The script is far too familiar: Clouds of water vapor in the sky or clouds of dust on the ground kicked up by rotors obscure the view outside. Within seconds, one of two things will happen: The pilot will focus exclusively on instruments displaying attitude, airspeed, vertical speed, direction, turn coordination, and altitude (not necessarily in that order, but always in combination), or the pilot will fall victim to illusions and lose control of the aircraft with predictably fatal results.
When the NTSB unanimously concluded in February that the helicopter crash on January 26, 2020, that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight other people was caused by “the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions,” the board paired that determination with a few recommendations. Among these, the safety board called on the FAA to formalize a search for technology that could help pilots better prepare to avoid this all-too-familiar catastrophe.
Nick Sinopoli was ahead of the curve on that, having worked since 2014 to create Icarus, a view-limiting device that attaches to a helmet or visor, and features a face shield with variable opacity that is under another pilot’s control. The face shield is coated with polymer-dispersed liquid-crystal film, and a connected app allows an instructor or safety pilot to dial in visibility ranging from clear to zero. Unlike hoods or Foggles that are usually donned in flight, Icarus can be donned before flight, allowing time for a pilot to forget they are wearing it, and enabling a flight instructor to make the IMC experience a more realistic surprise, an element that traditional view-limiting devices cannot replicate.
Sinopoli, who earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue University in 2012, was inspired to create Icarus by many losses, including a friend, Rusty Allen, who introduced him to helicopters and was killed in a 2012 crash caused by spatial disorientation following unexpected loss of visual references. Sinopoli’s father loved the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan so much that he moved the family to Austin, Texas, in 1982, to be at the source of the music. Vaughan was killed in a 1990 helicopter crash in Wisconsin, with the same root cause that would later claim the life of Bryant, and many others.
“I’m ready for it to be out there,” Sinopoli said of his creation, patented in 2016 and
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