Spatial disorientation

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Spatial disorientation results in a person being unable to determine their position or relative motion, commonly occurring during periods of challenging visibility, since vision is the dominant sense for orientation. The auditory system, vestibular system (within the inner ear), and proprioceptive system (sensory receptors located in the skin, muscles, tendons and joints) collectively work to coordinate movement with balance, and can also create illusory nonvisual sensations, resulting in spatial disorientation in the absence of strong visual cues.

In aviation, spatial disorientation can result in improper perception of the attitude of the aircraft, referring to the motion of the aircraft (whether turning, ascending or descending). For aviators, proper recognition of aircraft attitude is most critical at night or in poor weather, when there is no visible horizon, and spatial disorientation has led to numerous aviation accidents. Spatial disorientation can occur in other situations where visibility is reduced, such as diving operations.

Flight safety, history, and statistics[edit]

Equilibrium test being administered to prospective pilot, via Bárány chair

Spatial orientation in flight is difficult to achieve because numerous sensory stimuli (visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive) vary in magnitude, direction, and frequency. Any differences or discrepancies between visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory inputs result in a sensory mismatch that can produce illusions and lead to spatial disorientation. The visual sense is considered to be the largest contributor to orientation.[1]: 4 

While testing an early turn and slip indicator devised by his friend Elmer Sperry in 1918, United States Army Air Corps pilot William Ocker entered a graveyard spiral while flying through clouds without visual references; the turn indicator showed he was in a turn, but his senses told him he was in level flight. Emerging from the clouds, Ocker was able to recover from the dive.[2] In 1926, Ocker was subjected to a Bárány chair equilibrium test by Dr. David A. Myers at Crissy Field; the resulting duplication of the somatogyral illusion he had experienced and a subsequent re-test, which he passed using the turn indicator,[3] led him to develop and champion instrumented flight.[4] Sperry would go on to invent the gyrocompass and attitude indicator, both of which were being tested by 1930.[5]: 8  With Lt. Carl Crane, Ocker published the instructional text Blind Flying in Theory and Practice in 1932.[4] Influential advocates of instrumented flight training included Albert Hegenberger and Jimmy Doolittle.[5]: 8 

In 1965, the Federal Aviation Agency of the United States issued Advisory Circular AC 60-4, warning pilots about the hazards of spatial disorientation, which may result from operation under visual flight rules in conditions of marginal visibility.[6] A new version of the advisory was issued in 1983 as AC 60-4A, defining spatial disorientation as "the inability to tell which way is 'up.'"[7]

Statistics show that between 5% and 10% of all general aviation accidents can be attributed to spatial disorientation, 90% of which are fatal.[8] Spatial-D and G-force induced loss of consciousness (g-LOC) are two of the most common causes of death from human factors in military aviation.[9] A study on the prevalence of spatial disorientation incidents concluded that "if a pilot flies long enough ... there is no chance that he/she will escape experiencing at least one episode of [spatial disorientation]. Looked at another way, pilots can be considered to be in one of two groups; those who have been disorientated, and those who will be."[1]: 2 


There are four physiologic systems that interact to allow humans to orient themselves in space. Vision is the dominant sense for orientation, but the vestibular system, proprioceptive system and auditory system also play a role.[citation needed]

Spatial orientation (the inverse being spatial disorientation, aka spatial-D) is the ability to maintain body orientation and posture in relation to the surrounding environment (physical space) at rest and during motion. Humans have evolved to maintain spatial orientation on the ground. Good spatial orientation on the ground relies on the use of visual, auditory, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory information. Changes in linear acceleration, angular acceleration, and gravity are detected by the vestibular system and the proprioceptive receptors, and then compared in the brain with visual information.[citation needed]

The three-dimensional environment of flight is unfamiliar to the human body, creating sensory conflicts and illusions that make spatial orientation difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve. The result of these various visual and nonvisual illusions is spatial disorientation.[10][9][11] Various models have been developed to yield quantitative predictions of disorientation associated with known aircraft accelerations.[12]

The vestibular system and sensory illusions[edit]

Inner ear

The vestibular system detects linear and angular (rotational) acceleration using specialized organs in the inner ear. Linear accelerations are detected by the otolith organs, while angular accelerations are detected by the semicircular canals.

