As pilots, we’re aware of spatial disorientation, but do you know how you would respond if it happened to you?
At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, students get the chance to experience spatial disorientation in a safe space in the university’s new Spatial Disorientation Laboratory.
Introduced in October 2022, the new simulator allows pilots to realistically feel and react to simulations of dangerous flight conditions that can create disorienting illusions for pilots — illusions that can imitate the feeling of turning, climbing, or descending when their aircraft is actually flying perfectly straight or, worse, doing the opposite of what the pilot feels behind the controls.
The new sim, which can rotate full 360° revolutions as well as 30° of pitch and bank, simulates vestibular system illusions related to the inner ear, which can cause dizziness, disorientation, motion sickness, and illusions like the “Graveyard Spiral,” a dangerous spiral dive entered into accidentally by a pilot. It also includes visual illusions, like false horizons and runway width illusions.
FAA statistics show that between 5% and 10% of all general aviation accidents can be attributed to spatial disorientation, 90% of which are fatal.
“We give students experiences with all these illusions so they know how to respond if they experience them in flight,” said Dr. Bob Thomas, an assistant professor of Aeronautical Science who heads up the College of Aviation’s Spatial Disorientation Lab.
For the new sim, Thomas modified a Force Dynamics 401cr Motion Simulator, and the university’s Extended Reality (XR) Lab developed the Virtual Reality Aviation Illusion Trainer (VRAIT), which includes a dozen scenarios that students experience through a virtual reality headset. The scenario involves students flying in a Cessna and moving on a recorded path through each illusion, which lasts about five minutes.
People may panic and overreact to these illusions when they are flying in real life, said Thomas, adding that introducing them to what each scenario feels like in a controlled laboratory space is invaluable training.
“We all learn about these illusions, however, it is hard to imagine how it feels and the extent it has on your perception,” said student Nella Filipkova. “It is chilling to imagine that you can unknowingly experience spatial disorientation in flight. For this reason, everyone should take advantage of the simulator, so they have an idea of what to expect and can correctly identify the illusion were they ever to encounter one.”
“The lab allows students to experience potentially dangerous scenarios in a safe and controlled atmosphere,” added student Derek Matusch. “It could help all pilots be aware of the dangers that can be encountered in flight.”