Loss of control during climbout in clouds and the subsequent crash of a Cessna Citation 501 on May 29, 2021, was due to the pilot’s spatial disorientation, according to the recently published NTSB final report. The crash killed the instrument-rated commercial pilot, a rated pilot passenger, and five other passengers.
After departing northbound from Smyrna Airport (KMQY) in Tennessee at about 10:53 a.m. in IMC on a planned Part 91 IFR flight to Palm Beach, Florida, the departure controller instructed the pilot to turn right heading 130 degrees. However, the pilot did not acknowledge.
A few seconds later, the controller asked the pilot if he copied the heading instruction. The pilot responded about four seconds later and said, “130…Bravo Kilo.” When the aircraft was instructed to climb and maintain 15,000 feet, there were no further responses from the pilot.
According to flight track data, after takeoff the twinjet entered clouds and made a series of heading changes and several climbs and descents before it entered a steep, descending left turn. “This type of maneuvering was consistent with the onset of a type of spatial disorientation known as somatogravic illusion,” said the Safety Board. “Accelerations associated with increasing airspeed were likely perceived by the pilot as the airplane pitching up although it was in a continuous descent.”
Because the pilot was experiencing spatial disorientation, the final report continued, he likely did not effectively use his instrumentation. He likely also was experiencing a high workload, “which would have had a further adverse effect on his performance. As such, the airplane entered a high acceleration, unusual attitude, and descending left turn from which the pilot was not able to recover.”