While it certainly is not my intent to add to the gallons of ink used to cover the regrettable John F. Kennedy Jr. air mishap, I admit the tragedy did prompt a conversation with a colleague of mine on the subject of spatial disorientation (which may, or may not, have been the cause of JFK Jr.’s fatal crash in a Piper Saratoga). And this topic, in turn, drew our recollection of a little known device designed to prevent spatial disorientation: the Malcolm Horizon.
This device was invented and tested more than 20 years ago. It was even installed in one aircraft type. But then it apparently was placed on a dusty shelf. Perhaps it’s time to wipe off the dust.
Inspired to resolve the dilemma of spatial disorientation, caused when a pilot (commonly, non-instrument rated) looses sight of the horizon and, thus, his/her sense of the aircraft’s attitude, Capt. Richard Malcolm, of the Canadian Air Force, decided to create a solution. No slouch, Malcolm holds a Ph.D. and was one of Canada’s first six astronauts - though he never was given the opportunity to enter space.
Malcolm created his invention while working at the Institute of Aviation Medicine (now incorporated in Canada’s Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine). The device is remarkably simple in concept, yet proved to be effective. Essentially, the Malcolm Horizon is a light bar projected across the cockpit panel by a gyro-stabilized illuminating system.
Picture being inside a giant, transparent artificial horizon looking out. The aircraft banks and the light bar slants across the panel, remaining parallel to the earth’s surface.
When Capt. Malcolm and his superior, Dr. Ken Money, tested the device in a de Havilland Otter in the late 1970s, it worked! And the light bar, about an inch thick, wasn’t found to be distracting.
The Malcolm Horizon works because it extends out to the pilot’s peripheral vision, like the earth’s horizon. Airmen use their foveal vision to view the artificial horizon on their cockpit panels, which is not conducive to preventing spatial disorientation.
Impressed, the U.S. Air Force decided to install the Malcolm Horizon in its fast, high-flying SR-71 Black Bird reconnaissance aircraft. Only instead of a 1-inch yellow light projected by a halogen bulb, as in the Otter, the SR-71 pilot saw a thin red line projected by a laser system. About the size of deck of cards, the laser was mounted just behind and to one side of the pilot’s head.
The Black Bird was an ideal candidate for the Malcolm Horizon. It often flew at night and well above the earth’s surface.
But that’s not to say the Malcolm Horizon wouldn’t be equally at home, and useful, in a single-engine Piper or Cessna. Dr. Money, now retired in Toronto, told me that the device need not be costly, nor large and heavy. But it would be "especially good in general aviation aircraft for pilots before they become proficient in instrument flying."
Spatial disorientation is far from a leading cause of aircraft accidents. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), only 30 out of some 1,800 small-aircraft mishaps were attributable to spatial disorientation in 1997. Still, it remains a problem.
I couldn’t find Richard Malcolm. Rumor is he, too, is retired, and residing in upstate New York.
The Malcolm Horizon also is apparently retired from use in aviation. I think it should be forced out of retirement for another evaluation.