I quickly refocused my attention from the valleys and ridges outside the Cessna 172 to the instrument panel. My eyes singled out the Garmin G5 electronic primary attitude display for flight references as coached by my instrument instructor. I continued the standard-rate turn, but my heartbeat quickened. What happened?
“Oh no, it looks like you’ve just encountered a cloud and visibility is down to one mile,” said safety pilot Paul Harrop. “Better stay on the instruments, buddy, and keep that turn coming. I’m looking outside of the airplane and there’s no traffic in sight.”
The sky had been clear for miles—from Maryland’s Potomac River on the south all the way to the Pennsylvania border—before the practice area instantly became a milky-white canvas.
“Wow, look at that, the cloud just dissipated,” Harrop said, as the AOPA Live This Week producer and video journalist dialed up VMC on the Icarus app menu. The verdant valley magically returned to view.
He and I had worked out beforehand who would be pilot in command during such conditions while we tested the Icarus, a clear plastic instrument training face shield that transforms from translucent to opaque to simulate instrument meteorological conditions at the touch of an app screen, or independently using the attached power module. Harrop and I are both instrument students, so we were eager to give the device a go.
I was level and still turning to a 210-degree heading when the blue sky magically reappeared. Then visibility again dropped—this time to less than one-half mile—and it forced me to seriously concentrate on gentle control input. The selection was one of the three IMC conditions that iOS and Android users may choose. The options are one-mile, one-half mile, and less than one-half mile. A preflight test eyeballing the Frederick Municipal Airport’s VOR antennas on the ground confirmed distance accuracy.
“ATC just told us to climb to 3,500 feet and turn due west to avoid a cell at our 12 o’clock,” Harrop said as he punched the iPhone to alter the polymer dispersed liquid crystal film clipped to the bill of my ballcap in front of my eyes. The shield was now completely impervious, and I couldn’t detect any hints of the world outside of the aircraft. It wraps around the side of your face so there’s no cheating by looking out a side window, or by peering over the bridge of view-limiting glasses.
Even though I was momentarily distracted, I maintained focus on the instruments. I added power, climbed at 500 feet per minute, gently banked, and kept the turn coming while Harrop toyed with different visibility settings.
Both of us took turns flying behind the Icarus, and we were impressed with its effectiveness and with the element of unpredictability that can be lacking when an instructor takes control of the aircraft before advising a student to don view-limiting goggles during instrument flying lessons.
Fixed-wing and Wisconsin National Guard helicopter pilot Nick Sinopoli developed the smart device to help train helicopter pilots to “survive sudden entry into bad weather or visual obscurations such as dust, snow and smoke.” He patented in 2016 the device he designed to help them avoid spatial disorientation and loss-of-control accidents, which account for 5 to 10 percent of all general aviation accidents. Of those accidents, 90 percent are fatal, the FAA said in an online safety course.
Between 2010 and 2019, 184 fatal aircraft accidents, including 20 helicopter accidents, were caused by pilots becoming disoriented after inadvertent entry into instrument conditions, AOPA previously reported.
The NTSB listed spatial disorientation and loss of control as factors in a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crash in 2020 that claimed the lives of former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others.
Sinopoli was recently buoyed after receiving word from a CFI who had been training with the app-based view-limiting device and survived an inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions. “It was in a light helicopter and quite hairy!” Sinopoli wrote in an email.
Although the Icarus face shield seems to be an effective training tool, the device is also a bit fragile—and pricey. The wafer-thin apparatus is shipped in a padded laptop case. Even though we treated it with respect, after just one Skyhawk flight a crease began to form in the face shield’s center-top area near the bill bracket.
Sinopoli said he was tracking the bending-stress issue caused by “multiple layers of material” that make up the polymer dispersed liquid crystal film. “While it is an issue that can come up with normal use, I didn’t want to let it keep pilots from getting good training even if it means that I have to replace some of the first visors. I’m happy to report that after experimenting with a few methods to stiffen the visor and unload the attachment point, we have a substantial improvement to fix the issue.”
At $1,000, the fixed-wing occlusion device ($1,500 for the helicopter version) might hold more appeal for a flight school, an instructor, or a flying club, rather than an individual instrument student.