Air sickness bag
5 min read

Turbulent Experiences

As I made my approach into 14 at Pearland Regional Airport (Houston, Texas), the wind was calm, but the turbulence was beating me up pretty bad. The temperature was in the triple digits and the thermals were doing all they could to challenge my internal fortitude. My inner ear was telling me to get the plane on the ground and my stomach was seconding the motion. My palms were sweating, I had an uncontrollable urge to wipe my face, and I wasn’t in a talkative mood. I was displaying all of the classic signs of motion sickness.

Air sickness bag

Flying is worth it.

Like other pilots with this condition, I pushed through the turbulence, focused on the landing, and had a nice touchdown just past the numbers. As soon as I cleared the runway, I opened the small storm window on the Warrior but the air outside was just as hot and thick as that in the plane. Relief would have to wait until I made my way into the FBO.

My experience that day at Pearland wasn’t all that unusual. The southeast Texas sun can be brutal in the summer. Temperatures regularly exceed one hundred degrees, the humidity makes the air thick as soup, and the thermals can make for a long day in a general aviation airplane. During the summer months I prefer to fly in the evening hours. The setting sun provides some relief from the heat and the thermals are much less violent.

As you may have noticed, I have a propensity for motion sickness. I have tried all sorts of remedies, everything from eating special foods before flying to acupressure wrist bands. Some things work better than others, but so far I have found no real solution. After my very first flight lesson, I bought a stack of motion sickness bags from the local pilot shop and, to be honest, have put several of them to use. After my first “incident” with my CFI, he couldn’t get out of the plane fast enough. I can’t say that I blame him. When we met in the FBO after the lesson, he just shook his head and asked if I was sure I wanted to do this to myself.

I have had several friends and family members ask me the same thing. Folks think I am crazy to put myself through such misery just to fly an airplane. The truth of the matter is that I would go through much worse to fly an airplane. Flying has become a passion of mine and it isn’t something I will give up easily.

My first flight with a passenger after passing my checkride was in late July. I had the bright idea of bringing my wife to 11R (Brenham, Texas) for a nice lunch at a neat little 1950s-themed diner on the field. We had departed Pearland early enough that the thermals hadn’t kicked into high gear, so the trip to Brenham was very pleasant.

Things heat up quickly this time of year and by the time we finished lunch, and headed back to home base, there was a significant amount of vertical air movement. To find relief, I climbed to 7,500 feet, just above the clouds. The higher altitude gave us not only smoother air but much lower temps. The trip was smooth for the majority of the 45 minute flight. As we got closer to the field, I decided to drop altitude to avoid the Houston Hobby Class Bravo airspace. That’s when the fun started. Let’s just say that it didn’t take long for me to regret taking on the $100 hamburger.

I had no problem safely flying the plane and my wife thought it was a good opportunity to snap a very candid picture of her macho pilot. I wasn’t feeling very macho at the moment and was happy when I finally touched solid ground.

I can’t help but believe there are other pilots who put up with such misery just to fly an airplane. I suspect that a good number of pilots have persevered through some sort of adversity to achieve their gift of flight. Sure, there may be some out there who had to set the dream aside because of a medical condition, and I can’t really blame them. I do have to wonder though, why do we do it? Why spend so much effort, time, and money learning how to do something that makes us broke, tired, and miserable?

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to answer these questions. Believe me, I have tried. That being said, I think there is something unique about aviators that drive us to be in the air. We will do whatever it takes to break the bonds of gravity. Not enough cash in the flying fund? We rent the 152 instead of the 172. Too hot? We pick up an extra bottle of water. Too bumpy? No problem, we bring extra sick sacks (much to the chagrin of our flying buddies).

During my checkride, I explained my “condition” to the DPE and he hardly flinched. He said we would go straight and level after each maneuver so that I could recover and be at my best for the next task. I got the impression from the DPE that I wasn’t the first checkride candidate to deal with motion sickness. Having this impression somehow made me feel better about my plight. The checkride turned out better than expected. My motion sickness was kept at a manageable level and best of all I exhibited the skills required to become a private pilot!

Motion sickness is just something I have to deal with. Though I do factor it in when making my go/no-go decision, I refuse to let it keep me out of the skies. It doesn’t take much of a thermal to have me prepping the little white bag, so my flights are not always a pleasant experience. At least that’s what my stomach is telling me. My spirit, and flying soul, well they tell me something completely different.

