Piper Lance N976WB view from visual conditions into clouds

On a recent cloud-filled flight with my husband the pilot, I discovered the concept of spatial orientation. Spatial orientation is the innate ability of any living thing to determine its relative position to the surrounding environment and regulate its body and posture accordingly. In aviation, spatial orientation is crucial, a literal matter of life and death, as pilots must maintain proper positioning of their aircraft to avoid crashing. Humans naturally and easily maintain spatial orientation on the ground; three-dimensional flight is unfamiliar to our bodies, unsuitable for an inflight environment. After all, we are not birds, and our human senses experience conflict in the air, especially in less than ideal conditions.

Spatial orientation is difficult for humans to achieve in-flight for many reasons, but even more so while flying at night, through clouds, or in poor weather. VISION is the primary sense that we rely on and the most significant contributor to proper orientation. Bottom line: when we lose our vision, we become disoriented. We experience a sensory mismatch with no visible horizon that produces illusions, leading to a condition called spatial disorientation, or what pilots call spatial-d. The pilot gets distracted and loses the ability to judge the aircraft’s orientation due to the brain’s misperception of spatial and inner-ear cues.

For this reason alone, pilots should receive specific training and instruction beyond basic private or commercial license requirements. An instrument rating is a type of certification in which a pilot learns to fly solely relying on the aircraft’s instruments in the absence of visual cues. I watched my husband attain his instrument rating – it’s no joke. It isn’t easy to achieve, but he knew enough about spatial-d to realize that he couldn’t, in good conscience, fly his family around without it.

One cannot control the weather, and many overconfident and improperly trained pilots often fly themselves unintentionally right into unpredictable weather patterns they cannot navigate. Even the most skilled pilots can fall victim to spatial-d if they fail to rely on their instruments. Cases of spatial-d claim up to 10% of all general aviation accidents, 90% of which are fatal. For perspective, the infamous crashes that claimed the lives of Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, JFK, Jr., and Kobe Bryant were all attributed to the pilots experiencing some form of spatial-d.

Pilots consider themselves to be in one of two groups: those who have been disoriented and those who WILL be disoriented. Truly experienced pilots understand that they will not escape experiencing at least one episode of spatial-d in their aviation tenure. A humble pilot accepts this and prepares for it. A prideful one says, “That would never happen to me.”

As we spoke, I couldn’t help but connect the dots, noticing parallels between the disorientation many of us have been feeling and experiencing over the past year. Hear this: we have been navigating through unprecedentedly poor global, cultural, relational, and societal conditions. Having no clearly defined horizon dangerously impairs our vision. You either have been experiencing or will experience some form of spiritual spatial disorientation. You may even likely be experiencing it and not even know it.

Spatial disorientation happens in the absence of strong visual cues, i.e., when vision is impaired, and the brain and senses are literally in conflict. Our brain, senses, and feelings will tell us one thing, and it may very likely be in conflict with what is true. If a pilot relies on their senses and not their instruments to properly orient themselves, the aircraft can dive into a graveyard spiral. Graveyard spirals occur most often at night or in poor weather conditions where no visible horizon exists to provide visual evidence to contradicting inner-ear cues. Don’t miss this – You can be in a downward spiral to your death, and your brain will tell you that your wings are level and you are flying straight!

The instrument by which a pilot relies on in poor conditions is an Attitude Indicator. It informs the pilot of the aircraft’s orientation relative to the Earth’s horizon, indicating the slightest change in orientation and position of the wings.

These times have been disorienting, to say the least. What do we believe? Who is telling the truth? Where do we go for reliable and trustworthy information? Who can we trust? Our own senses even deceive us. Our world has endured a global pandemic that has left many of us with actual long-term sensory impairment.

So what does this all mean for us non pilots? What are the practical applications and what can we learn from this? How can we apply this?

Just as a pilot understands the human system’s susceptibility to spatial disorientation and the conditions in which it can occur, we must also understand our susceptibility to spiritual spatial disorientation. In these poor conditions and confusing times we have been navigating, our feelings, our senses, and even our own brains are unreliable – they will deceive us. We are groping our way through the dark. Trust in our gauges and our instruments. Check our posture, perspective, and orientation: What is our attitude? We must align it with what God’s Word says and adjust accordingly. Or, as the Bible tells us:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Proverbs 3:5-6

Our Attitude Indicator in these times is the word of God – the Bible. Scripture is our instrument by which we navigate when all other senses, feelings, and even our very minds deceive us.

Another thing that a pilot must understand is how to recover from a graveyard spiral if required. You need to be in the mindset for an unusual attitude recovery, and it comes down to 4 simple steps:

  1. Reduce your power to idle
  2. Level your wings
  3. Slowly pull back to a nose-level attitude
  4. Add power once you’ve recovered and your airspeed returns to normal

What can we learn from this as Christians? If we are currently experiencing spatial disorientation in our souls, what do we do? I think we can learn from the same 4 steps that can deliver a pilot out of a graveyard spiral:

  1. Reduce your power to idle = Rest. We dangerously underestimate how vital rest is for our souls. We tend to think that the answer to every problem is to work “harder, better, faster, stronger.” However, God blesses and declares “holy” in the Bible is the seventh day when He rested from all His work of creation (Genesis 2:3). Read Psalm 23. God is our Shepherd, our True North, and He leads us to rest.
  2. Level your wings = We always need to remember that no matter what our faulty brains, senses, and emotions tell us, we have the mind of Christ if we belong to Him (1 Corinthians 2:16). We have access to His thoughts through the Word and His Spirit. Christ gives us a right mind (Mark 5:15). Daily time in His presence and His Word will help us align ourselves and maintain proper orientation. These are our “instruments.” His word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Check your attitude. Does it line up with what God says or what I see?
  3. Slowly pull back to a nose-level attitude = Remember who and whose we are. We are weak and utterly dependent upon Jesus. Even Jesus, who was God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant (See Philippians 2:3-6). Surround yourself with other godly people to remind you what is true when you can’t see clearly for yourself.
  4. Add power once you’ve recovered and your airspeed returns to normal – Once we have recovered and maintaining proper orientation, aligning our souls with Jesus and His Word, the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need to do His will and land the plane.

We will experience disorientation in these dark times, but we have everything we need in Christ and all the necessary tools to pull us through it.

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3 Responses

  1. I love how you connected this. Wings of Grace will love this blog post. I’ll forward it to them!

    • Thanks Stacie Whitlow this was GREAT! I will be incorporating this into the program at Wings of Grace Ministry somehow. Mrs Buckland please reach out to me as I would first like to get permission from you.

  2. Thank you Angela. We all need to examine ourself and make adjustments from time to time. Great article!

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Angela Buckland

Angela Buckland

Ren’s wife for 22 years. Mom of 4 amazing teens. Discipleship Director at Bethlehem Church. Writer. Runner. God chaser. I love Jesus. I love people. And I love helping people love Jesus more.

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