Spatial Disorientation during Night Flight

Spatial Disorientation during Night Flight


            Dangerous episodes of spatial disorientation have been evidenced in the aviation industry for a while, but there has not been a long-term solution to the problem.Aviation accidents claim many lives due to factors related to spatial disorientation. Spatial disorientation (SD) occurs when the pilot fails to interpret the attitude, altitude, or airspeed of the plane with airspeed,  ground, or other objects (Lawson et al., n.d.).SD has raised significant concerns about the aviation industry and the nature of accidents that have occurred in the history of air aviation. Scholars have been interested in understanding its causes with the goal of developing an approach to tackle it.The motivating factor for understanding the origin of SD during night flights to help researchers understand modifiable factors and help solve the problem. An overall approach from day-time and night flights does not offer a promising solution. The present study investigates the common causes of SD, its impact on the aviation industry, and why it is pronounced in night flights. The paper concludes by suggesting training as the primary countermeasure for SD during night flights with the goal of minimizing and eradicating SD-related crashes.

Spatial Disorientation at Night

            SD is the primary cause of pilot errors and accidents in the aviation industry.According to Gibb, Ercoline, and Scharff (2011), researchers studying aviation accidents have often found an element of SD that confuse pilots, leading to misinterpretation of information and ultimate cause of air crashes.Heinle and Ercoline (2002) further explain that SD occurs due to instrument errors that make the pilot fail to perceive the feeling of the motion of the flight and the reading on the instrument. A study by the United States Army Aeronautical Research Laboratory (2010) found that SD creates an illusion that interferes with the cognition of the pilot, creating a sensory illusion even for experienced pilots. This explains why SD remains an unresolved problem in spite of existing in the world since the history of the first flight.


Pilots are supposed to remain consciously active when flying. They rely on their vision and sensory neurons to detect the changes in the flight attitude and altitude. According to Heinle and Ercoline (2002), SD can be categorized into different groups depending on the perception used to analyze it. Cognition SD arises when the pilot fails to detect the changes in the flight altitude and attitude due to the visual illusion that sends wrong signals to the brain. The confusion from the misinterpretation may cause the pilot to crash into other aircrafts or buildings when landing.Newman (2007) explains that the pilot is often aware of the mismatch or misinterpretation and chooses consciously or unconsciously to ignore the instrument. The confusion causes one to crash even when the plane has been fitted with all the necessary tools to help one control the flight.

SD is pronounced during the night compared to daytime.Researchers have attributed this to unconsciousness that occurs at night or when the pilot is tired after long flights.The United States Federal Aviation (n.d.) has reported that about seventy percent of aviation accidents have been linked to SD. In spite of the frequency of SD in the aviation industry, scientists have not concluded that it is the primary cause of aviation accidents. Newman (2007) discusses that under normal orientation, humans can detect their position and orientation using three organs. The eye helps the person to see the direction and recognize objects in space. The vestibular system in the ears helps in balancing the organs. The proprioceptive system helps one to determine the position. The three systems rely on the sensory system to maintain a balance.

During a night flight, darkness interferes with the visual system, creating a high chance of disorientation occurring.An imbalance between what the pilot feels and what he sees may make him make a conscious or unconscious decision when flying at night, causing an accident.The visual system occupies about eighty percent of spatial orientation.Wynbradt (2004) explains that spatial orientation is pronounced during night flights due to poor vision or weather changes that may interfere with visual clarity.Bright light in the cockpit may also make the pilot develop visual misinterpretation.

Woods (n.d.) explains that SD occurs as a result of false perception created due to an imbalance between the visual system and the vestibular system. During night flights, the eye movement of the pilot may create an illusion of spin as the plane moves in space.The vestibular system reinforces the visual sensory system, creating a false impression of rotation. The pilot may then think that the aircraft is rotating and may voluntarily or involuntarily try to return it to the original position. This condition is dangerous at night due to blurred vision. The conscious or unconscious action of the pilot may then crash the aircraft.

Countermeasures to Control SD

            The primary cause of SD accidents is the misinterpretation of the attitude and altitude. Additionally, this misinterpretation has been linked to visual disorientation that makes the pilot make a conscious or unconscious decision in response SD. According to Webb, Kelley, Estrada, and Ramiccio (2010), the primary countermeasure for tackling incidents of SD is training. SD creates false horizons in space that confuse the pilot to the extent of making a false landing. When flying over water bodies or at night when vision is impaired by darkness, pilots should be trained to rely on the instruments in the plane and not their imagination. Additionally, constant communication between the pilot and the control system should guide the pilot.

In a study by the United State Federal Aviation(n.d.), seventy percent of pilots interviewed reported to have experienced SD at night, and the only strategy they used was to rely on the flight instruments. The first step is for the pilot to understand and know the existence of SD. Experience in flying does not matter. What matters is to know that SD exists and is inevitable. The pilot should also adjust lighting in the plane to avoid interfering with visual impressions.Wynbradt (2004) refers to SD as the confusion that kills.During night flights, the pilot may view clouds as rotating objects. Additionally, SD may occur when two planes are flying parallel to one another. In each of the instances, the pilot may decide to correct the situation while relying on visual sensation. The pilot fails to recognize real objects from illusions. When this happens, the United States Federal Aviation recommends that the pilot ignores the visual perception and rely on the instruments on the aircraft to make the decision.

In spite of the training as a countermeasure for SD, some of the recent aviation accidents are still linked to SD.Wynbradt (2004) explains that SD interferes with mathematical interpretation of information from instruments that are meant to help the pilot make a conscious decision.The reason for these accidents may be due to lack of trust in tools or ignoring instructions. The pilot should develop trust and confidence in the instruments, even when the illusion appears severe.The best strategy to tackle this confusion is for the pilot to wait or relax before making the decision. One can take time to look at the instruments, even though Scott (2013) explains that moving the eye magnifies the illusion and confusion from SD. Additionally, continuous scanning of false horizons can help the pilot to understand whether it is an illusion or an object.Nevertheless, it is better for the pilot to wait and make a conscious decision or communicating with the control center before making an uninformed decision.This alternative may be ineffective in the case where the instruments have failed.

Spatial disorientation is a dangerous occurrence in the aviation industry. The condition is pronounced during night flights due to poor vision. It occurs due to an imbalance in visual perception that interferes with vestibular sensory organs, leaving the pilot confused. Blurred vision at night also contributes to SD due to sensory illusions that make the pilot make conscious or unconscious decisions. The best countermeasure is to train pilots to rely on instruments in the plane to make conscious decisions. Incidents of sensory misinterpretation are still common, in spite of countermeasures put in place.Pilots should only make decisions when they have relaxed.Training may not eliminate aviation accidents, but it helps minimize accidents linked to SD.



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