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New System Helps Pilots Prepare for Spatial Disorientation

The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team says that a pilot who enters clouds by mistake will likely lose control and crash within 56 seconds.  That's what happened in the 2020 crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his fellow passengers and the pilot, and it's why training in real-world scenarios is so important to cut down on the accident rate.

A new virtual reality technology from AT Systems is coming out this month and aims to help pilots make better decisions.

On a recent overcast afternoon near Birmingham, Ala., a helicopter of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office prepared for takeoff.  The pilots, Jonathan Johnson and Jerry Griffin, scanned the instruments and looked for other aircraft before lifting off from the airport.

It wasn't a typical training flight, however.  For the first time, Johnson was trying out the new system that simulates all types of weather conditions as he flew.  (Usually, when training for cloudy conditions, pilots slip on a view-limiting device that prevents them from seeing anything outside.)

This system features a piece of clear plastic film strapped to the front of the pilot’s helmet.  The pilot can  see inside and outside the cockpit, but with a tap on an iPad the visibility can be changed.  It can go from reduced visibility to no visibility simply by adjusting the iPad. 

What the pilot was seeing was very different than what was actually outside.  This is what might happen on an actual flight in bad weather. The situation was challenging the pilot whether to press on into what would be uncertain conditions or divert and land short of his destination.

Full-motion flight simulators have been around for decades.  But, on the ground, they can't mimic certain types of in-flight dangers such as spatial disorientation.  That's the confusing phenomenon where the mind and body feel one thing — but the cockpit instruments show another.  And that's what investigators say happened in the Kobe Bryant crash.

This new virtual reality technology is hoped to prevent that in the future - by making pilots aware of how dangerous it can be to press on and put them in situations that mimic flying in challenging weather.