Today’s Illustration: Trust The Instruments!


On This Day:  July 16, 1999   — John F. Kennedy Jr. dies in a plane accident.  Cause:  Pilot error —  spatial disorientation

“It was a nasty night. Conditions at Martha’s Vineyard were reported as clear with visibility of eight miles, but erratic: a few minutes earlier they had been humid and hazy with only six miles visibility. Kennedy’s newly acquired certificate for flying his plane using instruments alone forbade him to fly with visibility less than five miles. He did not hold a full license.”


Vertigo! — Spatial Disorientation

√  Birds experience it.

√  Pilots get it.

√  People struggle with it.

√  Kayakers face it.

“Vertigo is a false sense of movement, causing confusion, disorientation—and, eventually, incapacitation. According to the FAA, vertigo and spatial disorientation (SD) contribute to 15 percent of accidents, typically at night or in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Most are fatal, and experienced pilots are not immune. “

Non-instrument-rated pilots have a life expectancy of less than three minutes in IMC [instrument meteorological conditions — when the weather conditions change and then require that the pilot fly using the plane’s instruments], probably because of SD [spatial disorientation].

Not the kind you get when you spin around several times with your forehead on a mop handle, but real spatial disorientation which is actually a combination of the inner ear as well as gravitational input.  The inner ear can send false information concerning the pitch, yaw, and roll of the airplane.

“Initially pilots experiencing vertigo/SD acknowledge conflict between sensations and instruments; the disconnect then blurs—and finally, incapacitation follows with nausea, visual disturbances, muscle spasms, and panic. Different flying maneuvers provoke insidious, yet compelling and specific, forms of disorientation. Unlike other in-flight emergencies such as cockpit fire or catastrophic engine failure, the spatially disoriented pilot does not perceive there is anything wrong. The aptly named graveyard spiral occurs after a bank; feeling the nose drop, the pilot pulls back to initiate a climb or reduce perceived rate of descent. A tighter turn ensues that magnifies the effect and leads to a stall, overstressing the aircraft or flying into the ground.” — see


Facts & Information:

Some of the most vital instruments on an airplane’s “dashboard.”

An altimeter/altitude indicator:  How many feet you are above the ground.  It also tells you whether you are going up higher or dropping down toward the earth.

An attitude indicator:  How your airplane is situated in regards to an “artificial”  horizon of the instrument.  Are your wings level with the horizon, or is one of your wings below or above that level line on the instrument, which would say that you are in a small or a significant turn right or left.

An airspeed indicator:  How fast are you moving.  It also tells you if you are increasing or decreasing in speed.

A vertical speed indicator:  What is the airplane’s feet per minute in a climb or descent.

A heading indicator:  What is the direction you are headed in degrees, between 0-359.

A magnetic compass:  Tells the pilot true magnetic north and south.

SD: spatial disorientation

IMC: instrument meteorological conditions — This is when weather conditions change and the weather or meteorological conditions now require a pilot to fly by the airplane’s instruments.

IFR: Instrument Flight Rules

VFR: Visual Flight Rules

Instrument Rated:  The pilot is qualified to fly using only his instruments.  When you are taught to “fly by the instruments,” you are trained with what is called “a hood.”  Sometimes it is like a “hat” which has a large bill and prevents one from seeing out of the front window.  Sometimes they look like “blinders” but which prevent the pilot from seeing anything but the instruments — the “windshield” of the airplane is blocked from one’s vision.

“Instrument pilots rely strictly on instrument indications to precisely control the aircraft; therefore, they must have a solid understanding of basic aerodynamic principles in order to make accurate judgments regarding aircraft control inputs “

Visually Rated:  The pilot operates the airplane based on the natural horizon.


Becoming an “Instrument Flight Rated” pilot means that you do not need to see where you are, or rely on what you believe the airplane is doing, in order the fly the airplane.  You are relying on the instruments to give you the information you need to maintain flight and direction.

When a pilot is visually rated, entering into clouds can easily become very dangerous.  No longer can he see where he and his plane are in light of the horizon or the ground.

When learning to “flying by the instruments,” early on a pilot will fight a mental and emotional battle between what they are sensing and what the instruments are telling them!  That “fight” can literally spell the difference between life and death.

