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Open Access Review

Orientation and disorientation in aviation

John Richard Rollin Stott

Author Affiliations

Aviation Medicine, King’s College London, Strand, London, England, WC2R 2LS, UK

Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013, 2:2  doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-2

Published: 3 January 2013

Abstract

On the ground, the essential requirement to remain orientated is a largely unconscious activity. In flight, orientation requires a conscious effort by the pilot particularly when the visual environment becomes degraded and a deceptive force environment becomes the frame of reference. Furthermore, an unusual force environment can determine the apparent location of objects within a limited visual scene, sometimes with disastrous consequences. This review outlines the sources of pilot disorientation that arise from the visual and force environment of flight and their interaction. It challenges the value of the traditional illusion-based approach to the subject both to aircrew and to surveys of disorientation. Also, it questions the emphasis on the shortcomings of vestibular function as the physiological basis for disorientation. While military accidents from all causes have shown a decline, there has been no corresponding reduction in accidents involving disorientation, 85% of which are the results of unrecognised disorientation. This finding has implications for the way in which pilots are taught about disorientation in the interest of enhanced flight safety. It argues for a greater use of conventional fixed base simulators to create disorientating scenarios rather than complex motion devices to create unusual sensations.

Keywords:
Spatial disorientation; Somatogravic; Oculogravic; Vestibular system; Aircraft accidents