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An ATSB research report released today examines the problem of spatial disorientation.

Flying an aircraft is a challenging activity that exposes pilots to many potential hazards. One of the most significant of these is spatial disorientation. Spatial disorientation is a condition where the pilot is unable to correctly interpret aircraft attitude, altitude or airspeed in relation to the Earth. The resulting disorientation can lead to a loss of control of the aircraft.

Spatial disorientation is a very common problem. It is vitally important that pilots are aware that it can affect any pilot, any time, anywhere, in any aircraft, on any flight, depending on the prevailing circumstances. It has been estimated that the chance of a pilot experiencing spatial disorientation during their career is in the order of 90 to 100 per cent. In other words, if a pilot flies long enough as a career, or even a hobby, there is almost no chance that he/she will escape experiencing at least one episode of spatial disorientation.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) commissioned aviation medicine specialist, Dr David Newman, to explore the various types of spatial disorientation in the aviation environment, and to suggest strategies for managing the risk associated with these events.

The ATSB report explains that the chances of a spatial disorientation event occurring in flight can be reduced by a series of simple preventive measures, many of which can be attended to before flight. These include flying when fit and well to do so, not flying under the influence of alcohol or medications, avoiding visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions, increasing awareness of spatial disorientation illusions and planning for their possible appearance at different stages of flight in the pre-flight planning process.

The ATSB report encourages pilots who have had a spatial disorientation event to share their experiences with their aviation colleagues, either informally, or through magazines, journals and web-based forums.

A more open approach to acknowledging and discussing spatial disorientation and its various causes will make a valuable contribution to a better understanding of this common human factor.

Copies of the report can be downloaded from the ATSB's internet site at www.atsb.gov.au

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Last update 01 April 2011