Michael McDowell
Latest posts by Michael McDowell (see all)
26 replies
    • Don R
      Don R says:

      I too am afraid of heights, can hardly climb a ladder.
      Flying is different.
      One experience flying into Put-In-Bay with my son was a hoot.. the approach is a few hundred feet over the Perry Peace Monument. Of course I had no problem with the approach and a pretty good landing on a “dog-leg” strip. We then went to the monument and took the elevator to the top.. I could NOT look over the side; I was terrified. My son could not stop laughing..”Dad, you were just 500 feet over this thing with no problem”.. Still afraid of heights.

  1. Tod Walter
    Tod Walter says:

    Next to myself, you are the most passionate pilot I know. Most people would have thrown in the towel after the first “episode”. Congrats to you on achieving your PPL.

    Your humble CFI

  2. Terry
    Terry says:

    I grew up with a bottle of air sickness medicine and die in the back seat of anything but as long as I can touch the yoke I’m golden!

  3. Peter I.
    Peter I. says:

    I hear ya. I get nauseous almost immediately when flying under the hood but I really want to get my instrument rating. I live in Colorado, where we get very limited IMC so I will need a lot of time under the hood to make it happen. Oddly, I do fine when at the controls in VFR turbulence and actual IMC.

    • Daniel Clark
      Daniel Clark says:

      Had the same problem, though I found that actual IMC is just as bad as the hood. Has to do with the differing visual cues the body is getting from outside and insid the cockpit. Just have to remember to keep a good supply of bags (I use ziplock) in the seat pockets.

      During my Instrument check ride last month I launched my McDonalds chicken and fries out the small pilot window of my Beautiful Bonanza. Didn’t have a sick bag on board (dumbass) and the unannounced unusual attitudes did me in. Managed to recover from both without issue but the straight and level back to the last approach saw the second coming, of my lunch. I managed to compose myself and completed the last approach and landing.

      Once on the ground the DE had me taxi over to the washrack to spray off the plane. No word on pass or fail. We got out of the plane and he pointed out the hose and a private rest room. “I’m going to start on the paperwoork” he said. “So I take it that means I’m good?” I asked. “Yeh”, he replied, “I thought that was a great recovery!”

      I’ve gotten sick on multiple occasions in small planes. But like so many others here, I just love flying too much to let a little gut discomfort stop me. It really is the greatest expression of freedom. “Take that, Motion sickness!”

  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I wanted to fly since I was about 3. At 18 I started lessons and got sick on my first 5 flights till I got acclimated. Fast forward 8 years and I’m giving flight instruction for a commercial rating – Eights-on-pylons in a Mooney on a hot day. Ugh. Years later (two weeks before my fiftieth birthday) I’m in the CitationJet sim getting my ATP and CJ type rating, taxiing out for my first departure: “This thing is gonna make me puke”. I drank lots of water and survived it. Aviation is one bunch of experiences after another.

  5. Mark C.
    Mark C. says:

    I too, got sick on my first 5 flights, which was at least partly, literally worrying myself sick because I knew the school I was at required spin training, which I did on my tenth flight, w/o getting sick. I thought for sure I was past it, but on a recent flight I was doing steep turns, got the yips and pulled back on the yoke and made myself sick. I did manage to fly level and recover and do some more turns and ground reference maneuvers, and thought, OK, I got past it. Then last week, my instructor and I were out doing test prep and I was doing well, a bunch of steep turns, a bunch of stalls, then suddenly, pulled up after a power on stall recovery and bang, I was sick. I guess I’ll also confess to the DPE later this week and hope he’ll save the possible nausea inducing maneuvers for later in the test.

  6. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Like others, I suffered carsickness as a child, and still don’t like a backseat ride. Also as a kid, I barfed on every flight (sometimes Dad’s flying pals were not very thoughtful on hot West Texas days about steep turns etc.). Traveling on business, I used to get sick on any bumpy airline ride and filled a few sacks. It surprised me to find during primary training that as long as I had my hand on the yoke, I didn’t get sick flying. My son and I used to go out and do stall after stall for the heck of it. Why having the yoke in hand prevents motion sickness. I don’t know, but I’m glad it happens. BTW, becoming a pilot and understanding airplanes better cured my airline problem.

