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At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, a study subject is wired for a spin in the Dynamic Environment Simulator, a centrifuge that excels in inducing spatial disorientation. (DEPT OF DEFENSE)

The Disorient Express

Despite the best training and technology, why do pilots still die from not knowing which end is up?

Rogers Shaw, a director at the FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, admits that training exercises such as unusual-attitude recovery are limited by the fact that the student knows and expects to have to make a correction to return the airplane to straight-and-level flight. Spatial disorientation is so insidious, and the sensations it creates so compelling, that unless you suspect you have a problem, you would never know there is one. Unlike other airborne emergencies—an engine quitting, loss of electrical power, smoke in the cockpit—there’s no principal event to indicate anything is wrong. If the pilot does realize something is not quite right, he may react too late, or in a way that aggravates the situation. Or, as in the case of Major Young, the pilot may not react at all.

The crash of John F. Kennedy Jr. on the night of July 16, 1999, off the island of Martha’s Vineyard,  which killed him, his wife, and her sister, brought public attention to the consequences of spatial disorientation. The investigation of an air crash, says Richard Bunker of the Massachusetts Aeronautical Commission, who investigated the Kennedy crash for the state, is a process of elimination. You start with the airplane. After eliminating structural or mechanical problems, you look at external factors, such as weather.

Then the investigation turns to the pilot. You examine his or her training and experience, medical history, personal life, and possible extenuating factors. Eventually, Bunker says, the evidence and the circumstances point to “well, maybe we’re looking at spatial disorientation.”

Kennedy did not have an instrument rating. He was flying at night over water with visibility as low as three miles in haze, meaning there were few lights and no visual horizon for reference. About 10 miles from Martha’s Vineyard, he deviated from course and made a number of maneuvers suggesting he was lost or disoriented. The final radar track showed the airplane in a tightening right-hand turn—called a graveyard spiral—that reached a descent rate exceeding 4,700 feet per minute before the airplane hit the water.

In the case of Major Young, it was all over in less than a minute.

Young, call sign Grumpy One,  flew the lead aircraft in a formation of two F-15s in a combat exercise against two F/A-18s over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles west of Cape Arch, Oregon. The visibility was 10 miles or greater, with the horizon discernible in all directions.

While Young’s wingman, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzgerald, call sign Grumpy Two, engaged the two F/A-18s, Cowboy One and Two, Young began a climbing right turn that peaked at 18,800 feet, then began descending in the direction of his wingman and the other two aircraft.

As he did so, Cowboy Two, having maneuvered into position behind Grumpy Two, radioed over a common frequency monitored by all the pilots that he had “killed” one of the two F-15s.

By now, Young’s descent rate had nearly doubled, to 30,000 feet per minute, and he was nearing 5,000 feet—a floor set for the exercise to allow for a margin of safety; at that altitude, Young should have broken off the engagement.

Eight seconds later, Young’s airplane hit the water. Young’s wingman told investigators that all he saw was “a big white splash that reminded me of Niagara Falls.”

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