What is spatial disorientation?

Spatial disorientation is when the pilot is unable to correctly determine his/her body position in space.

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 that work 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 that, along with hearing, sense position based on gravity, feeling, and sound

Visual system—eyes, which sense position based on what is seen

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.

Reference(s):

FAA-H-8083-25B Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge pg. 17-6

Other Aeromedical Factors

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