That Green Feeling

Ask pilots what the hardest part of learning aerobatic flying is, and most of them will tell you that it’s overcoming airsickness.

Though it feels like it’s in your stomach, airsickness is mostly in your head. Most flight physiologists agree that airsickness results from a psychological conflict between the extreme maneuvers of the airplane and the instinctive desire to be right side up. It comes down to a disagreement between the information the brain receives from two powerful physical sense organs—the eyes and the tiny balance organs in the inner ear. Basically, the eyes report one thing to the brain, and the inner ear reports another.

That Green Feeling

On Course

Ginger might be an effective remedy for the student pilot who suffers from airsickness early in his flight training. Available in the form of a pill from health food stores or in the form of ginger ale, ginger is nature’s airsickness tonic. Although drug stores sell over-the-counter Dramamine for airsickness, and physicians can prescribe drugs to calm the stomach flops, these should be left to the occasional traveler, not pilots. Dramamine can make you very drowsy and should never be taken before or during a flight

For example, in an aerobatic maneuver such as a loop, you are momentarily upside down, a radical change from the normal state of things for most of us and an unusual position for the brain to interpret. Yet the balance organs of the inner ear (which we will learn more about in Chapter 18, “Overcoming the Body’s Limitations”) sense g-forces that are similar to the normal pull of gravity. So the eyes say you’re upside down while your inner ear says you’re right side up (since g – forces are still pulling you into your seat). To further complicate things, a loop can put the body through a range of g-forces that might reach as high as 6 g’s during entry and recovery and could approach zero near the top. The brain is forced to sort out and interpret some unusual and, frankly, potentially frightening signals.

But the fact that airsickness has its roots in the brain doesn’t mean the physical symptoms aren’t real. Even though the feelings are largely rooted in psychological reactions, the brain creates powerful bodily responses, including sweating, over-salivating, headache, nausea, and fatigue. The result is often airsickness.

Airsickness can be a formidable enemy. I once saw a young student climb out of an airplane after a simple training flight with a face that wasn’t just pale, it was literally green—a waxy, translucent green. Unfortunately, that student and a few others I have known couldn’t conquer airsickness and had to abandon flying. But a sensitive flight instructor using modern training techniques can almost always help pilots conquer airsickness.

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