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Flying Life: Airsickness got you down?Flying Life: Airsickness got you down?

Tips for easing that queasy feeling

One of my favorite moments as a flight instructor was when a client asked me to help him propose to his girlfriend. He had written the words, “Will you marry me?” in large white rocks on her mother’s front yard.

My job was to fly them both around Memphis on a “scenic” flight, and eventually work my way over to her mom’s house, where I was supposed to circle until she could read the words—and hopefully give him the answer he was waiting for. There was only one little problem. His girlfriend struggled with motion sickness. But, because I love a grand romantic gesture as much as the next person, I agreed to do it, provided she took preventive medicine and had an airsickness bag just in case.

Standing in the FBO before the flight, my client confirmed several times that she had taken her medicine. And so, off we went, my client and I trying our hardest to keep the goofy smiles off our faces. On about the third circle over mom’s house, his girlfriend was finally able to make out what the words said. Her joyful “Yes!” came through the intercom system loud and clear. They asked me to make a few more circles over the house for pictures. It may have been the tenth pass or so when the girlfriend asked me to stop circling and take them back to the airport. She looked concerned, but not for herself. It was actually her new fiancé who had just used the airsickness bag and was looking a little worse for the wear.

Why do I tell that story about the proposal? Because it’s funny and it puts airsickness in its place. Yes, my client got sick in the airplane, but his girlfriend agreed to marry him! Driving home from the airport, I bet the symptoms of his motion sickness played second fiddle to their happy plans for the future. Airsickness can be a real bummer if you are unlucky enough to experience it, and lots of us have at some point. (My tipping point is about an hour into most aerobatic flights). But the voice that says you are struggling with airsickness need not be the loudest. There are a couple of brand-new student pilots at our flight school getting airsick during their lessons, and I sincerely hope they don’t give up. I’ve known countless people who have gotten past it and gone on to achieve their flying goals. Here’s how they did it: One client struggled with airsickness, particularly in the traffic pattern. The combination of low-altitude turbulence with the almost constant bank angle was really making it hard for him to reach his solo goals, because lessons were constantly getting cut short when airsickness reared its ugly head. So, he moved his lesson time to early morning for a while, when the air was nice and smooth, and was able to solo shortly thereafter.

he combination of low-altitude turbulence with the almost constant bank angle was really making it hard for him to reach his solo goals.Another client was able to do most maneuvers just fine, but the steep turns always got her. So, we adjusted our lessons to do all other maneuvers first, then saved the steep turns for last, returning to the airport right after. I’m proud to say she is now flying for a regional airline.

My own dear husband struggled for years with motion sickness whenever we flew together. He would take Dramamine before every flight, then have to take a nap when we arrived at our destination because the medicine made him so drowsy. Finally, when I started getting him involved in the flying, asking him to hold the controls periodically or keep an eye on the heading for me, he started doing better, and he no longer requires medicine. Sometimes, focusing on a specific task (other than reading—that makes it worse) can keep the symptoms of airsickness at bay.

There are many other things you can also try if airsickness is troubling you. For one thing, staying cool is important. So, wear loose clothing, and keep the air vent pointed in your direction. Make sure you eat a little something before you fly. An empty stomach or an overly full one have both been known to contribute to airsickness. Some people have reported success with natural remedies such as ginger tea or acupressure bracelets that use a pressure point in your wrist to allay the sick feeling. Unfortunately, motion sickness medicine is not acceptable for pilots, as the side effects are often drowsiness or lack of mental clarity. Finally, realize that the symptoms usually progress in order, starting with a general feeling of unease, then cold sweats, excess salivation, and eventually nausea and vomiting. So, if you start to notice the first stages, fly straight and level for a moment if you’re able, to give your body a fighting chance.

There are so many things that can keep us out of the air. Maybe this doesn’t have to be one of them.

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