A Lesson in Spatial Disorientation

  • Published
  • By Capt Travis Higbee
  • 35th Fighter Wing
There I was, descending from 4,000 to 2,000 feet above the ocean's surface in 30 degrees of left bank, turning from the 15 DME arc to final on the HI-ILS 28 penetration into Misawa AB, Japan. I was also letting the jet slow from 300 to 250 KIAS as I made the turn. This was my first instrument check in the F-16CJ since my FTU training at Kelly AFB a year and a half ago. I hadn't flown a sortie before this one in two solid weeks, due to poor weather, but all my currencies were good, and I felt confident I could handle it. The radio crackled. "Fang 22 with chase, Misawa approach, you're cleared ILS approach 28 at Misawa. Call the final approach fix." The thick Japanese-accented controller's voice was decently clear today. Some days they can be difficult to understand, but today I was in luck. 

"Fang 22, cleared ILS 28, WILCO," I replied.  The weather was the typical Misawa rain clouds from 500 feet AGL to infinity, with an occasional broken deck of clear airspace. The clouds were especially dense today, and as I roamed around in them, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a visible horizon. My poor chase-ship was tucked in really close to prevent going "lost wingman," and he did his best to monitor my actions, which wasn't much because he had to fly so close to me. I was fully on the gauges, being smooth with control inputs to help out my wingman and praying I wouldn't do something stupid to hook my check ride. Suddenly, I realized my ears and my eyes weren't agreeing with each other on the spatial orientation of my aircraft.  Left bank felt like level; up felt like down. My hand grew heavy as it tried to apply maneuvers my eyes were telling me were incorrect. In my mind's eye, with the ocean's surface growing quickly closer, the situation rapidly became very serious!  

Somewhere back in my UPT days, an instructor once told me that you have three bags you carry with you every time you fly. Each one is filled with a different, yet essential item. The first bag is skill - your personal capacity, whether genetic or learned, to fly an aircraft (your stickand- rudder skills). The second is experience - all the wiles that time has taught you (that whole "something ain't right here" feeling).  The third is plain old dumb luck (that "Wow, I'm glad that didn't happen!" thing). The idea behind these three bags is simple: put enough in your skill and experience bag that you'll never have to reach into your luck bag. You see, the luck bag is hard to keep full, and you never know when you'll find it empty. Thus the old adage, "A crash is when you run out of altitude, airspeed, good ideas and luck -- all at the same time!" My IP's instructional words, given so many years before, must have etched themselves well enough onto my small 250 megabyte brain that my thoughts now turned to that little nugget of wisdom, as if to find a ray of sun on a cloudy day.

Flashback to training ... I'm no stranger to instrument flying. As FAIP at Vance, I spent hundreds of hours in the weather, many of them solo. I've felt the effects of spatial disorientation and have overcome it countless times. I've seen the effects of spatial disorientation on many students, and have instructed on its dangers, how to identify it, and how to overcome it. Notwithstanding this, I have one experience that dwarfs all my experiences with special disorientation. 

When I was flying T-38As in UPT in November 2001, my instructor and I were taking off on my last T-38 ride of the course. It was an 87 ride that I needed to complete the required number of hours in the program.  We were flying the departure on a round robin out of Vance AFB, headed down to Oklahoma City to shoot an ILS or two before returning home.  The weather was very cloudy and rainy with a few thunderstorms developing and dissipating throughout the area, which was standard for Oklahoma.  As we leveled off at 10,000 feet MSL between two decks of clouds that completely obscured the sky and the ground, but left us in a small layer of clear airspace, I realized I'd completely lost track of which way was up. I felt like I was upside down!  The eyes and ears were in total is agreement.  I fought to keep the jet upright.  My hands instinctively wanted to roll the jet over without my consent. It took every ounce of concentration I had to not do what my gauges said could kill me - roll inverted.  The Giant Hand syndrome set in. I trimmed the best I could and then loosened my grip on the stick. With my hand an inch away from the controls, I physically couldn't roll the jet over.  I said to my instructor over the intercom, "I'm really spatially D'd right now; it feels like I'm upside down.  I think you should take the jet." The response was less than reassuring. "I'm not any better than you are!" I later found out in the debrief that sitting in the back seat had spatially disoriented my instructor worse than me. Great, now it was up to me. I had to fight through it. Training rushed to mind. Fly the plane first! I ignored every radio call made over the next 15-30 seconds. Luckily, none were for us. I stared at the attitude indicator like it was the prettiest supermodel I had ever seen. To keep from losing altitude, I had to keep my pitch neutral. I had to kill any VVI.  I set the power to a known RPM to keep the airspeed constant. I had to keep those stubby wings upright!  I had to keep everything constant and wait.  Wait for the brain to re-cage itself. Miraculously, at the time, it worked. Suddenly, my mind flipped everything right side up again, and I was on my merry way, as if nothing had happened.  But something had happened. I had added a vital piece of wisdom to my bag of experience. 

Back to today ... I swooped down over the Pacific Ocean in one of the world's premier spatial-disorientation machines (the F-16), turning, decelerating, configuring, checking radar, talking on radios, and doing it all in the weather at 2,000 feet above the absolute floor. I realized I was completely disoriented. Up felt like down, and left felt like level. Today, however, I didn't have to reach into my bag of luck. Instead, I reached into my bag of experience and pulled out the ray of light on a cloudy day. When faced with seemingly incapacitating spatial disorientation, get the nose up to the horizon (which felt like I was pulling down toward the ocean's surface) and keep airspeed and altitude constant, then sit and stare at the attitude indicator and let the mind figure it out. I pulled back on the stick and added power to keep the airspeed constant. I pinned the attitude indicator center dot above the horizon and crosschecked that my VVI was zero and my airspeed was steady. I then began the nerve-wracking task of waiting. Seconds seem like eternity. The Heavy Hand syndrome was so strong that I was unable to get the jet out of 30 degrees of bank, but that didn't matter. I had lots of room to turn over the Pacific Ocean, but not a lot of altitude to lose. I turned at 20-30 degrees, but the airspeed and the altitude stayed constant. About 20 seconds later, my mind re-caged. I made a turn back to final without incident. I had eluded disaster. Thoughtfully pondering what my instructor had told me so long ago, I gratefully placed yet another piece of wisdom into my bag of experience.