Spatial Disorientation

Posted on February 25, 2020 in Aviation

Spatial Disorientation can be a killer. An extremely dangerous situation occurs when a pilot unintentionally flies from visual flight rules  (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). While these accidents represent a small number of the total crashes every year, they also represent a disproportionate percentage of the fatalities. Early indications are that the helicopter crash that took the life of Kobe Bryant and several others may be one example as spatial disorientation can affect even instrument-rated pilots in certain conditions.

In 1954 the University of Illinois conducted a study on VFR into IMC accidents. Researchers took 20 volunteer non-instrument rated pilots, put them in simulated instrument conditions, and every one crashed after “entering” IMC. The average time to loss of control was just 178 seconds. Thus was born the “178 seconds to live” phrase. While knowledge of the extreme risk of flying from VFR into IMC has long been known, tragic crashes still happen.