The mission in question saw the Coast Guard MH-60T crew find a lone survivor in a life raft among the debris field in 10-foot seas and 30-knot winds. The severely hypothermic survivor was hoisted onboard and successfully stabilized. During the rescue, the sun set and a squall with sleet came in, reducing visibility to a quarter mile and raising the seas to 15-foot waves.
Rather than a typical search altitude of 300 feet, McCabe directed the other pilot to fly a low 80-foot air taxi to continue searching the debris field for the remaining crew members. With their focus mostly outside the aircraft, searching the rough water with spotlights in flying sleet, both pilots became disoriented.
The aircraft started to bank 40 degrees, simultaneously pitching more than 14 degrees nose up and rapidly slowing while descending.
Recognizing the danger signs of pilot disorientation
“The visual inputs we were getting were inconsistent,” McCabe says. “The sleet gave that Star Wars warp-speed illusion in the searchlight beam, making us feel we were flying at 50 kt. The waves gave us the sensation we were drifting right. Neither was right. I soon realized we had ‘the leans.’”
Within 10 seconds of becoming disoriented, McCabe recognized it. He announced the aircraft’s state and immediately coached the flying pilot through a successful instrument transition to stable flight. McCabe’s situational awareness, decisiveness, and assertiveness were instrumental in leading the crew to avoid a near-catastrophic situation.
“Admitting disorientation, then [making] the transition from it to correction is very, very difficult,” he recalls. “It’s extremely difficult to convince yourself to trust your instruments and make the correct inputs. That experience really brought home that we as a community need to fess up and do everything we can to learn from our mistakes.”
Upon his return, McCabe provided a detailed description of the event to the air station’s safety department. With the support of the USCG’s Aviation Logistics Center, information from the flight data monitoring system was used to create an animation of the flight for training. This effort resulted in USCG-wide policy recommendations, including standardizing training on night-vision goggle illusions, developing a manual addressing aeromedical factors of flight, and adding a discussion of spatial disorientation to every annual checkride.
The importance or training for such situations cannot be underestimated. The US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) has developed a new Recommended Practices document focusing on ‘Spatial Disorientation Induced by a Degraded Visual Environment’ and offering training and decision-making solutions.