When up is down: Talking spatial disorientation with Vertical’s Elan Head

There are few situations more dangerous for a helicopter pilot than flying into bad weather, a fog bank or other situation with zero visibility, where the mind can literally make up feel like down and right feel like left.

Such spatial disorientation is a huge problem in the helicopter industry and a leading cause of fatal accidents. Initial reports from the National Transportation Safety Board suggest it may have been a factor in the crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter and seven other people earlier this year.


On this episode of Rotor Radio, we speak to Vertical‘s own resident pilot and editor Elan Head — who has reported extensively on the Kobe Bryant crash — about the “terrifying” phenomenon of spatial disorientation, and how flying in degraded visual environments (DVE) can fatally trick a pilot’s own senses.

Humans evolved for walking on land and many of the senses we use to navigate the terrestrial world can betray pilots moving through three dimensions in the air. As you’ll hear, the problem of maintaining spatial orientation has been with pilots for as long as humans have flown. Even in World War I biplanes, fliers were at risk of having a false perception of their position with respect to the Earth below.

The same unique maneuverability that makes helicopters so useful can exacerbate the problem, made all the worse at the low, obstruction-rich altitudes where rotorcraft spend most of their time. Technology and instrumentation can help with some challenges of flying in reduced visibility, but there is no magic bullet that will prevent all crashes under the industry’s current operating model, Head says.

Disorientation is very real and very dangerous and flying through it requires extensive and regular training for a pilot to override innate sensory information and trust what those instruments are saying. How confusing can spatial disorientation become? One pilot who responded to a survey from the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team described descending through a cloud bank in what felt like a level attitude.


When the helicopter burst through the 400-foot ceiling, however, the pilot realized the aircraft was actually in a 45-degree left bank turn with 30 to 40 degrees of nose-down attitude. “Sporty” flight characteristics under any circumstances and potentially fatal in DVE, Head observes.

“The problem is that when you’re actually experiencing spatial disorientation, trusting your instruments is REALLY HARD,” Head says. “I’ve only experienced true spatial disorientation once, at night on an instrument proficiency check over the unlighted Arizona desert. At that point, I had over 1,000 hours of flight time, a helicopter instrument rating, an instrument instructor rating, and the experience was totally unlike anything I had ever felt before. I felt like I had suddenly tumbled off a cliff. I was able to claw my way back to reality, but it was terrifying.”


6 thoughts on “When up is down: Talking spatial disorientation with Vertical’s Elan Head

  1. Thank you for your editorial on Spatial disorientation. Like most things read these days about settling with power, vortex ring state and dynamic rollover the discussion is all about what happens and how it can scare the living crap out of you and dramatic ways to get out of these situations once you are in them. What I would like to see is more written about how to prevent yourself from getting into these situations and the warning signals leading up to it. Number one approaching or in bad weather slow down to allow more time to perform a courses reversal. the warning signals of the onset of LTE especially in a Bell 206 this aircraft gives off many signals before it actual snaps around to a unsuspecting pilot. Rate of descent and airspeed to fend off settling with power. 300FPM max and a slow gentle decline of airspeed and into wind or know where the wind is and how it is going to affect your landing. Have students land downwind and into wind several times so they can feel and see the increased workload. It all has to start at the training stage and cement good habits into people and explain using these type of examples as learning opportunites allowing the students to break them down using there decision making processes. When I learned to fly back in the 70’s I never heard of the topics mentioned above I do know that I got beat with a stick to keep the needle, ball and airspeed correct! “Break ground and fly into the wind; don’t break wind and fly into the ground” never forgot this message from one of the best flight instructors I ever had Evan Cameron Okanangan Helicopters

  2. 35 years ago I was flying a Brantley from southwest England on an approx 200 Mille trip to the east coast
    I left in good weather which started to deteriorate after an hour or so
    I was tracking a railway line and had ‘get homeitis ‘
    I glanced at my chart , when I looked up I was in cloud
    I lowered the collective and went forward on the cyclic expecting to exit the cloud in a dive
    I exited in maybe 5 seconds on my right side falling almost vertically
    I still see the pine trees coming at me like an express train
    I recovered at approx 100 feet
    Land and live

  3. Great article Elan,
    Getting into inadvertent IMC is never to be underestimated. Your story of your own experience flying IMC reminded me of something similar, the one and only time that I experienced spatial disorientation, also at the 1000 hour level. It seems like that 1000 hour myth of the dangers of feeling so experienced at that hour level that incidents can happen, be weary of complacency. Anyway, climbing out of the AAF in a left turn we entered a cloud and light turbulence. I started to feel my body and the instruments not in sync, it was a strange feeling, and even though I knew to trust my instruments I gave the controls to my co-pilot who was ready and called out my controls. Surely a good decision unless you are single pilot, and even though I probably could have leveled out, this wasn’t a simulator, and crew coordination is better than ego or worse. I realized that at 1000 hours there was still plenty to learn, and even Army Aviators need to be humble.
    I hope your article resonates with all levels of experience in the Vertical world.

  4. I just retired with 40+ years flying R/W. ATP/CFII. Three IIMC experiences. A basic attitude hold autopilot either “always on” or “instant on” could have saved a lot of lives in the past and therefore has the potential of saving lives in the future. Every helicopter that flies at night should be required to have one IMHO.

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