The federal investigation into the helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others has put a renewed spotlight on a long-known danger of flying: Pilots who become disoriented when they can't see their surroundings.
Investigators said Tuesday that pilot Ara Zobayan lost his bearings during the Jan. 26, 2020, flight when he flew fast into low clouds.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said that when Zobayan told air traffic controllers he was climbing to get above the clouds, he was instead beginning a rapid descent that would end with a crash into a hillside north of Los Angeles.
Spatial disorientation is the inability of a pilot to sense how fast or high they are flying and whether the aircraft is pointed up or down, or banking left or right. It occurs when the vestibular system — the body's balancing mechanism in the inner ear — sends the wrong signal to the brain.
“It's like diving into black water at night and you're just floating,” said Randy Waldman, a longtime helicopter and airplane flight instructor in Burbank, California. “You don't know if you're going up or down of left or right.”
Pilot and former Air Force Thunderbirds Commander Richard McSpadden said pilots must train to act against their instincts when they become disoriented.
“We learn walking around and driving our cars to rely on our sense of balance, our gut feel,” he said. “As a pilot, you have to train yourself to disregard that. What (your body) is telling you is wrong, and it will kill you.”
The danger of such disorientation has been known for decades. In the 1950s, researchers at the University of Illinois put 20 pilots through a simulator and none recovered after flying into bad weather and losing visual cues. The study led to brochures and videos called “178 Seconds to Live.”