Air Sickness

I’ve learned a lot from flying. And not just about flying, either. Today was one of those didactic experiences, and I think my first aerobatics passenger will also be my last. From now I’m doing a solo show.

My good friend Steve is turning 40, and I offered to take him up to do a bit of aerobatics. I probably don’t have to say another word to let you know where this one is going, right?

After an aileron roll, two loops, and a barrel roll it became clear we should head back. Steve didn’t quite make it. But lots of people get air sick–no big deal. I made sure the plane had an air sick bag in it; unfortunately in preparing for the flight I didn’t count on the fact that the bag would break after it had been used.

Did I mention that Steve had chili for lunch? So I got to clean all that out of the cockpit. Which is fine, it’s like a rite of passage or something. I made my first passenger sick. But that’s not the end of it.

Tailwheel airplanes sometimes develop a shimmy or vibration in the tailwheel. If it’s out of balance or the tire is wearing unevenly, it can start to vibrate at certain speeds–I’ve seen this several times with other tailwheel aircraft. It’s not the best thing that could happen, but neither is it an emergency. It’s just another item requiring maintenance. Today after landing the tail started to vibrate, and I thought that’s what we had. The flight was over, we were going back to the tie down spot anyway, so I just taxied slowly and kept an eye on it.

So we return to Sunrise. By this time the smell is starting to get kind of bad, even with the window open. Then I get out, prepared to deal with the mess in back, and notice that the tailwheel is completely flat. I had no idea! You’d think a flat tire would cause some drag during taxiing, but the Decathlon rolled just as freely as ever.

But still, I look at the positive side: a flat tire could be dangerous, especially in a tailwheel plane, but my landing was on the money, and nobody got hurt.

I spent the next hour and a half running back and forth between the restroom and the plane, cleaning the mess out of the carpet, seat, stick, parachute, and belts. All the while Steve was (I kid you not) laying in the middle of the taxiway, flat on his back. A ground school class let out and the student pilots, coffee in hand, started to gather at a respectful distance as if someone had died.

061599-steve.jpgIt took close to two hours after we landed before I could even think of getting poor Steve to the car–he just couldn’t be moved (even as I write this, several hours later, he’s laying face down on the living room floor; I’m going to start calling him “Bernie”). He did, however, have enough of a sense of humor to ask what I thought of his “Kate Moss after a Thanksgiving dinner” impersonation.

What bothered me most today was when I asked the head honcho at Sunrise if there was anything else I should do to ground the plane besides notating the bad wheel in the “squawk sheet” (a book listing any problems with the aircraft). Between making Steve sick and grounding the Decathlon, I felt bad enough. Without going into the details, his tone made the impression on me that I was at fault for the flat tire, or at least for taxiing with it that way.

Perhaps I was. But I’m one of those crazy people who prefers to look at the fact that nobody got hurt (Steve’s pride not included), whereas he saw the flat as yet another maintenance issue that would suck money out of the budget. Half full vs. half empty. I don’t blame him for that. It’s what he’s responsible for, and any aircraft part, no matter how small, is by definition an expensive one. Virtually everything must be FAA approved. A cheap part is usually an illegal one.

And of course the pilots I’ve been flying alongside at Sunrise gave me some shit about the whole thing. I would have been disappointed if they hadn’t.

So what did I learn from today’s experience? Considering the several times people have become air sick in the Cherokee (in unaccelerated, smooth, level flight), I’ve learned that the average person cannot handle flying in a general aviation aircraft. The small cockpit, the noise, the vibration, the sensations. I’m sure a lot of it simply has to do with the fact that a) they’re nervous, and b) flying is not a typical experience for them. Personally, I love it. The lack of traffic, the great views, the high speeds, the skill required, and it’s just plain fun. From the first time I climbed into a cockpit and the wheels left the ground, I knew this was my gig.

You know, when I started flying aerobatics, I had visions of sharing this rail-less roller coaster experience with all my friends. Of dancing around the sky and having such a great time. The truth is, if I’m going to experience that kind of thing, it’s going to have to be with another pilot. The people who really love it and have built up the physical ability necessary to handle it are either pilots or would be pilots if they had the means.

This is not to say today was so bad that I want to stop sharing aviation with others. It wasn’t a bad day at all. Far from it–it was humorous and unique. But in my zeal to share, I think I’ve put the chili-laden reality of your average ground-based human on the back burner. And that’s not doing anybody any good.

P.S.: If you’re reading this, Steve: Wanna go again?!

Just kidding.


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