I’ve had lunch on the airplane plenty of times, but I’ve never tossed it. As in throwing it back up. Wish I could say the same for my passengers. Blame it on turbulence, the bane of peaceful flying.
Other than a sudden loss of power or obvious loss of control, turbulence is one of the most anxiety-inducing events an airplane passenger can experience. Pilots are not immune to the fearful effects of turbulence either, especially when we’re reduced to the status of a paying passenger on an airliner.
At the heart of our fear of turbulence is the fact that it is invisible, an unseen but powerful force of nature. Weather reports and forecasts, pireps, and even visual clues such as cloud formations can prepare us for the possibility of encountering turbulent conditions, but we can’t see it coming so we’re never fully prepared mentally when turbulence hits. And when it does, we can’t know how strong and uncomfortable it may become or how long it will last. It’s like a doctor standing behind you saying he may or may not give you a shot, and if he does there may just be one or there could be many. And by the way, if you do get a shot, or shots, it may feel like nothing more than a pinprick or it may pack a small punch. Who wouldn’t be anxious?
Combined with its stealthy nature is the prospect, however unlikely, of turbulence rendering the airplane uncontrollable or, worse, inflicting some sort of structural damage that could easily be catastrophic. All airplanes bounce and buck in rough air, but because general aviation airplanes are small and light they appear to passengers to be extremely vulnerable to the sinister effects of turbulence.
There is one other fearful aspect of turbulence in a passenger’s mind, and that is the sense of helplessness that comes with not having any hands-on control to at least attempt to determine your own fate. Never mind that they probably don’t know how to fly. It’s just that it’s extremely uncomfortable to have to sit and do nothing but think about how unnerving it is when the airplane is pushed and shoved around the sky by something you can’t see or avoid.
My wife and two of my four children have tossed their lunches in airplanes I was flying. It’s not a record of which I am proud. On the other hand, I don’t think there is much that I could have done to avoid the situation. It’s not like I could see the bumps coming and fly around them. The only avoidance tactic available was to cancel the flights, and that wasn’t in the cards.
On one occasion we were returning from a visit with my brother on Cape Cod. A westerly wind cascading over the hilly landscape of New York’s southern tier made for a rough ride on the descent into Wellsville, New York’s Tarantine Field. I knew from the greenish tint to my son’s skin that he was feeling punkish, and I told him to hang on for just a few minutes more. “We’re almost there!” I said with obviously excessive enthusiasm.
He toughed it out, and as I pulled back on the yoke to flare for the landing, I let out a sigh of relief. “Made it,” I thought. The tires chirped as they met the runway, and simultaneously my son belched and threw up. Poor guy. I felt terrible for him. The only good thing was that my wife, whose stomach doesn’t take kindly to any sort of flying (she gets sick in a car if I’m driving on a winding road), survived the flight with her stomach intact.
That was not the case when she and I departed Frederick, Maryland, in our Cessna Skyhawk on a nine-hour flight to Southwest Florida. We were barely an hour into the marathon journey when she said she wasn’t feeling well. In this case, however, it wasn’t so much turbulence as the fact that she had been staring at the instruments. With no outside visual references to keep her sense of balance intact, the constant movement of the airplane had made her queasy.
I advised her to keep her head up and her eyes outside on the horizon. Too late. She got sick. I landed at the nearest airport to let her recover, and within a matter of minutes she declared herself fit to continue. For the remainder of the journey I had her handle the yoke. She kept the shiny side up by referencing the horizon, and kept reasonably on course by checking the Loran display. She survived the rest of the flight just fine, and I enjoyed several hours of pleasant sightseeing.
I thought that would be the last time anyone would get sick on my watch. I was wrong. Last winter we were headed to Eleuthera in the Bahamas, and as we approached the archipelago the decision was made to do a sightseeing lap around the main island before landing at North Eleuthera Airport for lunch. The wind off the Atlantic was especially brisk that day, and it swept up the sloping eastern shoreline and over the narrow island to make for a washboard-rough ride.
One of my four passengers had a history of getting seasick on boats, but he held on gamely until we were approaching the most scenic part of the trip, Harbour Island. I hadn’t made one complete circle of the settlement when he reached for the Sic Sac and added his name to my body count.
Mark R. Twombly claims to have an iron stomach and has never been sick on any kind of vehicle. E-mail the author at [email protected]