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    Tackling spatial disorientation: A deadly threat to aviation safety

    Tackling Spatial Disorientation: A Deadly Threat to Aviation Safety

    Photo By Megan Mudersbach | Dr. Henry Williams, senior research psychologist in the Naval Aerospace Medical...... read more read more



    Story by Megan Mudersbach 

    Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton

    By: Dr. Henry Williams, Senior Research Psychologist

    Spatial disorientation (SD) refers to a pilot’s misperception of the attitude, position, or motion of his/her aircraft with respect to the Earth’s surface and/or gravitational vertical. The Naval Safety Center has cited SD as the number one contributing aeromedical factor in fatal aviation mishaps. When SD occurs, it typically does so in some form of degraded visual environment where the pilot lacks a clear view of the horizon, such as flight at night, in the clouds, or in blowing snow or sand. These are all conditions in which our military aviation personnel must operate. Without a visible horizon even the normal forces of flight can create powerful illusions that become extremely disorienting. If not recognized and resolved quickly, SD can lead to controlled flight into terrain, midair collision, entry into unusual attitudes, or inappropriate control inputs resulting in aircraft stall, loss of control, and/or structural failure. If SD leads to a mishap, it is usually a fatal mishap.

    While several studies have examined the effects of SD on cognition or have linked increased cockpit workload to SD, few specifically and systematically compared how various types of workload interfere with maintenance of spatial orientation. Along with our Air Force and Army colleagues, Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton’s (NAMRU-Dayton) SD Lab is looking into this issue with support from the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate and the JPC-5 Aviation Mishap Prevention Working Group.

    In a recent study in our lab, 24 pilots flew simulated flights where they followed a lead aircraft first above, then into dense clouds. The lead aircraft then disappeared while in a turn, whereupon the subject was to recover to straight and level flight. Four different workload conditions were presented. The baseline condition included no additional workload, while the other conditions added either a verbal working memory task, a spatial mental rotation task, or a spatial variable-following-distance task. Measures of flight performance included the number of control reversal errors (CRE’s), where the subject banked the aircraft in the wrong direction during recovery, and instances of unusual attitudes in the clouds. The results showed that the verbal working memory task condition led to a statistically significant threefold increase in the number of control reversal errors, while the mental rotation and variable-following-distance task conditions yielded significant increases in unusual attitudes.

    This type of research helps scientists better understand SD because it shows that cockpit workload need not be spatial in nature in order to increase SD incidence, since it was the verbal task that led to the most CREs. This work also demonstrates the importance of using various measures of SD; the two spatial workload tasks would have appeared to have had no effect on pilot performance were it not for the unusual attitudes metric.

    Decreasing the occurrence of SD is an ongoing challenge. Through research like this we can increase our knowledge about SD and the conditions that can cause it, and in turn better educate our aircrew on how to avoid and recover from this deadly threat.

    Williams, H.P., Horning, D.S., Lawson, B.D., Powell, C.R., & Patterson, F.R. (November 2018). Effects of various types of cockpit workload on incidence of spatial disorientation in simulated flight. (Report No. NAMRU-D 19-06). Dayton, OH: NAMRU-D.



    Date Taken: 09.11.2019
    Date Posted: 09.11.2019 15:37
    Story ID: 339757

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