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Illusions and disorientation in small planes

| Jun 16, 2021 | Small Airplane Crashes

Flying is generally safer than driving, statistically speaking. However, accidents still happen, especially in small planes.

Pilot error causes many small plane accidents. Though various mistakes are possible, visual illusions and spatial disorientation are two of the most common forms of pilot error.

Illusions of sight

Though all airplanes have instruments to help a pilot fly safely, sensory illusions sometimes cause small plane crashes. When people imagine what pilots do, they often guess that it’s somewhat like driving a car: The pilot looks out the windows and makes choices based on what he or she sees. While that can be true, pilots also need to rely on instruments because senses can be misleading.

Seeing a false horizon is a common visual illusion. In these cases, a pilot might mistakenly think cloud formations are the horizon. At night, it’s also easy for a pilot to misinterpret lights on the ground as starlight, which gives them precisely the wrong impression of their position. Those are only some of the visual illusions that pilots might see.

Spatial disorientation

When a pilot’s vision is compromised by clouds or darkness, spatial disorientation is a dangerous possibility. A plane’s movements can have negative effects on a pilot’s sense of balance. That means the pilot might perceive the plane as leaning when it is not; the pilot might even detect motion, like tumbling, that isn’t there. On the other hand, he or she might fail to detect movements, believing that the airplane is flying in a straight line when it’s not.

Even one of the illusions described above can cause a deadly plane crash. Though most flights arrive safely at their destination, it’s vital for pilots to keep these illusions in mind and make every effort to avoid them. If pilots don’t fly safely, they could be held responsible for any injuries suffered by passengers.