  7. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    Yup, me, too! An inner ear problem means I get car sick, can’t ride on a merry-go-round, even being upside down in the “Gravity Boots” machine gives me vertigo, and hot, bumpy TX days really get me close. So far I have used the sack twice as PIC, and unusual attitude training has to be done on an empty stomach. But when I did accelerated stalls in a T6 (“Falling Leaf” maneuver), it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. I do plan to get my IFR ticket, just to be a safer pilot. But let it stop me from flying? Never.

  8. Gregg Beaty
    Gregg Beaty says:

    I can claim the same experiences as many above. Car sick backing out of the driveway as a kid. currently avoid back seats in the car like the plague. Routine flying and maneuvers never made me more than a bit queasy early in training though. Ifr under the hood for an IPC in post storm turbulence took me out for a full day though. I never barfed in the actual plane thankfully. Spin Training for my CFI brought me close also but not being PIC, I did use some meclazine before that outing. Was using an Extra 300 which reliable goes to or just past vertical in about 1 second on spin entry. Great fun til the warm clamy sensations start.

    Seeing a little bit is handy for that ifr ride (just kidding) but will worsen the disconnect between the visual, middle ear, and seat of the pants cues. This will make the airsickness issues worse. That is why the pilot mentioned he was fine in imc but the hood gave him fits. If you use reading glasses or prescription lenses for near vision, make sure your hood blocks ALL outside reference if possible.

    Ginger root helps my wife greatly. She is usually asleep by pattern altitude anyway. I have used several of the otc meds for motion sickness on boats and can attest that small doses of Bonine (meclazine) do not sedate me but at the recommended maximum dosage, it does make me drowsy. Of course, all of the antinausea drugs are prohibited by the FAA. I would recommend the use of a med for a new student during initial training to help them until they acclimate to the sensations though. They are not acting as PIC so no issue with the FAA.

  9. Bob
    Bob says:

    I’m absolutely certain that the is a psychological component to motion sickness, as well as the actual physical component. Be that as it may, has anyone had any positive results from Marezine? I have used it and while it did induce as trace of drowsiness , it did seem to lessen my motion sickness symptoms somewhat.

  10. Jack Voss
    Jack Voss says:

    I have a question. I’ve never experienced motion sickness. I also have never had a great sense of balance like athletes do. My question is this – is there a connection between a very good sense of balance and getting motion sickness?

    It seems to me that my clumsiness stems from not getting an early signal that I’m starting to get off balance. A high threshold for sensing initial movement. Do folks who have very good balance have – as a part of that – more sensitive inner ear canals that alert them very early, as motion just begins, thus “flooding” them with sensation in a bumpy plane ride?

    Does this make sense to anyone? Is there a medically qualified-type here who can shed light on it?

  11. Gregg Beaty
    Gregg Beaty says:

    Actually Athletes are More succeptable to motion sickness. ??? The thought is that the vestibular apparatus is more sensitive to subtle change and therefore more sensitive to the sensory conflict that leads to motion sickness. In my younger days I skied competitively, earned a black belt in Tai Kwon Do, Cycled long distances but was sensitive to motion in cars and the back seat of cars.

    I am an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. If there is an Otolaryangologist on board, your input would be appreciated.

    GB, CFI

  12. Ed Dolejsi
    Ed Dolejsi says:

    Yeah…I remember those days. It gets better with time though. At the age of 65,I recently started flying again after some 30 years being absent from the skies, and frankly I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I am no longer getting the dreaded “ oh my, I’m going to …” feeling. I must confess,there is a certain Cherokee 140 out there with my DNA in it, and a poor AME who had to clean it. I’m sure that he will likely never forget me.

  13. Jason
    Jason says:

    I too suffer from motion sickness. I am a student pilot with only a few hours under my belt and have found slight relief from ginger root pills. I’m afraid it won’t be enough when the weather warms up. Is there anything else FAA approved that can be used?

