Learning to Respect Spatial Disorientation

Purposeful spatial disorientation teaches respect for the clouds

Cessna Aircraft

One of the best lessons I ever received from my flight instructor was a lesson of disorientation. It was fairly early in my flight training. We took off from Santa Monica airport one late afternoon in the early summer. The weather was perfectly clear with light winds, but there was a thick marine layer slightly off the coast. Due to the LAX flight paths, we had to hug the coastline. As we skirted the Malibu beachfront on our way toward the Simi Valley practice area, my instructor Jason Van Camp said: "Let me show you something."

He told me to close my eyes for a few seconds. While I had my eyes closed, Jason pointed the airplane toward the Southwest, aiming it straight for the marine layer. He also put the airplane in a slightly banked attitude. The point with the exercise was not unusual attitudes. It was to see the hazards of poor visibility and disorientation.

Once he told me to look up, I opened my eyes and was astonished at what I saw. I had no clue what was up or down. And being inexperienced with the instruments, I had no way of figuring it out. My inner ear was no help. It was unnerving. And while the experience was uncomfortable, it truly taught me to respect spatial disorientation.

Too many pilots get killed every year because they fly into clouds inadvertently. According to the latest Air Safety Institute Nall Report, 518 deaths were caused by VFR flight into IMC conditions in the past 10 years. It’s one thing to get under the hood and having an instructor put you into an unusual attitude. It’s quite another to see what it’s really like to be in the clouds. Even if you have no interest in getting your instrument rating, I highly recommend getting into an airplane with an instructor and getting into the clouds. It will teach you never to trust your inner ear and never to get into the clouds without being instrument rated and current.