178 Seconds to Live: A Personal Account of Spatial Disorientation


As a flight instructor, I've always considered myself to be a safe pilot. Bad weather? Not flying. Under the weather? We'll cancel.

So when I found myself in a real-life VFR-into-IFR scenario, I actually wondered how it could happen to me. I was able to get my bearings that night, but not all pilots are so lucky.

I'd always heard about this "VFR into IMC" phenomenon and how bad it was, but I was always under the impression that I wouldn't need to worry about it. After all, if a pilot gets a proper preflight weather briefing, why in earth would he or she fly into bad weather?

The day I flew VFR into IMC was a definitely a lesson in weather and personal minimums and hazardous attitudes, but for me, it was also a blunt reality check. I had comfortably flown hundreds of hours in the Cessna 172, I had a lot of night time, cross country time, multi-engine time, IFR time, and apparently just enough instructor time for me to get slightly over-confident.

I was about to take two private pilot students up for a night flight when I realized I wasn't night current. I decided to start up the Cessna 172 and do my three full-stop take offs and landings before the students arrived. I checked AWOS first, and noted that the temperature/dew point spread was close - within three degrees- but a look at the clouds and sky told me it was a beautiful night.

During the first turn in the pattern I noted that the clouds were, indeed, lowering, and that maybe I should pay closer attention to the temperature and dew point. But it was the second take off that provided the reality check I apparently needed.

I turned crosswind, staying at about 800 feet AGL instead of the usual 1000 feet. I could see the ground, the buildings and lights, but was skimming the bottom of the clouds, and at one point went into IMC. Although brief, it was enough to disorient me. In what I suppose was an attempt to stay below the clouds, I had inadvertently commenced a turning descent during the crosswind turn.

I didn't notice until maybe a minute or two later, when I began a turn downwind and heard the sound of increased engine RPM. It sounded as though I'd increased power, but a quick check of the throttle indicated I hadn't. I knew something wasn't right. The engine sounded louder, faster. Thankfully, my brain was quick enough to tell my body that I was in a descent, headed quickly toward a "controlled flight into terrain" scenario that I'd read about in accident reports.

I was able to land safely that night but not every pilot is as lucky as I was.

An FAA publication from 1993 describes a study in which 20 student pilots flew simulators into instrument weather and all of them "went into graveyard spirals or roller-coaster like oscillations." The time until loss of control after entering IMC varied between 20-240 seconds, with the average being 178 seconds.

This harrowing video made by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) shows a common scenario in which a pilot might only have 178 seconds to live after flying VFR into IMC. It's a somber reminder for all of us flying around out there:


Source: 178 Seconds to Live: Spatial Disorientation can be a Killer, by Verdon Kleimenhagen, Ron Keones and James Szajkovics of FAA, and Ken Patz of MN/DOT Office of Aeroanutics, FAA Aviation News, January/February 1993.