Aeromedical Forum: November 2015
Keeping your head straight in the Clag
Mackinac Island sits in the Straights between Lakes Huron and Michigan. It is a magical, special place. Unfortunately for the pilot it is also a realm of mist, fog and low-hanging clouds with convection currents at each end of the approach and squirrely cross winds pouring over the forest-lined runway.
Deb and I were departing from KMCD last September into a 300-foot ceiling. The clag was confined to the island and it was CAVU across the straights in Cheboygan, so we had a good Plan B, if needed. I’ve practiced and executed “0-0 takeoffs” many times. Even so, I’m always impressed as to how easily spacial orientation can be lost transitioning into the clag.
A moment’s distraction from the PFD and all of a sudden you can be in a most unusual attitude. Bad news at 400 AGL! Needless to say a level and unclouded head is a prerequisite for safe flight in instrument meteorological conditions. As IMC is a way of life in the Upper Midwest this time of year, I thought a few words about keeping a clear head in the soup might be appropriate.
A boatload of stuff can give you an unclear head — aside from listening to presidential debates. We all learned about somatogravic illusions in flight school. When what your eyes see or don’t see fails to jibe with what your balance apparatus feels, you get goofy and start moving the stick where it shouldn’t be. This can cause “the leans” or worse, a graveyard spin/spiral. Slow down and you feel that you’re pitching down. Speed up and the nose seems to go up. These problems are nicely detailed in a recent FAA Safety Briefing. Good reading for a fall afternoon!
What many pilots don’t appreciate is that a number of factors can predispose to developing spatial disorientation by screwing up your balance organ in the inner ear. We talked about true vertigo last March. That’s where the room seems to be spinning, often to the point where you want to heave your cookies.
When you have it, it’s obvious and there’s no way you’ll even think about crawling into the cockpit. Hopefully you’ll be crawling into a clinic. Yet a there’s a milder variant of this which is very common, less debilitating yet potentially lethal when flying in the soup. Most folks call it “light headedness,” a fuzzy floating feeling where you are a bit unstable on your feet, but the world isn’t spinning. Many things can create this feeling, most of which are obvious.
A bad night’s sleep, an infection — most often a viral cold, allergies, a hangover from that night on the town are most frequent causes. All kinds of medications can have this as a side effect. This is why the FAA wants you to lay of flying for at least 72 hours after starting a new medication to make sure it agrees with you. High blood pressure is a common cause of feeling fuzzy in the head. You should be regularly checking your blood pressure at the store, pharmacy or clinic if this might be an issue. A lot of other more serious medical problems can cause this. So if it isn’t obvious why you are feeling “a little off,” check with your healthcare provider before you put the throttle to the firewall. You’ll find it a lot easier to keep the dirty side down in IMC when your head is clear.
Another very important thing for any IFR pilot is a regular medical examination by an AME. It’s not just a pro forma thing we do to obey the FAR’s. Rather it is a precisely focused examination to identify any one of a myriad of medical issues that can be a problem in flying. We spend thousands of dollars every year on an inspection of our aircraft. It is the cause of 15 percent of aviation fatalities. I think it makes sense to spend one or two hundred every two to five years on an inspection of the pilot. He is the cause of 70 percent of fatalities. I wonder if AOPA reads the stuff they publish.
Oh, and if you get to Mackinac Island, the best fudge shop in town is at JoAnn’s. We’ll talk about obesity some other time!
Fly wisely. See you next month!
As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org.