Spatial Awareness

Spatial Disorientation

Editor’s note: The following is an e-mail that Jim Bredy sent to the Director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Jim requested that it be posted on Con-Aero to encourage discussion and comments.


I am the US Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist/Pilot who wrote an article, at your request, for the Fall 94 Flight Instructor Quarterly “I Don’t Know Where I AM. I Don’t Have A Map…..”. I just skimmed through your recent article in the September AOPA Pilot regarding the Kennedy accident. I think you did a good job with a factual, non-judgmental manuscript. A lot of thoughts have been running through my mind in regards to the headlines that spatial disorientation has received lately. I will lend to you some of my personal experiences and my thoughts afterwards.

I maintain instrument currency and proficiency according to the FARs and take an Instrument checkride from a Department of the Interior Check Pilot every six months. My flight time varies between 650-700 hours per year, with presently 6,500 hours of flight time. Several years ago, I elected to travel back to Albuquerque (ABQ) from Houston late in the day, because a winter storm was expected to hit the ABQ area sometime the following day.

The last 2-3 hours of the flight was at night, with a high overcast and 50 miles visibility, clearly legal VFR weather. I recall having the sense that the cities and towns ahead of me were floating in the air around me.

It was an almost surreal experience. Because of the excellent visibility, it was a real temptation to keep my eyes outside of the cockpit, but the flight was mostly uneventful because I always kept my eyes on the gauges to monitor my progress.

As I approached ABQ from the east, I noticed a lot of traffic on Interstate 40, and started to look at it on the right side of the plane. I don’t recall how long it took, but it must have been less than a minute. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I knew that something was wrong, but everything “physically” felt normal. I glanced at the gauges and then back at interstate 40 and suddenly realized that my plane was pointed directly at interstate 40 in a dive, but I felt like I was in straight and level flight. I immediately got back on the instruments, and corrected the aircraft to straight and level flight with a left turn and by slowly pulling back on the control wheel. However, at the moment that the instrument gauges indicated that I was in straight and level flight, I felt like I was in a descending steep spiral to the left. It was an almost disabling feeling, to ignore the physical sensations and to keep the plane straight and level by the gauges. I figured that I was getting flicker vertigo from the flashing automobile lights and that because there was no discernible horizon, that my brain was telling me that interstate 40 was the horizon. It took almost 2 minutes for me to be physically comfortable again with the aircraft in straight and level flight.

Last winter, I was approaching Anahuac, TX (T00) with the last 2 hours at night. Anahuac is on the east side of Galveston Bay, about 35 miles east of Houston Hobby. The temperature dew-point spreads 2 hours back were about 5 degrees apart, but by constantly keeping track of the weather, I noticed that by the time that I was on the east side of Hobby, that the spread was only 2 degrees. I still had 15 miles visibility, but the sky was starting to get a little hazy. I had my approach charts out “just in case”, and I could clearly see Anahuac, but it seemed a little hazy and the lights did not seem as bright as they normally do. I was on short final and pulled the power and control wheel back for the flare when all of a sudden “whoosh” I was in a whiteout condition. Realizing that I was way behind the power curve, and only a few feet above the ground, I got on the gauges instantly, maintained airspeed and directional control and as soon as I felt the wheels touch the ground, retarded the throttles, flaps and firmly pressed on the brakes. Being able to fly by instruments saved my bacon that night.

I can think of several things that I did wrong on the Anahuac landing. I committed to the landing and was not thinking about a go-around. I was tired and wanted to get the plane on the ground. Had I been ready for the go-around, I may have been ready and able to add power and go to Hobby where the weather was better, and where they had an ILS approach. There were several visual indications that ground fog had already formed, but I ignored them, probably again due to the fact that I was tired and just wanted to land. Like you said in your recent article and I stated in my 1994 article, pilot must “ALWAYS HAVE AN OUT!” Had I kept my options more open, the Anahuac “visual” approach would not have been so eventful.

I also remember making turns over the Delaware Bay during a gray and misty day, and seeing ships “flying” above my plane. And again, when making turns away from ABQ at night, or another remote airport at night or where there is reduced visibility, the horizon may not be discernible, and the pilot will have to be able to fly the aircraft by the instruments. If I am correct, the FARs do not specifically require a pilot to be instrument proficient or capable to fly the aircraft by instruments, when flying at night, or in reduce visibility conditions. Instrument training is required, but what amount of training is considered good enough? Where does decision making come into play? Would additional instrument training stop or curtail the spatial disorientation fatal crashes? I think that we should continue to encourage pilots to get instrument rated and to keep not just current, but to also keep proficient. Additional unwarranted regulations can be cumbersome and costly, and discourage flying, but do you think that requiring pilots to be instrument rated and current to fly at night is a good or bad idea, and why?

I think it is sad that the Kennedy’s had to lose another member of their family. If any good comes of this tragedy, maybe it will force other pilots to look at their skills, evaluate their decision making capabilities, and to take corrective measures if they see any deficiency, in all aspects of their flying. I also applaud the AOPA ASF for their efforts to improve pilot safety.

Jim Bredy-Regional Aviation Manager U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service P.O. Box 1306 Albuquerque,
NM 87103 (505) 248-6630