Navy Researchers Counter Pilot Disorientation with New Simulations

Night LandingNavy researchers have developed new simulation and training programs to help all Defense Department pilots avoid two potentially fatal spatial misperceptions during nighttime landings and in flight.

Spatial disorientation is the leading aeromedical cause of Class A mishaps not only throughout DoD aviation, but in commercial flying as well, Navy officials said in a report published this month in Naval Medical and Research Development News.

Henry P. Williams, a researcher with the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, who reported on the programs, said they have been forwarded to the Naval Survival Training Institute in Pensacola, Florida.

The phenomena include Black Hole Illusion, or BHI – when a pilot on a nighttime runway approach in a poorly lit area perceives he is higher than he should be and descends to a lower approach.

“If unlit high terrain or obstacles are near the approach path the results can be fatal,” Henry P. Williams, a researcher with the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, reported.

The unit tested a team of 38 pilots in day- and nighttime simulation landings, finding that they all flew near perfect approaching in the daylight. But 92 percent made “significantly low BHI approaches” in the nighttime simulation, the report said. On average, they were 148 feet too low when 1.5 nautical miles from the runaway, it said.

But after viewing a training video on BHI the pilots were, on average, just three feet too low at the same distance from the runway.

Another spatial disorientation problem tackled in the same study was Control Reversal Error, or CRE, which occurs when pilots lose visuals on a lead aircraft while making turns – as will happen flying into clouds, Williams reported.

When that happens pilots swap over to instrument control to recover from the turn, but in nearly a quarter of the cases pilots turned in the wrong direction and steepened the angle of bank, researchers found.

“This error can be extremely dangerous in actual instrument flight, leading to incapacitating [spatial disorientation] and a fatal departure from controlled flight,” Williams said.

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