Surviving Spatial Disorientation
with ICARUS Devices
Text by Divan Muller
Images courtesy of ICARUS Devices
Inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) is dangerous. Those who fly into clouds or smoke, for example, without warning, may well experience spatial disorientation. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), “between 5 to 10 percent of all general aviation accidents can be attributed to spatial disorientation, 90% of which are fatal.”When experiencing IIMC, the odds are certainly stacked against the pilot. The YouTube video titled, “56 Seconds to Live,” produced by the United States Helicopter Safety Team, provides a vivid and sobering illustration of how terrifying and deadly such a situation could be. How can one hope to survive IIMC? The simple answer is training. But are flight simulators and other widely used training methods effective?
To find out more and to learn about an innovative new method of training for flight in IMC, I spoke to Erik Sabiston. Erik is an airline pilot, helicopter instructor and author of best-selling book, “Dustoff 7-3.”

As a military pilot, he completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross, in addition to other awards. He is also the founder of RTAG - The Veteran to Aviation Charity, the largest charity of its kind in the world, in addition to being managing partner at ICARUS Devices.

Erik told me about how and why ICARUS Devices had been founded by Nick Sinopoli, who is based in Madison, Wisconsin. Erik explained just how valuable the device, developed by Nick, can be to the general aviation and helicopter community in particular.

A few years ago, a close friend of Nick died in a special disorientation accident. As a result, Nick became determined to develop something to help pilots survive flight in low visibility. As it happened, Nick was an experienced fixed wing and helicopter pilot, with a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

One day, while flying as a passenger onboard a Boeing 787, Nick noticed how the windows’ opacity could be changed with buttons, rather than having to pull down shades. That started his thought process in using similar technology to simulate low visibility conditions during training flights. Nick sold his classic Porsche, which he had been restoring, to fund the development of his new training device and to pay for its patent. He reached out to Erik and asked him to join the ICARUS team, after reading the aformentioned book, noticing that Erik had experienced IIMC four times in combat. “We survived those situations because we were very prepared. We were always prepared to punch into those clouds. We had altitude, a heading and fuel,” remembered Erik.

Today, after five years of development, the product has evolved into a visor which clips securely onto a helmet or the brim of a cap. Weighing only 8 ounces (227 g), the visor is adjustable to suit those who wear glasses, and it is cut to the shape of the aircraft’s instrument panel. Essentially, the visor changes opacity to simulate changes in visibility during a flight, which is supervised and directed by an instructor. In using the device, students get to experience the sensation of flying in bad visibility, learning to trust instruments, despite contradictory sensations which have been known to lead to ‘graveyard spirals’ or ‘graveyard spins’. “The ‘startle effect’ is really what kills people,” said Erik. “It’s not proficiency in a simulator or in a controlled environment. It is more about the transition.” Simulators just don’t give the pilot the same feeling as experiencing IIMC in real life. According to Erik, “a simulator is great with visuals, but when it comes to the vestibular and proprioception systems, it’s really lacking. We can give the pilot an introduction of what it’s like punching into IIMC in an actual aircraft.”
“What I’m most interested in is not people’s instrument proficiency, so much as their decision-making proficiency,” Erik added. “You have got to survive that first encounter. Punching into clouds in an aircraft is just as scary, in my opinion, as getting shot at the first time. You have to know what you are going to do.”
During a training flight, an instructor could have the student wear the visor all the time, and the student would not know when the instrument conditions would begin. An instructor has the option to alter the visibility during the flight, or program the flight before taxiing, or even a combination of the two methods.
As Erik explained, “ICARUS can change in real time. The instructor can change not only how clouded up it gets; he can also control how fast it happens.”

Alternatively, the device could be used to help students make weather-related decisions. “You could ask a student, ‘what kind of visibility do you need for this approach?’,” said Erik. “And you can give them whatever they answer, whether they are right or wrong.” Also, he added, “You can time it so you know how long you’ve been in the clouds.”

“I’ve been teaching instruments for a long time,” said Erik. “I’m comfortable in the clouds and I love flying with instruments. [ICARUS] is almost indistinguishable from real IFR flying. It’s so light-weight, you forget that it’s there, and the transition is so realistic. If you’re not comfortable with instruments, you are going to get startled. That’s why you have to fly with a safety pilot or an instructor when using ICARUS – because it is real life.”

ICARUS has been tested by colleges, universities, flight schools and the military, and feedback has been unanimously positive. Not surprisingly, it has received considerable interest from around the world, primarily from flight schools, colleges, countries’ militaries, and even private aircraft owners. It especially makes sense to operators that would otherwise have to send their pilots to potentially distant training organizations for IFR training on advanced simulators.

At the moment, the cost of one device is us$ 1,000 for a general aviation model and us$ 1,500 for helicopters, as the latter requires more carbon fibre, but the ICARUS Devices team is not in it for the money. The team’s goal is to save lives through realistic training. “We hope to get the price down to US$500 or even lower,” explained Erik. “The point is not to make money. The point is to save lives.”

According to Erik, when it comes to avoiding accidents as a result of spatial disorientation, “the solution is not litigation, and the solution is not more warning systems. That’s not going to save people. The solution is better pilots, and that’s really what we need. We have been fighting this battle since the dawn of aviation, and it’s not getting any better.”

However, compared with many traditional IFR training methods, “There is a better solution, and luckily for everyone, it’s much cheaper than anything else on the market.”

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