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    The Affects of Spatial Disorientation Sample Essay

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    Every twenty-four hours, millions of people entrust their lives to pilots, whether they are civilians or military personnel. These individuals rely on the pilots to safely transport them to their destination. However, they often overlook the various aeromedical factors that are essential aspects of a pilot’s life. These aeromedical factors can arise at any time and ultimately affect how a pilot performs their daily duties.

    Although there are many aeromedical factors that are indispensable characteristics in a pilot’s life, including but not limited to hypoxia, hyperventilation, and dehydration, one of the most common aeromedical factors that pilots frequently experience is spatial disorientation. When dealing with this aeromedical factor, it is important for a pilot to recognize the symptoms and causes. Additionally, it is critical that pilots have knowledge of ways to prevent spatial disorientation and corrective actions that can be taken if they experience it. This will enable pilots to continue performing their job duties safely and efficiently, ultimately making the flight a more enjoyable experience.

    Spatial orientation, which is “the misperception of one’s position and motion relative to the earth,” is a common aeromedical factor experienced by pilots (Retrieved January 9, 2010, Spatial disorientation occurs when the visual system, vestibular system, and somatosensory system, which provide individuals with information to maintain their balance, provide conflicting information to the brain.

    This conflicting information, in turn, provides pilots with an inaccurate mental image of their position in relation to what is actually happening to the aircraft or what is commonly referred to as illusions. The major illusions that have been identified as leading to spatial disorientation include the graveyard spiral, the coriolis illusion, tilts, false horizons, flicker vertigo, and somatogravic illusion (Retrieved January 9, 2010, The Aeronautical Information Manual has deemed spatial orientation as one of the most significant factors contributing to fatal aircraft accidents (Retrieved January 9, 2010,

    It is important for pilots to know that spatial orientation can be caused by any condition that strips them of visual references, which enable them to maintain orientation, such as clouds, haze, and darkness. In order to avoid experiencing spatial orientation, pilots should use a safety approach, such as the following: (1) maintain visual flight rules (VFR) by avoiding entering instrument meteorological conditions (IMC); (2) fly within their capabilities by establishing personal minimums and resisting any pressures to go beyond them; and (3) obtain an instrument rating to prevent themselves from being misled by illusions. In the event that a pilot enters IMC conditions and begins to experience symptoms related to spatial disorientation, he should remain calm. Thereafter, he should trust his instruments and scan them prior to making control inputs, remain alert for altitude changes, and if his aircraft is equipped with such a feature, he should use the autopilot. (Retrieved January 9, 2010, from

    Furthermore, in addition to the above, to ensure that pilots continue to maintain knowledge of spatial orientation, training requirements in relation to spatial orientation can be enforced. The effects that spatial orientation can have on a pilot and the importance of a safety approach were displayed on July 16, 1999, when John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was flying a Piper Saratoga, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing himself, his wife, and his sister-in-law. The aircraft departed from Essex County Airport in Essex County, New Jersey and was destined for Barnstable Municipal-Boardman/Polando Field (HYA), Hyannis, Massachusetts, with a scheduled stop at Martha’s Vineyard Airport (MVY), Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.

    An official statement released by the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the accident was determined to have occurred at night and that other pilots who were flying in the vicinity at the time of the accident reported that there was no visible horizon over the water because of haze. John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was a non-instrument-rated pilot, was determined to have failed to maintain control of the aircraft during a descent over the water, due to spatial disorientation. (Retrieved on January 9, 2010, from,_Jr._airplane_crash).

    In analyzing the above tragedy,one can presume that John F. Kennedy Jr. did not use an effective safety approach for that flight. Although the flight was initially scheduled to happen during the day, since Kennedy’s sister-in-law was delayed at work, it was postponed and did not actually take place until dark due to heavy traffic. In addition, as previously noted, John F. Kennedy Jr. was a non-instrument-rated pilot, and an investigation revealed that he never received a weather briefing or filed a flight plan with any Flight Service Station.

    In relation to night flying and spatial orientation, the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, FAA-H-8083-3, chapter 10, states that “Night flying requires that pilots be aware of and operate within their abilities and limitations… During poor visibility conditions over water, the horizon will become vague and may result in a loss of orientation. Even on clear nights, the stars may be reflected on the water surface, which could appear as a continuous array of lights, making the horizon difficult to identify.” (Retrieved January 10, 2010,

    Kennedy, knowing that the flight was delayed too long to take place during daylight hours, knowing that he did not possess an instrument rating, and knowing that he had little experience flying at night and never received a weather briefing, should have postponed the flight until at least the following day. Had he done so, he and his two passengers might still be alive today. Overall, spatial orientation has been deemed a contributing aeromedical factor in various airplane accidents. As demonstrated in the real-life example outlined above, it is important that pilots be able to recognize the symptoms of this factor and its causes. Additionally, it is critical that pilots apply a safety approach in relation to spatial orientation and have knowledge of corrective actions that can be used in the event that they experience the same. In doing so, pilots can avoid situations that may result in the loss of their lives and the lives of their passengers.


    1. Certified Flight Instructor. (2009). Aeromedical Factors. Retrieved from
    2. National Transportation Safety Board. (December 12, 2000). Accident Report NYC99MA178. Retrieved from
    3. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. (Modified January 3, 2010). “John F. Kennedy Jr. Airplane Crash.” Retrieved from
    4. Wynbrandt, James (2004). Spatial Disorientation: Confusion That Kills. Retrieved from

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