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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 2

Aviator's Dilemma: Pilots Encounter Illusions Everywhere

Military aviators learn to second-guess their senses

Iraqi Nightlife
Gosden survived his mission by virtue of using his aircraft’s forward-looking infrared (FLIR) optical array, which gave him the ability, in tandem with skill and luck, to notice a line of infrared lights marking a column of American light armored vehicles (LAVs) on the ground. He could not see the ground, but the LAVs gave him just enough information about the landscape to allow him to land “safely”—that is, behind enemy lines in the middle of the desert surrounded by a high-speed battle.

“I knew that the ground behind those LAVs must be flat, meaning we could land there. We knew our position was behind enemy lines. But we didn’t care—we had completed our flying for the evening. The other pilot on my helicopter, Captain Rodney ‘Dino’ Dean, was suffering from vertigo, which had the opposite result to what was happening to me [the leans]. It was a miracle we got down,” Gosden said. “After landing, we got our weapons and set up a perimeter around the aircraft. When the sun came up, we could see well enough to fly out.”

Training to Survive
Night-vision devices such as personal goggles or the FLIR viewing system that Gosden used can ameliorate spatial D at night, but their performance is highly dependent on illumination, terrain contrast and particulates in the air. For instance, these devices offer little help during brownout conditions, where dust can severely degrade visibility. The main defense that pilots have against the dangerous misperceptions and illusions reviewed here is simply the awareness that they can happen.

Back at the Miramar station, the architecture of the training facility is vintage 1950s U.S. military, the lobby festooned with uniformed mannequins in ejection seats. The lecture hall decor is exactly what you would find on the Boat (navy lingo for an aircraft carrier): overengineered steel recliner-size seats bolted to the floor, padded generously with genuine Naugahyde coverings. Flight suits abound.

“When naval aviation was young, we were crashing two planes a day,” Gayles says, “mostly caused by inevitable equipment failures. Now we crash 20 planes a year or so, and every crash is a very big deal, covered by the press, and reported throughout the military. Most crashes are no longer the result of maintenance or equipment failures. Those problems have been reduced to the point that the main issue is human error. Pilots sometimes fly perfectly good aircraft into the ground.”

Why does that happen among the most highly trained pilots in the world? The answer: every sensory and cognitive system is highly taxed when flying military aircraft. Visual illusions alone accounted for about 20 crashes from 1990 to 2008, making the combined contribution of illusions of all types twice as high as the next biggest crash cause: fatigue.

This challenge is why Gosden and this group of aviators are here today, to receive their once-every-four-years refresher in situational awareness, aviation physiology and crash-survival training. They are lectured, questioned and then dunked unceremoniously into a huge, cold saltwater pool inside a crash simulator while wearing a blindfold. It’s scary, and the only people having fun are the two of us (Martinez-Conde and Macknik) on the side of the pool looking in.

Shifting Horizons
As important as visual input is for a pilot, eyes can lie. For example, when flying above a cloud deck, there is a natural tendency to perceive any relatively straight line in the visual field as a horizon—which can lead to very undesirable results in a fast-moving aircraft.

False horizons are everywhere around you in the clouds. Your aircraft’s attitude may seem level, even if you are tilted and in a turn. Mountain ridges might lead you astray as well, and at night the combination of clouds, stars, mountains and lights on the ground can produce impossibly confusing percepts that lead the aircraft away from the safety of true straight and level flight.

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