The inner ear has two major parts concerned with orientation, the semicircular canals and the otolith organs. [Figure 1-1: Inner ear orientation] The semicircular canals detect angular acceleration of the body while the otolith organs detect linear acceleration and gravity. The semicircular canals consist of three tubes at right angles to each other, each located on one of the three axes: pitch, roll, or yaw. Each canal is filled with a fluid called endolymph fluid. In the center of the canal is the cupola, a gelatinous structure that rests upon sensory hairs located at the end of the vestibular nerves.
[Figure 1-2: Angular Acceleration] illustrates what happens during a flight turn. When the ear canal is moved in its plane, the relative motion of the fluid moves the cupola, which, in turn, stimulates the sensory hairs to provide the sensation of turning. This effect can be demonstrated by taking a glass filled with water and turning it slowly. The wall of the glass is moving, yet the water is not. If these sensory hairs were attached to the glass, they would be moving in relation to the water, which is still standing still.
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The ear was designed to detect turns of a rather short duration. After a short period of time (approximately 20 seconds), the fluid accelerates due to friction between the fluid and the canal wall. Eventually, the fluid will move at the same speed as the ear canal. Since both are moving at the same speed, the sensory hairs detect no relative movement and the sensation of turning ceases. This can also be illustrated with the glass of water. Initially, the glass moved and the water did not. Yet, continually turning the glass would result in the water accelerating and matching the speed of the wall of the glass.
The pilot is now in a turn without any sensation of turning. When the pilot stops turning, the ear canal stops moving but the fluid does not. The motion of the fluid moves the cupola and therefore, the sensory hairs in the opposite direction. This creates the sensation of turning in the opposite direction even though the turn has stopped.
The otolith organs detect linear acceleration and gravity in a similar way. Instead of being filled with a fluid, a gelatinous membrane containing chalk-like crystals covers the sensory hairs. When the pilot tilts his/her head, the weight of these crystals causes this membrane to shift due to gravity and the sensory hairs detect this shift. The brain orients this new position to what it perceives as vertical. Acceleration and deceleration also cause the membrane to shift in a similar manner. Forward acceleration gives the illusion of the head tilting backward. [Figure 1-3: Linear acceleration]