The Graveyard Spiral

Recently we met a pilot who told us a harrowing story about what he called a graveyard spiral.

Whilst he had – thankfully – never experienced one he recounted witnessing one once at a airshow.

A graveyard spiral is well described by Wikipedia as being a dangerous spiral dive entered into accidentally by a pilot who is not trained or not proficient in instrument flight when flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

Graveyard spirals are most common in nighttime or poor weather conditions where no horizon exists to provide visual correction for misleading inner-ear cues.

Graveyard spirals are the result of several sensory illusions in aviation which may occur in actual or simulated IMC, when the pilot experiences spatial disorientation and loses awareness of the aircraft’s altitude.

In other words, the pilot loses the ability to judge the orientation of his aircraft due to the brain’s misperception of spatial cues (our emphasis).


As we spoke with the pilot our internal control orientated minds turned to whether a graveyard spiral can exist within an organisation.  

That is where an organisation loses its orientation due to the misperception of spatial clues.

Putting aside for one moment the humanisation of organisational actions – the answer is clearly yes.

There are too many to mention instances where an organisation has – usually in a time of great stress or crisis – clung to incorrect information or signals only to discover too late that those flags were street signs on the road to destruction.

So what then is the role of Internal Audit in the prevention of organisational graveyard spirals?

Firstly it is to acknowledge that such a phenomena is possible.  

Surely it is only the brave and the foolish CEO that think that their talent alone is sufficient in all circumstances.  

Interestingly our pilot friend told us that graveyard spirals happen most often to those that are over-confident of their abilities.

If Internal Audit is prepared to acknowledge that a graveyard spiral is possible – even when the CEO begs to differ – then they can design assurance over its occurrence.

Secondly is to develop testing for organisational graveyard spirals.

Again our pilot friend told us that since the introduction of aircraft flying simulators there has been a marked decrease in graveyard spirals.  Whilst we have not been able to find independent validation of this it does make sense – testing people out in a hypothetical situation allows you to hone their skills should the real thing ever visit them.

The challenge for Internal Audit is what is the organisational equivalent of flying simulator? 

Is it role playing?  Probably not – that too often falls into Shakespearean farce.

Is it surprise audits? Possibly.  The stress of unannounced audits may just be the spark that is needed to jolt awareness of deficient practices.

Our pilot friend said, however, that the most important (and third) thing to prevent graveyard spirals was for onlookers to speak up.  

Apparently it is not an unusual occurrence when a plane is in a graveyard spiral for passengers that are aware of the situation to not to speak up even though they are aware of the imminent danger.

Internal Audit’s role then in an organisation may not be to write that next report but instead to be a key promoter of an environment where when people see organisational challenges that they are prepared to speak up.

How one does that will be bespoke to each organisation but surely includes a visible audit team being open to being told more than just what they are auditing.


The final thing that the pilot told us is that when a pilot realises just in time that they are about to hit the ground in a graveyard spiral they land shivering with fear at the closeness of death.  

They then have a moment of intense embarrassment because they nearly finished it all.

But after that they are some of the best pilots to fly with.


Because they are now so super aware of their deficiencies that they seek out that feedback in every single occasion.

A sound strategy in any organisation!

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