By lex, on January 11th, 2005
I don’t get it, myself. Motion sickness, that is. Neither from the sea, nor from the air.
Pilots generally don’t – If the gentle heave and swell of an 80,000 ton aircraft carrier puts you ’round the bend and over the bowl, you’re going to have a hard time flying a 20 ton fighter round the sky.
Which makes it all the more pleasant to see a fellow aviator get ill. Lose his cookies. Talk to Ralph.
Because at the end of the day? There’s nothing quite so funny as someone else’s misery.
It always tickles me to see distinguished visitors arrive aboard the carrier – civilians. In a crowd of 15 or so, there will always be at least one who has the little dramamine patch behind his ear. This on a ship that can shoulder aside the waves almost as an afterthought. There are buildings in major cities which move more than a Nimitz-class carrier, at sea. C’est amusant – n’est ce pas?
But no one starts out so secure in the soundness of their stomach – I paid good money as an ensign for three rides in a Cessna 152, only to ensure that I wouldn’t go down to Pensacola, discover something embarrassing about myself, and fail out of flight school. I learned next to nothing about how to fly – but I did learn that I wasn’t prone to motion sickness.
Not everyone found out so easily: I had several friends who drove down to the cradle of Naval Aviation only to find out the hard way that they weren’t “aerodynamically adaptable.” If, after successfully competing for a coveted billet as a student naval aviator, you find out (to your shame and dismay) that you get airsick, there are two options available: Drop on Request (DOR), or go to “Spin and Puke” school.
That’s not its real name, of course. But it describes the subject matter pretty well. “Students” are seated in a chair, in a dark room, with a single point of light shining down on them from the middle distance. The chair is spun at high speed, and then quickly stopped. The student is then asked to stand up, look into the light, and describe his sensations. Most of which, apparently, being with, “Ralph.”
It’s conditioning – the theory went that anyone, given the time and the will, could overcome the nausea. Spin and Puke school provided the time. It was up to the student to bring the will. But it’s hard for some folks – one of my classmates got so sick, so often that eventually it became a conditioned response: Just walking out to the flight line, and smelling the JP-5 jet fuel, would provoke the reaction. He’d fall to his knees and spill his guts before he even got to the airplane. Which is where he really got in trouble.
Didn’t make it of course. Not his fault, just the way things were.
I had a guy as a student back in the ’80s. Great guy, an All-American lacrosse player from the Naval Academy who had served for two years as a black shoe aboard a destroyer prior to deciding that aviation had so much more to offer (duh!). Came from a big family in New York.
He got pretty sick, in the jet.
We were flying a basic instrument flight one night – he was under “the bag,” to keep from getting any visual cues from the night horizon – when, according to the training syllabus, I put him through some “unusual attitudes.”
Now, unusual attitudes aren’t the posings of UCLA undergrads – it means putting the airplane, under simulated instrument conditions (i.e., bad weather) into a position that you’d ordinarily try to avoid, and then recovering it to normal flight. The usual drill would be for the instructor pilot in the front seat to say, “Close your eyes,” and then fly the jet maybe 30 degrees nose high, and 120 degrees angle of bank, while pulling the throttles to idle. Once established, the IP would say, “Open your eyes. You have the jet.”
And then the student would check his gauges, assess the situation, and (hopefully) execute the proper recovery procedures. Which in this case would be to throttle up, gently fly the nose back to the horizon, and then when that was accomplished (with sufficient airspeed) roll the jet back up right again. All on the instruments.
Now, as a student, when the IP would say to me, “Close your eyes,’ I would. And then of course, because I was curious what kind of attitude he was going to fly us into, I’d open them again, and watch avidly. Which made the recovery so very much more easy to accomplish. After a suitable delay.
Because I’m all about knowing.
But my student on this particular night apparently didn’t “peek.” Because he delayed a bit longer than normal each time, recovering the jet. Not so long that I had to take over again, but long enough that I started to think about it a couple of times. But eventually he met standards, and we headed back to the field for some precision approaches under radar control.
The students do dozens of these in the simulator before they will ever do one in the jet. So they get pretty familiar with the procedures. My man did a fine job getting us checked in with approach, and set up on the final approach course. He got to glideslope perfectly, and when the controller called, “up and on glideslope,” he made the proper power correction, gently bunted the nose, and set us up for a perfect approach. On course, 500 feet per minute rate of descent.
Passing 2000 feet, as per the standard operating procedures, he turned the intercom on “hot mike.” Now I would hear everything he said, approach checklists, landing checklists. Breathing.
Passing about 600 feet above ground level, I heard a strange choking sound, and then the unique, unmistakable sound of my student taking the oxygen mask off, while the flow was still on – a strange, rushing sound as the O2 went past his face. The aircraft started to drift left, and then sag off glideslope at 500 feet AGL, as the next sound to fill my headset was the that of my student retching.
All those “under the bag” unusual attitudes had finally caught up to him, some 20 minutes later, at 600 feet AGL. And when they did, he proceeded to load shed all his aviation responsibilities in favor of becoming very, very ill. On the intercom. Right there in front of God and everybody.
He let go of the stick and throttles, since, at that moment? It was all the same to him whether we lived or died. Either way.
You want to live, instructor pilot-boy? YOU fly the airplane. So I did.
But I started off talking about sea sickness, and that’s where I want to end: Aboard the USS Constellation in 1989 off Karachi, Pakistan – a place where we had stopped to sample some of the least pleasant liberty I have ever known – air wing pilots were required to serve as the officers-in-charge of the picket boat watch. In those more innocent days, it was thought perfectly suitable to have a small boat with four or five Sailors, one of them maybe armed with a shotgun, and commanded by one officer, drive around the aircraft carrier all night, in order to prevent the more curious natives from coming alongside and either getting fouled in the anchor chain or in some other way making a nuisance of themselves.
On one of the nights I went ashore, in one of the local dhows, a young F-14 pilot was the boat officer on the picket boat. The expertly handled dhow dealt with the sea admirably, but as a rough cross sea was up, the stem and stern lights of the picket boat seemed to play the dance of the hyperkinetic see-saw. On speed. Our hero was himself observed by the assembled liberty party manfully laying across the stern sheets, covered in a blanket, and drooling over the side, utterly spent, entirely exhausted. He was nearly as miserable as a man is allowed to be without actually dying.
Which we of course, considered great sport. And never forgave him for.
A fighter pilot, forsooth!