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For spatial disorientation, are there tricks to block out certain inputs like focusing on what the eyes see and blocking out the ears? I am curious if there are training techniques to practice on the ground to help with spatial disorientation. Do you have any techniques to practice?

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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK the trick to blocking spacial disorientation is "trust the instruments not your senses" $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Jun 27 '17 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ The FAA's Instrument Flying Handbook chapter 3 might give you some ideas. But it mostly comes down to having a source of information that isn't affected by disorientation - i.e. instruments - and relying on it instead of on your senses. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jun 27 '17 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Jamiec Yeah, sure, but I think what the OP wants to know is "how do you train not to trust your senses ?" $\endgroup$ – kebs Sep 21 '17 at 9:00
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In flying you never trust your inner ear because it is easily deceived, you can't block out the inner ear inputs, you simply learn to ignore them in favor of your eyesight. When you first learn to fly it is in visual meteorological conditions using the horizon as a reference, then in instrument conditions (if you choose to get an instrument rating) using your instruments such as the Attitude Indicator (AI) and the Turn Coordinator (TC).

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! When I flew, I used the horizon. I remember in our simulator room that there was an issue with motion sickness. I cannot remember if we painted in a horizon or whether there was one that we had to remove. Now, I know who to ask. Thanks, again! $\endgroup$ – Lilibete Jun 27 '17 at 23:40
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The issue with spatial disorientation is that sensory input is insufficient (based primarily on vestibular input) or that the pilot fails to properly process sources of valid orientation.

Generally, when we refer in aviation to spatial disorientation, we really mean attitudinal disorientation. (Spatial disorientation could also mean not knowing where we are relative to a fix or navaid, as an example. Rather we are really interested in pitch and roll.)

Primary input for attitudinal orientation is an artificial horizon, which emulates a visual horizon providing pitch and roll information. Secondary input can come from a combination of altimeter, turn indicator, and variant instruments (VSI, DG).

With respect to techniques and practice, the standard method is developing a discipline to rely on the AI and associated instruments, and to force a reliance on the instruments, particularly when the pilot senses a conflict. Some people acquire this discipline quickly and others take longer. The general standard for teaching is to continue to provide practice and diverse evaluation opportunities, until the pilot demonstrates consistent correct behavior.

Assuming primary and instrument students are acquainted with the basics, I tend to employ frequent "unusual attitude" opportunities. My experience has been that students who perform well under stress, generally perform well without stress. Unusual attitude opportunities can be instructor induced opportunistically, such as when flying to and from the practice area. When putting on foggles, I customarily will have the student raise their head up after having "reoriented" the aircraft. This may happen 4 to 10 times, sometimes more, in a lesson, and generally students get very proficient.

An alternative technique, which is often done on student cross countries, is to have the student close their eyes, and continue to try to keep the plane straight and level, and then command them to open their eyes once some attitudinal change has presented itself. (There is a secondary benefit to this method, and that is it encourages proper trim maintenance.) If the student has a view limiting device on (foggles) then they get the opportunity to recover using instruments. If they do not have a view limiting device, then they can benefit from both instruments and outside reference.

These things can be practiced with a simulator, however, unless you have a Level D simulator (full motion) there is little opportunity for false vestibular input, and there is little benefit. Besides, nothing beats pulling 1.5Gs and hearing the wind pick up, and sensing the sunshine moving around in the cockpit to get a student's interest up prior to opening their eyes to begin the recovery.

So the best answer to practice is to have your CFI provide frequent, varied, and sometimes stressful opportunities. In my experience, I have never had a student who could not master recoveries, even with nausea inducing preludes.

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It is possible to induce spatial disorientation on the ground by using a small funnel or plastic syringe without a needle attached to instill cold or warm water into one ear only. this will generate vertigo similar to spatial disorientation. We did this in medical school in order to understand vertigo related to the otolith system. Couple this with a simulator and perhaps this could be a useful training tool.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer. Has any pilot tried this and could give some feedback? $\endgroup$ – kebs Sep 21 '17 at 9:02
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Yes there are spatial disorientation trainers, such as the one I've worked on that was built in Taiwan for a flight-medical research institute. It is mounted on top of a slip-ring that allows the cabin to spin: a problem with spin is that pilots can recover from it, but it creates sensory disorientation which can induce a second spin from which recovery is much harder.

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The cockpit inside has both a jet and helicopter set-up, it is used for demonstrating the effects of sensory disorientation and for desensitisation of motion sickness.

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