    • Mark C.
      Mark C. says:

      Jason, there are no “drugs” approved, but as stated above, a student receiving dual isn’t PIC and so could use drugs. Just be careful if you’re getting close to your solo, you don’t want to have to put it off because you took a pill that day. I chose not to use drugs before flight but as soon as I was done flying for the day I’d take a Dimenhydrinate tablet to help with recovery. During flight, I used the acupressure wristbands, and chewed ginger gum, and that seemed to help until I got acclimated to the feelings of flight. As I said, I recently have had some problems again but I think that’s due to feeling stress about my checkride. I think I’ll have a Vernors ginger soda for breakfast and chew ginger gum the day of my checkride.

    ANGEL OLEA says:

    Hi: Never, I am a son of a pilot. My parents took me to Zihuatanejo when I was 3 months old. My father let me took controls at 10 years old in my father Cessna 172) Began flying at 15 years old (my father was the Cessna pilot center in Mexico City manager/instructor in 1968) I cleaned, washed, towed school planes, I just simply loved the first time I was aware of planes and flying, the smell of interiors, the feeling of paint or fabric in a plane, admiration of this magnificent man made flying machines. After 43 years of flying from a Cessna 150 (I own one now with a 150 hp) up to a Falcon 900 Easy, and
    13,000 hours, I still enjoy and love flying. Took many kids and people for their first ride, my daughter and son will learn to fly this year.
    I am just grateful for the life I have lived, happy with what I have done with it.
    Greetings from Mexico.

  15. Mike
    Mike says:

    There’s a trick to handling those nasty thermals. Get a glider rating and fly in them, not through them!

    • 4ZULU
      4ZULU says:

      With 1500 hours in gliders I still got queazy after 30 to 45 min. of thermaling unless I took a Bonine. With a Bonine I was OK unless I got into a lot of 60 degree bank circling in thermals. Which goes to show
      that some people never get over motion sickness no matter how much they are subjected to it.

  16. Jeffrey fox do
    Jeffrey fox do says:

    Almost everyone is suseptible to motion sickness given a stong enough stimulus.Severe motion sickness can severely degrade piloting skills.I think many IFR accidents that seem inexplicable may be due to motion sickness

    • Jack Voss
      Jack Voss says:

      Jeff suggest that “I think many IFR accidents that seem inexplicable may be due to motion sickness”

      That may be a good issue to be addressed here?

    • Jack Voss
      Jack Voss says:

      Jeff suggest that, “I think many IFR accidents that seem inexplicable may be due to motion sickness”

      That may be a good issue to be addressed here, as a separate question?

  17. Terry
    Terry says:

    Looks like I hit a nerve. Lot of stories of astronauts with the same problem. Could you imagine not having the help of gravity to contain it? Imagine the chain reaction. As a US Navy Corpsman, I did learn some tricks. You do not want to get it that situation with a full or empty stomach. Bananas taste the same in both directions and don’t smell too bad for everyone else. Dry laundry soap soaks it up and kills the fragrance. Last weekend just when I thought I had it licked I was out with a buddy doing those crop duster turns, no where near the ground mind you, and all of a sudden my stomach was hanging onto the tail and my shirt was damp. We were going to lunch but he decided to call it early. I didn’t think I looked that bad but didn’t argue. Tigan was always my drug of choice pre FAA. On a military chartered 747 from San Francisco to Anchorage to Narita after we peeled the flight attendant off the ceiling, caught the lunch cart and in our seat belts got both of them and the others secured the pilot claimed we were forced to fly over the edge of a Cyclone. I was near the tail with a window seat and there were close to 450 souls on board. I could see the wings bent way up and no one could lift their arms then the wings bent down and God bless the seat belts. When we landed, finally, I put my jacket on with my rating and rank on the sleeve. Mind you now this flight was packed with military and their dependents. Marines with a chest full of ribbons had more than one bag and the place stunk like a bar. The Bosun Mate behind me in a loud voice asks “Doc why didn’t you get sick?!” Over four hundred people staring and giving me dirty looks. Long story but it had to do with aviation. Sorry

  18. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Michael is one intrepid pilot to be willing to fly even with motion sickness issues. If I had that tendency I would never have flown planes because I am terrified of vomiting! I am probably one of those very rare people who has never had motion sickness, not even as a child. I would go deep sea fishing and loved every minute of it, never had problems in the back seat and probably drove my parents NUTS because I kept reading while riding in the back seat. My hat’s off to any pilot who can fly even with motion sickness issues! Fly safe

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