U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


August 2000 




Thought for the month.....The values and principles that motivate us.
The worthiness of our goals.
The truth of our abilities and talents.
These are the things that govern success and failure in our lives.

Reality is not negotiable....The National Transportation Board has identified disorientation as the cause of John F. Kennedy JR's crash last year which took his life, and the lives of his wife and sister-in-law. Essentially, it was identified as a graveyard spiral, which has been a known killer since the dawn of human flight. Flying on intruments is easy; learning to recover from unusual attitudes is the tough part.

Because of the way our plumbing is connected in our inner ear, we may never "feel" the aircraft bank and begin a turn. Without a visible horizon or other references, we will not be able to maintain controlled flight. A momentary distraction is all it takes. Looking down at a chart for a frequency, or focusing on a radio to tune it in. Finding a completely different picture presented on the instrument panel when we return to it can be very confusing. A battle can develop between what we know to be true (seat of the pants), and what those lying instruments are trying to make us believe. If we don't determine the reality of the situation very quickly, we could find ourselves in an unrecoverable situation.

When things like this occur people often ask: "Didn't he know better?" Knowing might not be the problem. In the study of cognitive psychology, three domains of learning have been identified. The first is the cognitive level, which is the knowing part. It is the brain and it's where we collect data. At the other end of the process is the psychomotor domain, which means behavior or physical skill. The ability to physically move the controls in the correct manner is the psychomotor domain. If human beings were computers, we could input the correct information into the cognitive domain and the result would be perfect behavior or performance. The fact that it doesn't work that way demonstrates the presence of the third domain, the affective domain. That's where all our values, attitudes, and emotions live, and our knowledge gets filtered by these factors before becoming behavior.

Because the affective domain governs our behavior, we cannot help but react to situations with our feelings. But, we must also be able to see what is real. Our feelings are as faulty as our ability to determine up from down so we must defer to the cognitive level, our brain, to save the day. If the brain hasn't got much to work with in the way of experience, or our skills are weak due to lack of recency or proficiency, the situation could become pretty frightening.

We can surmise that John Kennedy became disoriented and lost control of his aircraft. We know the physiology that occurs to cause that to happen, but we'll never know the reasons he allowed it to happen. Competent pilots realize that they can't cheat reality. We acknowledge it when we build in safety factors. In the case of JFK, engaging the autopilot early in the flight, remaining at altitude until directly over the destination before letting down, and keeping outside visual references in sight at all times, were certainly techniques that might have averted the tragedy.

Flight instructors know that the highest level of learning is correlation, the ability to associate what has been previously learned, with a new task. It's one of the reasons we advocate a conservative approach to flying that allows us to accumulate experiences and learn its realities safely, over time. John Kennedy knew about disorientation but he probably had never really experienced it, so on the evening of his fatal flight he couldn't interpret how the existing conditions might lead to a dangerous situation. He was aware of the concept of disorientation, but not the reality of it, and the truth of our abilities and talents will govern the success and failure in our lives.

Upcoming Events

Sep. 16
Highland Airport, Highland, Illinois
St. Louis Soaring Association
Open House and Safety Day
9am to 1pm

Sep. 21
West Plains, MO
South Central Chapter MPA
Mid-Air Collision Avoidance
Pizza Inn
7pm to 9pm

Oct. 21
Marriott West Hotel, Town & Country MO
Helicopter Safety Seminar
8am to 1pm

Oct. 26
Creve Coeur Aviation
Creve Coeur Airport
Aviation Safety Program
7pm to 9pm

Operations Safety Program Manager

1-800-322-8876 x 4835