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'Spatial Disorientation' a Factor in 2016 Brookings Plane Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board is releasing new details in the 2016 plane crash that killed a local father and two high school students.

Posted: Apr 30, 2018 6:07 PM
Updated: Apr 30, 2018 6:18 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. -- The National Transportation Safety Board is releasing new details in the 2016 plane crash that killed a local father and two high school students. 

John Belnap, his 17-year-old son Max, and 17-year old Ryan Merker took off from a Brookings airport on July 4, 2016. The NTSB says they flew on a moonless night, and it was extremely dark. This made it hard to align the plane with the horizon. 

The NTSB says John became spatially disoriented. This means the pilot may feel like they're flying straight, when in reality they may be turning or flying towards the ground. 

Radar data shows the plane turned left towards the ocean slowly after take off. The plane climbed to only 700 feet above ground level. 

"When you can't see anything it's like being blindfolded and then someone puts you in a chair and starts to spin you around, and tilt you backwards and forwards. Pretty soon you cannot tell what direction you're facing," says Director of Josephine County Airports, Larry Graves. 

In situations like this pilots must rely on the instruments inside the plane, and go against what their body is telling them. 

The NTSB says John was a non-instrument-rated pilot. It also says John's lack of recent night flight experience made it even more difficult for him to fly while disoriented. 

"So often is takes a pilot by surprise and they're not prepared to take over by instruments," says Steve Oldroyd, a pilot. 

This crash is not unique to John Belnap or the local aviation community, it has been happening for decades. John F Kennedy Jr. died in 1999 when he became spatially disoriented while flying off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. 

Now pilots say there needs to be more awareness that this can happen, day or night. They say regulation would be hard because there are many night flights that don't have problems.

"It's just something that we as a community need to be aware of and try to pass on," says Oldroyd. 

Some suggest more frequent training than the mandated ones every two years. 

The NTSB says the planes wreckage was never recovered, so they can't determine whether a mechanical problem played a role in the crash. 

For the full NTSB report, click here. 

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