In the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Spatial Disorientation Lab, flight student Nella Filipkova wears a virtual reality headset as the device she sits in spins rapidly.
It almost looks like she’s attached to an amusement park ride, but the new simulator isn’t meant for entertainment. Rather, it is a life-saving training tool allowing pilots to realistically feel and react to simulated dangerous flight conditions that can create disorienting illusions for pilots – illusions that can mimic, among other things, the feeling of turning, climbing or descending when their plane is actually flying perfectly straight or, worse, doing the opposite of what the pilot feels behind the controls.
Spatial disorientation illusions like these are among the most commonly cited contributing factors to fatal plane crashes, including the one that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in 2020. produced in a helicopter, but the effects of disorientation experienced by the pilot are the same as those experienced in airplanes.
“We all learn these illusions; however, it’s hard to imagine what it does and the magnitude it has on your perception,” Filipkova said. “It is frightening to imagine that you can unknowingly experience spatial disorientation in flight. For this reason, everyone should take advantage of the simulator, so that they have an idea of what to expect and can correctly identify the illusion if they encountered one.
Dr. Bob Thomas, an assistant professor of aeronautical science who directs the College of Aviation’s Spatial Disorientation Lab, began training and researching students using the new simulator in October. The device, which can perform full 360 degree revolutions as well as 30 degrees of pitch and tilt, simulates illusions of the vestibular system related to the inner ear, which can cause dizziness, disorientation, motion sickness, transports and illusions like the “Graveyard Spiral”, a dangerous spiral dive accidentally undertaken by a pilot. This also includes visual illusions, such as false horizons and runway width illusions.
“We give students experiments with all of these illusions, so they know how to react if they experience them in flight,” Thomas said.
Thomas modified a Force Dynamics 401cr motion simulator, and the university’s Extended Reality (XR) lab developed the Virtual Reality Aviation Illusion Trainer (VRAIT), which includes a dozen illusion scenarios that students experience through the VR headset. The storyline involves students flying in a Cessna and traveling a recorded path through each illusion, which lasts approximately five minutes.
“They have no control in the simulator – they’re just there for the ride,” Thomas said. “We simulate putting them in this situation, and they have the ability to look all around the plane in the virtual environment.”
One of the first students to volunteer to test the device was flight student Derek Matusch, who is currently working on both his commercial multi-engine rating and his flight instructor certification. He admitted he was nervous, but said it was a valuable experience.
“I absolutely recommend every flight student give it a try,” he said. “The lab allows students to experience potentially dangerous scenarios in a safe and controlled atmosphere. It could help all pilots to be aware of the dangers that can be encountered in flight.
People can panic and overreact to these illusions when flying in real life, Thomas said, so showing them what each scenario looks like in a controlled lab space is invaluable training.
Laura Wade, a pilot and graduate student assistant in the Space Disorientation Lab, agreed, adding that she found the simulator very realistic.
“It’s disorienting – you have to rely on your training [and the controls], not your perception,” she said. “This simulator aims to create a basic knowledge of illusions on the ground, so if pilots experience them in the air, they know how to recognize and respond to them.”
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