Overcoming airsickness to earn my wings

A couple hours into my ab initio simulation training, my instructor decided it would be a good idea to get into a real airplane and practice some basic attitudes and movements – fly straight and level, climb, descend, turn right, turn left. It was in late April, I think, reasonably sunny. By any account a nice day. We even planned to do a city tour to have a look at the skyline.

Airsick
Not a good feeling anytime, but especially in the cockpit.

Problem is – sunny days heat up the ground, and a heated up ground likes to eject some of that heat back into the air, causing lifts and sinks. In a 1500-pound bucket with wings (Diamond Katana), I felt every one of those lifts and sinks. A pretty serious jolt could pick you up or shove you down 15 feet. Looking at the altimeter it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but think of sitting in a chair in your average building, and then suddenly being accelerated toward the ceiling, and then back down again.

Back to the sunny day. We took off and I felt the wonder of flight, but my wonder was short lived. I am not a sightseer. I am a student pilot – an apprentice in the discipline of control of my eventual ship. My instructor rattled off a series of procedures. Climb at 60 knots – best angle of climb. Then climb at 65 knots – best rate of climb. As you pass through 900 feet, shut off the auxiliary fuel pump, raise the flaps, and adjust the propeller speed to 2400 RPMs. Turn right to stay clear of the approach path to main runway.

I was already feeling bewildered. We headed towards a local landmark denoted by a small suburban area. My instructor pointed it out but all the suburbs look the same from the sky. It was bumpy. Every bump took me by surprise, and it felt like inertia was keeping my stomach in one place while my body dropped 10 feet – when suddenly my stomach followed.

The radio crackled with the chatter of a busy urban airport. WestJets, Air Canadas, Americans, Uniteds, are busy giving readbacks and confirming instructions.

As we approached the landmark, the tower instructed us to change frequencies to the terminal control area frequency – one twenty something decimal something. I was glad my instructor was flying because I didn’t hear the frequency, and I had no idea how to work the radio. Later, prior to my solo flight, I would get a 10-minute walk-through on the radio but for a device whose functionality is remarkably simple its control panel seems remarkably complex.

Soon we reached the boundary of the practice area, and terminal controller told us radar service was terminated. My instructor called the practice area and informed everyone of our intentions. I practiced some basic attitudes and movements – fly straight and level, climb, descend, turn right, turn left. I was doing an okay job but I was beginning to feel weak. My arms were tingling, like my nerves were on fire. The bumps in the air were exacting their toll. We finished the air work and headed for the city tour, but I decided my instructor didn’t need any airsick heroes.

“Let’s just skip the city tour and bring it in, I think the motion sickness has really gotten to me,” I said, trying to convey an air of brave understatement. My instructor understood right away and headed for the airport, and encouraged me to fixate on the horizon to steady my senses.

Spin from cockpit
Spins – the ultimate test of a strong stomach.

My instructor let me know that motion sickness isn’t a big deal, and that pretty much everyone gets over it. In the meantime, for future flights, I sought out remedies. I bought Gravol ginger chews. I chewed gum. I got Chinese ginger candies. I bought motion sickness pressure point bracelets. Since an hour of flight time with the instructor is some $180, if they made me feel better for 10 minutes in the air they would pay for themselves.

After the debriefing that day, I sat still on the couch in the school lounge for 40 minutes. Didn’t read, didn’t talk, just sat for 40 minutes, just to give my balance organs a break. Even on the drive home, making turns in the car didn’t feel quite right.

I’m not really sure if any of those remedies worked but as it turned out, my instructor was partly right. I did build up a resistance, but the resistance fades with time. Even then I did manage to get through my spin training (high chance of stomach churn) without incident. In fact, the spin training was even kind of fun. Since then there have still been a couple bad days, but nothing like that first day!

3 Comments

  • Yep, this reads like my first few flights 40 odd years ago. At first, I couldn’t handle more than about 30 minutes at the controls before motion sickness set in. Over time, I got used to the bumps and everything else that happens in airplanes — even spins. I, like most people, “learned” not to get airsick.

    BTW, motion sickness happens to about 1/3 of the astronauts. NASA has probably spent millions of dollars studying the problem. It seems that the best solution is several days in space – the body eventually learns to deal with it.

    I still get seasick at times and I’ll never ride a roller coaster. I’m also not a likely candidate to take up acrobatics. However (knock on wood), I’ve not had a problem with being airsick in an airplane either at the controls or as a passenger since those early days.

    Keep at it! Like most, you’ll get over it.

  • Same, I’ve been flying many years and started commercial flights . I would get so nauseous doing lazy 8s and steep turns that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing . I found out lots of pilots have this problem. My remedy was the Sea Band and I do believe you just start to be able to handle it also.

  • I’m fine as long as I’m the pilot. But to this day — after fifteen years of flying — I still get airsick as a passenger, especially if I have to read. Ditto for cars too; I’m good if I’m the driver, but I can’t do more than 45 minutes or so as a passenger without getting nauseous.

    Honestly even as pilot I’ll be fine throughout the flight, but if it’s particularly bumpy or has a lot of dips (for instance, after a couple hours of touch-and-go practice) when I get out of the plane and walk back to the FBO I’ll feel a little green. Never lost it or anything, but the nausea is there.

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