Sensory Systems for Orientation (Part One) The Eyes

Orientation is the awareness of the position of the aircraft and of oneself in relation to a specific reference point. Disorientation is the lack of orientation, and spatial disorientation specifically refers to the lack of orientation with regard to position in space and to other objects.

Orientation is maintained through the body’s sensory organs in three areas: visual, vestibular, and postural. The eyes maintain visual orientation. The motion sensing system in the inner ear maintains vestibular orientation. The nerves in the skin, joints, and muscles of the body maintain postural orientation. When healthy human beings are in their natural environment, these three systems work well. When the human body is subjected to the forces of flight, these senses can provide misleading information. It is this misleading information that causes pilots to become disoriented.



Of all the senses, vision is most important in providing information to maintain safe flight. Even though the human eye is optimized for day vision, it is also capable of vision in very low light environments. During the day, the eye uses receptors called cones, while at night, vision is facilitated by the use of rods. Both of these provide a level of vision optimized for the lighting conditions that they were intended. That is, cones are ineffective at night and rods are ineffective during the day.

Rods, which contain rhodopsin (called visual purple), are especially sensitive to light and increased light washes out the rhodopsin compromising the night vision. Hence, when strong light is momentarily introduced at night, vision may be totally ineffective as the rods take time to become effective again in darkness. Smoking, alcohol, oxygen deprivation, and age affect vision, especially at night. It should be noted that at night, oxygen deprivation, such as one caused from a climb to a high altitude, causes a significant reduction in vision. A return back to the lower altitude does not restore a pilot’s vision in the same transitory period used at the climb altitude.

The eye also has two blind spots. The day blind spot is the location on the light sensitive retina where the optic nerve fiber bundle (which carries messages from the eye to the brain) passes through. This location has no light receptors, and a message cannot be created there to be sent to the brain. The night blind spot is due to a concentration of cones in an area surrounding the fovea on the retina. Because there are no rods in this area, direct vision on an object at night will disappear. As a result, off-center viewing and scanning at night is best for both obstacle avoidance and to maximize situational awareness (SA). (See the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) for detailed reading.)

The brain also processes visual information based upon color, relationship of colors, and vision from objects around us. Figure 3-1 demonstrates the visual processing of information. The brain assigns color based on many items, to include an object’s surroundings. In the figure below, the orange square on the shaded side of the cube is actually the same color as the brown square in the center of the cube’s top face.

Figure 3-1. Rubik’s cube graphic depicting the visual processing of information.

Figure 3-1. Rubik’s cube graphic depicting the visual processing of information.

Isolating the orange square from surrounding influences will reveal that it is actually brown. The application to a real environment is evident when processing visual information that is influenced by surroundings. The ability to pick out an airport in varied terrain or another aircraft in a light haze are examples of problems with interpretation that make vigilance all the more necessary.


Figure 3-2 illustrates problems with perception. Both tables are the same lengths. Objects are easily misinterpreted in size to include both length and width. Being accustomed to a 75-foot-wide runway on flat terrain is most likely going to influence a pilot’s perception of a wider runway on uneven terrain simply because of the inherent processing experience.

Figure 3-2. Shepard’s tables illustrating problems with perception as both tables are the same length.

Figure 3-2. Shepard’s tables illustrating problems with perception as both tables are the same length.

Vision Under Dim and Bright Illumination

Under conditions of dim illumination, aeronautical charts and aircraft instruments can become unreadable unless adequate flight deck lighting is available. In darkness, vision becomes more sensitive to light. This process is called dark adaptation. Although exposure to total darkness for at least 30 minutes is required for complete dark adaptation, a pilot can achieve a moderate degree of dark adaptation within 20 minutes under dim red flight deck lighting.

Red light distorts colors (filters the red spectrum), especially on aeronautical charts, and makes it very difficult for the eyes to focus on objects inside the aircraft. Pilots should use it only where optimum outside night vision capability is necessary. White flight deck lighting (dim lighting) should be available when needed for map and instrument reading, especially under IMC conditions.

Since any degree of dark adaptation is lost within a few seconds of viewing a bright light, pilots should close one eye when using a light to preserve some degree of night vision. During night flights in the vicinity of lightning, flight deck lights should be turned up to help prevent loss of night vision due to the bright flashes. Dark adaptation is also impaired by exposure to cabin pressure altitudes above 5,000 feet, carbon monoxide inhaled through smoking, deficiency of Vitamin A in the diet, and prolonged exposure to bright sunlight.

During flight in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), the eyes are the major orientation source and usually provide accurate and reliable information. Visual cues usually prevail over false sensations from other sensory systems. When these visual cues are taken away, as they are in IMC, false sensations can cause the pilot to quickly become disoriented.

An effective way to counter these false sensations is to recognize the problem, disregard the false sensations, rely on the flight instruments, and use the eyes to determine the aircraft attitude. The pilot must have an understanding of the problem and the skill to control the aircraft using only instrument indications.