Misleading sensations[edit]

Without a visual reference or cues, such as a visible horizon, humans will rely on non-visual senses to establish their sense of motion and equilibrium. During the abnormal acceleratory environment of flight, the vestibular and proprioceptive systems can be misled, resulting in spatial disorientation. When an aircraft is maneuvering, inertial forces can be created by changes in vehicle speed (linear acceleration) and/or changes in direction (rotational acceleration and centrifugal force), resulting in perceptual misjudgment of the vertical, as the combined forces of gravity and inertia do not align with what the vestibular system assumes is the vertical direction of gravity (towards the center of the earth).

Under ideal conditions, visual cues will provide sufficient information to override illusory vestibular inputs, but at night or in poor weather, visual inputs can be overwhelmed by these illusory nonvisual sensations, resulting in spatial disorientation. Low visibility flight conditions include night,[6] over water or other monotonous/featureless terrain that blends into the sky,[6] white-out weather,[6] or inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions after flying into fog or clouds.

Lift (L) and weight/gravity (w) forces acting on an aircraft making a banked or coordinated turn

For example, in an aircraft that is making a coordinated (banked) turn, no matter how steep, occupants will have little or no sensation of being tilted in the air unless the horizon is visible, as the combined forces of lift and gravity are felt as pressing the occupant into the seat without a lateral force sliding them to either side.[13] Similarly, it is possible to gradually climb or descend without a noticeable change in pressure against the seat. In some aircraft, it is possible to execute a loop without pulling negative g-forces so that, without visual reference, the pilot could be upside down without being aware of it.[citation needed] A gradual change in any direction of movement may not be strong enough to activate the vestibular system, so the pilot may not realize that the aircraft is accelerating, decelerating, or banking.

Standard set of flight instruments, including attitude indicator (top center) and turn and slip indicator (bottom left)

Gyroscopic flight instruments such as the attitude indicator (artificial horizon) and the turn and slip indicator are designed to provide information to counteract misleading sensations from the non-visual senses.

Otoliths and somatogravic illusions[edit]

Two otolith organs, the saccule and utricle, are located in each ear and are set at right angles to each other. The utricle detects changes in linear acceleration in the horizontal plane, while the saccule detects linear accelerations in the vertical plane; humans have evolved to assume the vertical acceleration is caused by gravity. However, the saccule and utricle can provide misleading sensory perception when gravity is not limited to the vertical plane, or when vehicle speeds and accelerations result in inertial forces comparable to the force of gravity, as the otoliths only detect acceleration, and cannot distinguish inertial forces from the force of gravity.[8] Some examples of this include the inertial forces experienced during a vertical take-off in a helicopter or following the sudden opening of a parachute after a free fall.[citation needed]

Illusions caused by the otolith organs are called somatogravic illusions and include the Inversion, Head-Up, and Head-Down Illusions. The Inversion Illusion results from a steep ascent followed by a sudden return to level flight; the resulting relative increase in forward speed produces an illusion the aircraft is inverted.[8] The Head-Up and Head-Down illusions are similar, involving sudden linear acceleration (Head-Up) or deceleration (Head-Down), leading to a misperception the nose of the aircraft is pitching up (Head-Up) or down (Head-Down); the aviator could be fooled into pitching the nose down (Head-Up) or up (Head-Down) in response, leading to a crash or a stall, respectively.[8]

Typically, the Head-Up illusion occurs during take-off, as a strong linear acceleration is used to generate lift over the wing and flaps. Without a visual reference, the pilot may assume from the vestibular system the nose has pitched up and command a dive; if this occurs during take-off, the aircraft may not have sufficient altitude to recover before crashing into the ground.[1]: 7 

Semicircular canals and somatogyral illusions[edit]

Inner ear with semicircular canals shown, likening them to the roll, pitch and yaw axis of an aircraft

