This is an excerpt from a report made to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. The narrative is written by the pilot, rather than FAA or NTSB officials. To maintain anonymity, many details, such as aircraft model or airport, are often scrubbed from the reports.
While flying on an IFR flight plan last night, overcast 12,000 very dark night, I had descended from 8,000 and was level at 3,000 and was getting vectors for the ILS approach Runway 4 flying heading 290°.
Approach told me to turn left 250°. During the turn I noticed bright lights ahead and at first thought it was an airplane very close above me at 12 o’clock flying opposite direction.
I ducked my neck down and tilted my head back to look up 45° out the windscreen to look directly at the lights and immediately thought I was flying with a very high nose pitch up attitude and immediately realized “THAT IS NOT AN AIRPLANE!”
I must have pushed on the yoke to get the nose down. I turned my head left to look out the side window hoping to make sense of what I was seeing but the pitch blackness with only a couple lights was of no help. I immediately looked at my attitude indicator and what I saw made my head spin!
For a split second I questioned whether my G5 had malfunctioned but thank God all my training kicked in and I immediately disregarded the thought that my G5 was broken.
At that moment I realize I was experiencing overwhelming spacial disorientation. So I focused on using the attitude indicator to get wings level and control airspeed.
I was in a bank approximately standard rate. I leveled wings first (I did not notice the horizon so did not immediately perceive my pitch attitude.) After getting wings level then focused on the airspeed. The airspeed indicator was moving fast like a powerful spin on the Wheel of Fortune and the numbers were increasing!
I do not remember whether or not I reduced power…(before this happened power was set at about 1700 rpm and I had been flying at 135 mph). Now airspeed was passing through 190mph + fast! I immediately pulled back on the yoke to reduce the airspeed and recover the airplane.
The horizon came back into view, I stopped the descent, added power and began to climb. As I started to climb the controller came on the radio and stated “Aircraft X I got an altitude alert. Check your altitude.”
I could hear the controller’s alarm going off. I didn’t try to communicate. I only focused on completing the recovery and controlling the airplane. (I had gotten 400 feet off my assigned altitude).
Although it felt like slow motion, this all occurred in a time span of less than 10 seconds. I got back to 3,000 feet and a heading 250° and after a minute of silence the controller gave me a vector to intercept and cleared me for the approach.
I’ve thought a lot about what happened last night and realize that a slight disorientation accelerated rapidly into extreme disorientation and my head movements in the cockpit trying to figure things out were counterproductive and actually were a significant contributing factor to the magnitude of my disorientation.
Primary Problem: Human Factors