots. Plus, from day one, as a student pilot in a college program, you will be logging flight hours and gaining the experience needed to launch your new career. Student pilots go to class in the morning and fly in the afternoon (or visa-verse).

Can you imagine a Law Student or Medical Student stepping into the courtroom or emergency room on day one of law/medical school? Neither can we. Both law and medical students take Labs as a part of their course work. But these labs don’t put the students front and center into their respective fields. Meaning, they are not in court trying cases or working with patients. Commercial pilots, on the other hand, start flying in their “lab” courses right from the start. Student pilots start building flight hours in week one of flight school. That’s why today, more than ever, deciding to launch an aviation career is one of the best choices you can make!

Get Started With Your Flight Training Today

You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (844) 435-9338, or click here to start a live chat with us.

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