The graveyard spiral has an infamous reputation for killing even experienced pilots which only have visual flight experience. What the wikipedia article does not mention is how and when the spiral and other dangerous sensory illusions were discovered.

Essentially it means that pilots in the beginning years would be found inexplicably killed by seemingly harmless weather with visual impairment (fog, night). Someone must have survived such an experience and lived to tell the tale. Is there any information about the hunt for the cause of early crashes and when they identified the culprit?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd guess that fairly early in the history of aviation, pilots got 'the leans' (mentioned in the Wikipedia article) in IMC, emerged into VMC and realised what had happened? $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2017 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but then it should occur sooner or later in letters, aviation/medical prints (what existed at that time) and further discussions. In comparison: We very well know the point of realization about the dangers of metal fatigue: The de Havilland Comet incidents. We also know that humans can survive incredible amounts of g for very short timeframes because Dr. Stapp investigated it und undertook himself dangerous experiments. So why is so little known about the discovery of sensory illusions? $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2017 at 14:46

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This paper from the website of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Air Force Academy reviewed cases dating back to 1913 (note though it doesn't assert that the reports in 1913 suspected Spatial Disorientation (SD)). In the linked paper the author references a previous paper which I can't seem to find: Gibb RW . Historical assessment of visual spatial disorientation [abstract] . Aviat Space Environ Med 2010 ; 81 : 318 .

In 2010, the lead author presented an assessment of visual spatial disorientation at the annual Aerospace Medical Association conference and cited 25 studies dating from 1947 to the present declaring SD’s role in mishaps as well as surveys of pilots anonymously sharing their SD experiences

The earliest research they reference is a Navy survey from 1947. Quoted from the linked paper

1947: U.S. Naval aviators, 67 total, reported on their illusionary experiences and categorized them into visual, non-visual, conflicting sensory cues, dissociative, and emotional ( 48 ). Of note within visual illusions categories were confusion with lights, depth perception, “ black night, ” and judging height above the ground/water. Experienced pilots were still prone to illusions regardless of total flight time.

( 48 )Vinacke WE . Illusions experienced by aircraft pilots while flying .J Aviat Med 1947 ; 18 : 308 – 25 .

The linked article suggests that the aviation community has known about these issues since the early days of flight but the issue was (and they assert still is) an underrated and underreported flight risk which may skew reporting which causes underfunding. Thus the published research may lag the time in which the community started noticing SD.


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