In the Embry-Riddle University of Aeronautics’ Spatial Confusion Lab, flight student Nella Filipkova wears virtual reality goggles as the device you’re sitting on rotates rapidly.
It looks almost strapped for an amusement park ride, but the new simulator isn’t meant for entertainment. Instead, it is a lifesaving training tool that allows pilots to feel realistically and interact with simulated hazardous flight conditions that can create confusing illusions for pilots – illusions that can imitate, among other things, the feeling of turning, climbing or descending. The plane actually flies quite straight, or worse, it does the opposite of what a pilot feels behind the controls.
Delusions of spatial confusion like these are some of the most common factors cited as contributing to fatal aircraft accidents, including the one that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in 2020. This accident occurred in a helicopter, but the effects of the confusion suffered by the pilot They are the same as those who suffered in planes.
“We all learn about these fantasies. However, it is difficult to imagine how you feel and how much it affects your perception,” Filipkova said. “It is scary to imagine that you can inadvertently experience spatial confusion while flying. For this reason, everyone should make use of the simulator, so that they have an idea of what to expect and can correctly identify the illusion if they ever encounter it.”
Dr. Bob Thomas, assistant professor of aviation sciences who heads the College of Flight’s Spatial Confusion Laboratory, began training students and research with the new simulator in October. The device, which can rotate full 360 degrees plus 30 degrees of pitch and bank, simulates vestibular delusions of the inner ear, which can cause dizziness, confusion, motion sickness and delusions like a “cemetery spiral,” a dangerous spiral dive in which a pilot accidentally entered. It also includes optical illusions, such as false horizons and runway display illusions.
“We give students experiments with all of these illusions, so they know how to respond if they try them on the fly,” Thomas said.
Thomas modified the Force Dynamics 401cr Motion Simulator, and the university’s Extended Reality Lab (XR) developed a Virtual Reality Air Illusion Trainer (VRAIT), which includes dozens of illusion scenarios that students experience through a VR headset. The scenario involves students flying in a Cessna and moving in a recorded path through each illusion, which lasts about five minutes.
“They don’t have controls in the simulator – they’re just all the way around,” Thomas said. “We simulate putting them in this situation, and they have the ability to look 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 the Commercial Multi-Engine Rating and Flight Instructor Certification. He admitted he was nervous but said it was a valuable experience.
“I highly recommend every flight student to try it,” he said. “The lab allows students to experience potentially dangerous scenarios in a safe and controlled atmosphere. It can help all pilots become aware of the risks that can be encountered while flying.”
Thomas said that people can panic and overreact to these delusions when they fly in real life, so introducing them to what each scenario feels like in a controlled lab space is an invaluable exercise.
Laura Wade, a pilot and assistant graduate student at the Spatial Confusion Lab, agreed, adding that she found the simulator very realistic.
“It’s confusing – you have to rely on your training [and the controls]Not your perception,” she said. “This simulation aims to establish basic knowledge of illusions on the ground, so if pilots experience them in the air, they know how to recognize and respond to them.”