Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seascape, Ligurian Sea
After a lengthy talk today, I wondered aloud: “how can one feel so clear, so absolutely sharp in their faculties, while simultaneously feeling utterly confused and unsure of things?“ The things here are beside the point. Is there a term for this concept of hyper-acuity resulting in, or being produced by, an equally certain lack of certainty? More precisely, how is possible to be absolutely certain in the face of one’s acknowledged lack of certitude?
I’m not sure why, but the sensation reminded me of the forensics surrounding John Kennedy Jr.’s death in 1999. I was living in New York at the time, John Jr. was obviously a celebrity, and because of my media obsession, I still cherish the inaugural issue of George magazine dating from 1995. That’s not it. The crash itself wasn’t the catalyst. Confounding, plagued by conspiracy theories, overshadowed by the tragic Kennedy legacy, yes. But that wasn’t it.
In the analysis of the crash, a concept known as Spatial Disorientation was proposed as the most likely final, ultimate cause. It’s a somewhat contradictory concept that I couldn’t wrap my brain around when I first heard it explained.
There were contributing factors preceding the crash to be sure. Despite the forecast for calm and mostly clear skies, July 16 was actually one of the most polluted days of the year in the northeastern US. These pollutants produced a lack of transparency at certain altitudes. Expressed differently, the particulates created an opacity–or–opacification in his flying conditions. Opacity is not good, in many circumstances, as we shall see.
Combined with the timing of his flight–well into the evening hours, past 9:00 PM, where the layer of pollutants most adversely affected the visibility of the horizon line, landmarks or other visual cues–these particulates, together with JFK Jr.’s lack of instrument training resulted in the tragic event known in aeronautics as a graveyard spiral.
The concept itself is self-evident, but bear with me. Control of the aircraft is lost, usually in a steep, diving turn. Leading up to the spiral, however, the pilot is blissfully unaware of the condition, believing he or she is maintaining an even steady flight path. In some aircraft, the pilot could be upside down without being aware of it. That’s because a gradual change in any direction of movement may not be strong enough to activate the fluid in the vestibular system–hey, that’s the inner ear–so the pilot may not realize that the aircraft is accelerating, decelerating, or banking. A pilot can enter a banking turn and experience the sensation that the airplane is no longer turning. If the pilot attempts to level the wings, the action will produce a sensation that the airplane is turning and banking in the opposite direction. If the pilot believes it’s an illusion of a counter-turn, they will overcompensate and turn in the wrong direction even harder.
According to one study, 19 of 20 non-instrument-rated pilots went into graveyard spirals within 178 seconds of onset of conditions. 3 minutes of disorientation, during which one is entirely unaware of one’s disorientation: 95% mortality rate.
Enough aviation arcana. Why am I so desperately seeking an Otolaryngologist to help me through my understanding of John John’s fatal flight? Why do I need an ENT for the soul?
I Heart Huckabees
Do these even exist, like existential detectives in I Heart Huckabees?
After spending more than four hours in the ER on Monday, CT scanned, eventually cleared of a stroke, opacity is discovered. Opacification behind the left ear. Pollutants in my flight path. In this case, either a cause–or result of–my biennial, debilitating sinus “events.” I’ve grown used to them. Massive sinus pressure accompanied by temporarily diminished hearing out on my left ear. The feeling, not ironically, of being in a plane, going up and down, trying to find its proper altitude, giving me no release from the tubes in my ear trying to keep up and recalibrate, re-equilibrate, a term known as barotrauma. My own particular barotrauma has resulted in compressed nerves, pain, congestion and other–reportedly temporary–conditions upon which I choose not to dwell. If only to avoid my own spiral.
So clear skies and easy flying gives way to pollutants. Opacity. Barotrauma. Spatial Disorientation?
Is my own barotrauma causing this Spatial Disorientation? This enriching and empowering sense of certainty tempered by an equal measure of certitude in my own lack of certitude? If that’s elliptical, try flying upside down and feeling entirely certain that you’re doing just fine…
But, unlike John John or other pilots in similar conditions, I’m not unaware of my disorientation. I feel it distinctly. Or is this what happens to those 19 pilots? Are they convinced of their certainty? Moreover, are they convinced of their certainty, when in the face of conditions that render their (suddenly insufficient) training powerless, also convinces them of their lack of conviction? Their absolute assuredness that they’re doing things right even though they know that they desperately need those instruments and can’t be sure that what they’re doing is, in fact, right?
What about that 20th pilot? What did he do to avoid the graveyard spiral?
So I await an ENT referral in the hopes that something can be done to relieve the pressure. Put the pain in abeyance. Re-equilibrate my middle ear. De-barotraumatize me. Unclench the grip on my nerves. For the annoyance caused by my compressed nerves, I’m reassured by the prospect of a 95% recovery rate. It’s not lost on me that the 95/5 split among those recovering inversely (perversely) mirrors the recovery rate of pilots entering a graveyard spiral.
While I wait, I’ll keep looking for an ENT for the soul to help me understand how my middle ear, my sinuses, and my painful congestion, can initiate feelings so astonishingly similar to Spatial Disorientation right here on the ground. Feelings that may have helped me understand the obtuse description of what doomed that flight into Martha’s Vineyard.
I’ll continue to hope, too, that somehow, 48 years of flying, some of it by the seat of my pants, some of it in the dark, and some of it in conditions that were simply foolhardy, may just be the threshold of cockpit time distinguishing one of those pilots from the other 19.