Spatial disorientation leads to fatal accident

Aircraft: Cessna 185. Injuries: 1 Fatal. Location: Ashland, Maine. Aircraft damage: Substantial.

What reportedly happened: The pilot was employed as a state game warden. On the day of the accident, he was on patrol in the ski-equipped airplane when he received a radio call from another game warden whose snowmobile was stuck on a nearby frozen lake.

After landing on the lake and assisting the other game warden, the pilot departed, presumably to return to his home base. The other game warden reported that, immediately after the airplane departed, visibility was reduced to less than 1/2-mile due to snow.

Post-accident analysis of information recovered from a portable GPS receiver showed that the airplane flew for about 10 minutes after takeoff at a relatively constant altitude of about 200 to 500 feet above ground level. During the final moments of the flight, the airplane entered a 40° right descending turn from about 300 feet AGL and its descent rate increased to in excess of 3,000 feet per minute.

Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of any pre-impact mechanical malfunctions or failures, although the definitive operational status of the vacuum-driven instruments could not be determined.

Analysis of weather information and witness statements were consistent in depicting conditions likely to have produced restricted visibility and possible whiteout conditions in a snow squall over the area at the time of the accident. These restricted visibility conditions would have been conducive to the development of spatial disorientation, and the airplane’s turning ground track and rapid descent were consistent with the pilot losing control of the airplane due to spatial disorientation.

Probable cause: An inadvertent encounter with localized instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a loss of control.

NTSB Identification: ERA11GA207

This March 2011 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.


  1. Greg W says

    Tragic accident, as to IFR ratings even they get into this type of problem. Pilots that fly VFR must immediately look down at the panel, don’t think about looking outside. All pilots must be sure to cross-check, as a gyro may not be working properly. The turn and bank/turn coordinator, will tell if the wings are level, the tach. (with fixed pitch prop)will show climb or dive,the altimeter will show climb or dive, the compass/D.G. will show turn as well. Keep the sound the same not faster or slower, and fly through or make a very shallow turn back to where you started,360*. Stay calm and listen/feel the airplane if anything changes recheck yourself on a different instrument, don’t trust just one and most of all DO NOT trust the feeling that the plane is turning. Double check don’t follow a dying gyro into the ground.

  2. Dennis Reiley says

    Normally these reports about spatial disorientation state whether the pilot was instrument rated. The omission is suspicious when the pilot was a game warden and should have been instrument rated, especially when it isn’t stated whether that state flying position required an instrument rating.

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