Pilot of Brookings plane crash may have experienced spacial disorientation

Grants Pass, Ore. — Monday marks two weeks since a small plane crashed into the ocean near Brookings, presumably taking the lives of the pilot and two teenagers who were aboard.

The conditions that pilot John Belnap faced that evening are sparking speculation, as experienced pilots say flying on a moonless night can be disorienting.

“You can be upside down and not know it,” Brent Battles said, a pilot of over 50 years.

Spatial disorientation is what happens when a pilot loses their sense of surroundings. Similar to vertigo, Battles said it’s something he’s experienced firsthand flying.

“You have to simply tell yourself, forget what your head’s telling you, because it’s absolutely lying to you,” Battles said. “If you react to that, you’re dead.”

It’s not yet known what caused the plane to crash into the Pacific on July 4th, but experienced pilots are saying it may have been a factor in the crash that presumably took the lives of pilot John Belnap, his son Max, and his friend Ryan Merker. Weather forecasts say the sky was clear but moonless over Brookings that night.

“Unless you have a rather full moon, half moon or better, you’re not going to be able to make out terrain very easily,” Battles said.

Josephine County Airport Manager Larry Graves says with the conditions Belnap, a relatively new pilot faced that night, he would have had to rely strictly on the plane’s instruments. Graves said that’s a difficult task for many experienced pilots.

“It’s a skill that you have to learn over a long period of time, with lots of practice, and you have to stay current if you want to fly successfully all the time,” Graves said.

The plane is believed to have crashed about a half mile from the Brookings shore. The search efforts continued Monday morning, but soon were called after electrical problems with the sonar equipment.

A nose wheel and shirt have been recovered, and crews believe they have found the general area where the plane crashed. The search will continue Tuesday morning.

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