Your sensations — triggered by your inner ear — can be telling you that you are flying straight and level, which the instruments are telling you that your senses are irrefutably wrong!

Your senses can be telling you that you are wrong and a fool to move the airplane’s yoke slightly forward in order to level the nose with the horizon.  Nevertheless, the plane’s “attitude” indicator is telling you that this is what you must do.


Key Illustrative Thoughts:

•  trust
•  trust the instruments
•  altitude
•  nose up
•  attitude
•  lost perspective
•  spiritual vertigo
•  believing/thinking what is not the case
•  the instruments tell you the truth
•  truth
•  feelings
•  he that thinketh he standeth
•  crash
•  the clouds move in and then

At times, a pilot’s feelings may — can — and do assert and reasserted themselves, telling him/her that the instruments must be mistaken.  Nevertheless, the pilot must trust your instruments!

Flying an airplane requires that a pilot entirely trusts the instruments over and above any feelings!




Other Information & Links:

Kennedy checked the wings, the gauges and other equipment, then did the ‘rump’ – revving the engine to make sure it was running properly.

The twilight deepened, Kennedy called the airport tower, gave his tail number and got permission for take-off. At 8.38pm the Saratoga carrying the heir to Camelot accelerated down the runway and roared into the night.

‘I watched him taxi and take off,’ said Bailey. ‘I told my family, ”I can’t believe he’s going up in this weather”.’

‘He made a stupid mistake,’ said Andrew Ferguson, president of Air Bound Aviation. ‘Like going through a stop sign. But when a Kennedy goes through a stop sign, there always seems to be an 18-wheeler truck coming from the other side.’

The lights of the Jersey shoreline disappeared behind the plane. The combination of heat and humidity was just right to create a smudge of haze obscuring the horizon. ‘It is nothing,’ said Bailey, trying to imagine what Kennedy saw. He meant nothingness.

The haze thickened and the sea intensified the humidity. Within an hour, the lights of Martha’s Vineyard were only 15 minutes away, but invisible.

Then Kennedy’s mind started playing tricks; the instrument panel and his head were telling him different things. It was like one of Barlow’s better psychedelic efforts for the Grateful Dead, only this nightmare was for real. Kennedy lost his bearings, then lost control of the plane.

In the dry parlance of the investigation, this is being called a ‘disorientation accident’. Kennedy seems to have had a sudden attack of what pilots call ‘black hole vertigo’: a three-way disconnection between reason, instinct and reality – even an inability to tell the difference between up and down.

In the night haze, Kennedy’s instincts began to lie to him; his mind’s eye was blind. Only with experience, which Kennedy lacked, can a pilot trust the needles on the dials more than what his brain is telling him.

Black hole vertigo causes a pilot to think he is flying where he is not, and to overcompensate. The plane might feel as if it’s veering to the right, said Byron Byrnes, an official of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Association, but the double-pointed needle on the artificial-horizon dial tells you different. The pilot, in error, eases the ‘yoke’ control to the right.

At 9.34pm Kennedy was flying at 5,800ft, and started to descend at a rate of 700ft a minute – to 2,300ft. At 9.39:50, he veered to the right and ascended to 2,600ft. At 9.40:20, he lurched to the left.

To save yourself, you have to ignore the voices inside your head. Otherwise, you pass the point of no return, at which your brain and the dials really are in harmony – only the needles on the altimeter are now spinning towards zero, and you are heading for the point at which black night meets black sea.

There was no emergency call from the plane. Byrnes thinks Kennedy may have turned the aircraft upside down and tried to pull back, thereby accelerating its plunge.

At 9.34:34, the last radar signal showed Kennedy 16 miles from the airport, at an altitude of 1,100ft, but flying away from Martha’s Vineyard. By now, the plane was nosediving at 4,700ft per minute, heading into the ‘graveyard spiral’ and the endless deep.

The ‘graveyard spiral’ spins in a tighter and tighter circle. The last thing Kennedy would have seen, if he saw anything, would have been the ocean’s surface spinning as it came crashing towards him at 79ft a second.


Click to access FAA-H-8083-15B.pdf

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