Vertigo Can Be Deadly

Spatial disorientation is one battle you have to fight in person.

Vertigo, or spatial disorientation, is a tough concept to those who've never experienced it. Not the extreme dizziness you get when you spin around with your forehead on a mop handle and then try to walk a straight line. Rather, it's the more subtle form that can be the most profound danger to new instrument pilots.

Hard-core VFR pilots espouse that staying away from clouds is the only way to survive. Experienced instrument pilots have likely forgotten when it was NOT second nature to fly by the gauges -- or by the large-screen PFDs in today's light airplanes. Instrument flying students often find themselves somewhere in between, fighting to shed VFR instincts and rely on IFR training and newly developing skills. Fighting this battle can be far more challenging than instrument flying is for those who have significant experience. It's that sensation of being in between that can be so dangerous.

I can remember, during primary training hood work, the sensation of feeling my inner ear screaming I was straight and level. Meanwhile my eyeballs relayed the irrefutable evidence to my brain that my inner ear and the seat of my pants were wrong. The attitude indicator showed a subtle left bank. The directional gyro was drifting inexorably in that direction, the compass agreed with the DG, and I needed a touch of back pressure to keep the 'nose' level with the horizon on my attitude indicator. That made it four against two. I banked the few degrees to the right to level the horizon.

Immediately, my inner ear told me I was a fool. Anyone could tell that I was now in a right bank. But as I fought off the tendency to bank back to the left (with some "encouragement" from the instructor), the ear fluids settled down. Eventually, all my body parts agreed that we had straightened up and were flying right.

It happened a few more times after that, but the feeling hasn't revisited for many years, now. My recollection is that each of the few times that feeling reasserted itself, it was a little easier than the first time to fight it down and have ultimate faith in my instruments. But I don't think I'll ever forget the battle that went on inside my head for those few moments that day.

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