In addition, the inner ear contains rotational accelerometers, known as the semicircular canals, which provide information to the lower brain on rotational accelerations in the pitch, roll and yaw axes. Changes in angular velocity are detected from the relative motion between the fluid in the canals and the canal itself, which is fixed to the head; because of inertia, the fluid in the canals tends to lag when the head moves, signaling a rotational acceleration. However, semicircular canal output ceases after prolonged rotation (beyond 15–20 s) as the fluid has now been entrained into motion through friction, matching the motion of the head. If the rotation is then stopped, the perceived motion signal from the inner ear indicates the aviator is now turning in the opposite direction from actual travel, as the fluid continues to move while the canal has stopped.[8] In addition, the inertia of the fluid means the detection threshold of rotational acceleration is limited to approximately 2°/sec2; angular accelerations below this value cannot be detected.[1]: 5  Specific common somatogyral illusions induced by the semicircular canals are the Leans, Graveyard Spin, Graveyard Spiral, and Coriolis.

If the aircraft enters an unnoticed, prolonged turn gradually, then suddenly returns to level flight, the leans may result. The gradual turn sets the fluid into the semicircular canals into motion, and rotational acceleration of two degrees per second (or less) cannot be detected. Once the aircraft suddenly returns to level flight, the continued fluid motion gives the sensation the aircraft is banking in the opposite direction of the turn that just ended; the aviator may attempt to correct the misperception of the vertical by banking into the original turn.[8] The leans is considered the most common form of spatial disorientation.[1]: 9 

Graveyard spiral and graveyard spin

The graveyard spiral and graveyard spin are both caused by the acclimation of the semicircular canals to prolonged rotation; after a banked turn (in the case of the graveyard spiral) or spin (for the graveyard spin) of approximately 20 seconds, the fluid in the semicircular canals has been entrained into motion by friction, and the vestibular system no longer perceives a rotational acceleration. If the aviator then ends the turn or spin and returns to level flight, the continued motion of the fluid will cause a sensation the aircraft is turning or spinning in the opposite direction, and the pilot may re-enter the original turn or spin inadvertently; the aviator may not recognize the illusion before the aircraft loses too much altitude, resulting in a collision with terrain[8] or the g-forces on the aircraft may exceed the structural strength of the airframe, resulting in catastrophic failure. One of the most infamous mishaps in aviation history involving the graveyard spiral is the crash involving John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999.[14]

Once an aircraft enters conditions under which the pilot cannot see a distinct visual horizon, the drift in the inner ear continues uncorrected. Errors in the perceived rate of turn about any axis can build up at a rate of 0.2 to 0.3 degrees per second.[citation needed] If the pilot is not proficient in the use of gyroscopic flight instruments, these errors will build up to a point that control of the aircraft is lost, usually in a steep, diving turn known as a graveyard spiral. During the entire time, leading up to and well into the maneuver, the pilot remains unaware of the turning, believing that the aircraft is maintaining straight flight.[15]: 125 

In a 1954 study (180 – Degree Turn Experiment), the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation found that 19 out of 20 non-instrument-rated subject pilots went into a graveyard spiral soon after entering simulated instrument conditions. The 20th pilot also lost control of his aircraft, but in another maneuver. The average time between onset of instrument conditions and loss of control was 178 seconds.[16]

Spatial disorientation can also affect instrument-rated pilots in certain conditions. A powerful tumbling sensation (vertigo) can result if the pilot moves his or her head too much during instrument flight. This is called the Coriolis illusion. Because the semicircular canals are set in three different axes of rotation, if the aviator suddenly moves their head during a rotational acceleration, one canal may abruptly start to detect an angular acceleration while another ceases, resulting in a tumbling sensation.[1]: 9 

Visual illusions[edit]

Even with good visibility, misleading visual inputs such as sloping cloud decks, unfamiliar runway grades, or false horizons can also form optical illusions, resulting in the pilot misjudging the vertical orientation, aircraft speed or altitude, and/or distance and depth perception; these could even combine with nonvisual illusions from the vestibular and proprioceptive systems to produce an even more powerful illusion.[17]


