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What Is A Graveyard Spiral, And How Do You Avoid It?


It doesn't sound good, and it isn't. A graveyard spiral is a spiraling dive that can happen when you become disoriented, and when you have little or no visual reference to the horizon.

Unfortunately, lots of graveyard spirals end with the airplane impacting the ground in a high rate-of-descent, banked turn. Two classic examples of graveyard spiral accidents are the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident, and the pilot selfie accident.

It seems like something that should never happen to you. But there are two reasons why it can:

The Physics Behind The Spiral

Graveyard spirals almost always happen at night, or in IMC, when you mistakenly think your wings are level. Instead they're banked left or right. We'll get into why the you think the plane is wings level in a bit, but for now, let's stick to the plane.

As your plane banks, if you don't increase back pressure on the yoke, it starts descending as well. This becomes a problem in a big hurry.

As your plane starts descending faster and faster, you realize what you 'think' is happening, which is a wings-level descent. But in reality, you're in a banked descent. You correct by pulling back on the yoke, but you don't level the wings.

Pulling back on the yoke, without bringing the wings level, tightens the spiral, and in most cases, actually increases the rate of decent. As the descent rate increases, the you pull back harder and harder, only tightening the spiral more, until the aircraft impacts the ground.

Donation coin funnels that you see at malls draw an almost perfect comparison to the graveyard spiral. The coin starts out with a slow spiral and descent. But as it gets closer to the bottom of the funnel, it picks up speed. And before you know it, it disappears through the bottom of the hole.

Next, The Physiological Reasons

The key ingredient to graveyard spirals is that you can't see the horizon.

A graveyard spiral accident typically starts with a very slow entry into a banked turn, left or right. Because the turn happens so slowly, the fluid in your ear canals creates little to no friction, and you don't 'feel' like you're turning; your body is telling you that you're still straight and level. If you don't trust your instruments, especially your attitude indicator, the problem gets out of hand in a hurry.

One of two things happen next: 1) You return the wings to level, but because the fluid in your ears was at rest in the turn, you now feel like you're banking to the right. This overwhelming sensation makes you believe your attitude indicator is incorrect, and you return to the left bank turn, spiraling until you hit the ground. 2) You're so convinced that you are wings level in the first place, you never pay attention to the attitude indicator, and you continue your left turn until you hit the ground.

Either way, you hit the ground, and that's not a good thing.

How To Prevent A Graveyard Spiral

Preventing a graveyard spiral is a matter of maintaining a good instrument scan, whether you're a private pilot on a night flight, or an instrument pilot in IMC. Spirals typically happen when you're distracted, and when you haven't scanned your instruments for a long period of time.

Aleksander Markin

If you do find yourself in the beginning stages of a spiral, trust your instruments. Level your wings, focus on your attitude indicator, altimeter and heading indicator, and slowly pull back to stop your descent. The feelings your vestibular system tell you can be overwhelming, but if you fly your instruments, you'll make it out in once piece.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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