Selected list of aviation accidents attributed to spatial disorientation
Date Location Accident/Flight Notes & Refs.
Feb 3, 1959 Clear Lake, Iowa, USA The Day the Music Died Crash of Beechcraft Bonanza that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper" J. P. Richardson; pilot was not qualified for instrumented flight but took off into deteriorating weather because the passengers were important. Forensic evidence showed the aircraft was in a steep right bank (90°), nose-down attitude at 3,000 ft/min (910 m/min) when it crashed.[18]
Mar 5, 1963 Camden, Tennessee, USA 1963 Camden PA-24 crash Four deaths, including singer Patsy Cline.
Jul 31, 1964 Brentwood, Nashville, Tennessee, USA 1964 Beechcraft Debonair crash It is believed[according to whom?] that singer Jim Reeves was suffering from spatial disorientation when his Beechcraft aircraft crashed in the Brentwood area of Nashville, Tennessee, during a violent thunderstorm on July 31, 1964, claiming the lives of both Reeves and his pianist Dean Manuel.
Jan 1, 1978 Arabian Sea, near Santacruz Airport, Bombay, India Air India Flight 855
Oct 21, 1978 Bass Strait, Australia Disappearance of Frederick Valentich
Jun 6, 1992 Darién Gap, near Tucutí, Panama Copa Airlines Flight 201
Jul 16, 1999 Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, USA John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash Crash occurred during a night flight over water near Martha's Vineyard. Subsequent investigation pointed to spatial disorientation as a probable cause of the accident.[19] Because of pilot John F. Kennedy Jr.'s fame, the cause of the crash led to extensive reporting of spatial disorientation in the press in 1999.[14]
Jan 10, 2000 Niederhasli, Switzerland Crossair Flight 498
Aug 23, 2000 Persian Gulf, near Bahrain International Airport, Bahrain Gulf Air Flight 072
Oct 16, 2000 Hillsboro, Missouri, USA 2000 Cessna 335 crash Left-side attitude indicator failed and pilot kept turning his head to cross-check the right-side (co-pilot position) attitude indicator, leading to spatial disorientation;[20] the crash killed Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan.[21]
Jan 3, 2004 Red Sea, near Sharm El Sheikh International Airport, Egypt Flash Airlines Flight 604 Disputed cause: possible pilot error (from spatial disorientation) or mechanical/software malfunctions
Mar 15, 2005 near Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland 2005 Loganair Islander accident
Jan 1, 2007 Makassar Strait off Majene, Sulawesi, Indonesia Adam Air Flight 574
May 5, 2007 Douala International Airport, Cameroon Kenya Airways Flight 507
Nov 30, 2007 Türbetepe, Keçiborlu, Isparta Province, Turkey Atlasjet Flight 4203
Sep 14, 2008 Perm, Russia Aeroflot Flight 821
Jun 1, 2009 over Atlantic Ocean, near waypoint TASIL Air France Flight 447
May 12, 2010 Tripoli International Airport, Libya Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771
Aug 24, 2010 near Shikharpur, Nepal Agni Air Flight 101
Oct 1, 2012 Upper Kandanga, Queensland, Australia 2012 Queensland DH.84 Dragon crash Vintage aircraft named Riama
Mar 19, 2016 Rostov-on-Don, Russia Flydubai Flight 981
Feb 23, 2019 Trinity Bay, Texas, USA Atlas Air Flight 3591 The crash of the Boeing 767 cargo jet was caused by the inappropriate response by the first officer as the pilot flying to an inadvertent activation of the plane's go-around mode at a high altitude (6,200 feet), which led to his spatial disorientation.[22] [23]
Apr 9, 2019 near Aomori Prefecture, Japan 2019 JASDF F-35 crash First crash of an F-35A;[24] pilot descended rapidly during a simultaneous left-hand turn.[25][26]
Jan 26, 2020 Calabasas, California, USA 2020 Calabasas helicopter crash Ara Zobayan, the helicopter pilot in the fatal accident that killed Kobe Bryant along with his daughter Gianna and six others on January 26, 2020, was determined to have likely experienced spatial disorientation according to NTSB investigation.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Newman, David G. (3 December 2007). An overview of spatial disorientation as a factor in aviation accidents and incidents (PDF) (Report). Australian Transport Safety Bureau. ISBN 978-1-921165-52-8. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  2. ^ Wolverton, Mark (Fall 2008). "The Father Of Blind Flying". Invention and Technology. American Heritage Institute. 23 (3). Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  3. ^ Chivalette, William I. (1998). "Sergeant William Charles Ocker: The Army's third enlisted pilot" (PDF). Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  4. ^ a b LeCompte, Tom (September 2008). "The Disorient Express". Air & Space. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  5. ^ a b McIntosh, David M. (1988). The evolution of instrument flying in the U.S. Army (PDF) (Report). Air Command and Staff College. Archived (PDF) from the original on November 1, 2019. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d Moore, George S. (February 9, 1965). "AC 60-4: Pilot's Spatial Disorientation". Federal Aviation Agency. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  7. ^ Hunt, Kenneth S. (February 9, 1983). "AC 60-4A: Pilot's Spatial Disorientation" (PDF). Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Antuñano, Melchor J. "Medical Facts for Pilots: Spatial Disorientation, safety brochure AM-400-03/1" (PDF). Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 9 February 2021.
  9. ^ a b Jedick, Rocky 'Apollo' (1 April 2013). "Spatial Disorientation". Go Flight Medicine. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  10. ^ Previc, Fred H.; Ercoline, William R. (2004). Spatial disorientation in aviation. Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics. doi:10.2514/4.866708. ISBN 978-1-60086-670-8.
  11. ^ "Spatial disorientation - physiology". Britannica. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  12. ^ Newman, Michael C.; Lawson, Ben D.; Rupert, Angus H.; McGrath, Braden J. (August 13–16, 2012). "The role of perceptual modeling in the understanding of spatial disorientation during flight and ground-based simulator training". AIAA Modeling and Simulation Technologies Conference. AIAA modeling and simulation technologies conference. Minneapolis, Minnesota: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. doi:10.2514/6.2012-5009. ISBN 978-1-62410-183-0.
  13. ^ "ANA pilots unaware for 17 seconds that plane was almost turning upside down". Japan Today. August 31, 2012. Retrieved 11 February 2021. The aircraft tipped more than 130 degrees to the left at one point, but the darkness outside meant many of those on board did not realize the craft had almost flipped over.
  14. ^ a b Jedick, Rocky 'Apollo' (April 15, 2014). "JFK Jr Piper Saratoga Mishap". Go Flight Medicine.
  15. ^ Campbell, Douglas E. (2018). VPNavy! USN, USMC, USCG and NATS Patrol Aircraft Lost or Damaged During World War II (2018 ed.). Syneca Research. ISBN 978-1-387-49193-3.
  16. ^ Aulls Bryan, Leslie; Stonecipher, Jesse W.; Aron, Karl (1954). 180-degree turn experiment. University of Illinois. ASIN B0007EXGMI. LCCN a54009717. OCLC 4736008. OL 207786M.
  17. ^ Antuñano, Melchor J. "Medical Facts for Pilots: Spatial Disorientation, Visual Illusions; safety brochure AM-400-00/1" (PDF). Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 9 February 2021.
  18. ^ Landsberg, Bruce (February 1, 2009). "Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: The Day the Music Died". Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  19. ^ NTSB Identification: NYC99MA178 (Report). National Transportation Safety Board. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  20. ^ Aircraft Accident Brief AAB-02/02, Accident Number CHI01MA011 (PDF) (Report). National Transportation Safety Board. 2002. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  21. ^ "Spatial disorientation doomed Carnahan flight". Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. June 6, 2002. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  22. ^ "NTSB releases Atlas Air freighter crash findings". 15 July 2020.
  23. ^ "DCA19MA086.aspx".
  24. ^ "Remains of Japan ASDF pilot found, two months after F-35A fighter crash off Aomori". The Japan Times. June 7, 2019. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  25. ^ Yeo, Mike (June 10, 2019). "Japan blames spatial disorientation for F-35 crash". Defense News. Retrieved 11 February 2021.
  26. ^ "Japan pilot crashed after 'spatial disorientation'". BBC News. 2019-06-10. Retrieved 2019-06-10.
  27. ^ Steinbuch, Yaron (2021-02-09). "Kobe Bryant helicopter pilot had 'spatial disorientation' before crash: NTSB". New York Post. Retrieved 2021-02-09.
  28. ^ "Investigators report Kobe Bryant's pilot got disoriented in clouds". 2021-02-09. Retrieved 2021-02-10.

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