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The Airsick Pilot

I spent some time as a bush pilot in Western Alaska.  I flew small 6-passenger airplanes from village to village.  Sometimes I flew all passengers, sometimes all-cargo, and sometimes a mixture of both.  Many great flying stories come from this time period – though most involved less embarrassment than this one.  One morning my first flight was going to be a mix of mail and cargo with one adult passenger and her lap child.  The passenger was a school teacher in Russian Mission, a village about a half-hour flight to the North.  Since she had a lap child she couldn’t sit in the very front seat, so we installed a single seat in the second row on the right side of the plane.  We loaded the rest of the plane with cargo, strapped it down with a net, and all climbed in.

The Return of Breakfast

It was a beautiful morning to fly. Clear blue skies, smooth air, and bright sun.  After takeoff we turned on course and leveled at our cruising altitude. My passengers looked to be doing well, and I jotted my taxi-out and takeoff times in the flight log. That’s about the time I first felt a twinge of nausea. It’s not entirely uncommon for a pilot to get a little air sick from time to time, especially after a lot of maneuvering in hot and bumpy weather, but I’ve never had much difficulty with that. Besides the flight was smooth, and we’d been wings-level most of the time. I pondered the egg scramble I made for breakfast. Were the eggs were bad? Did I cook it long enough? It had only been a few hours… Did food poisoning hit you this fast? As another wave of nausea struck I decided the source of my upset stomach was of academic interest at best.

Whatever the cause, I needed to figure out a solution. I’ve never gotten sick during a flight before and I really wasn’t quite sure what to do. I opened a fresh air vent hoping that would help. Then I started to look through the side panel pockets and glove box for an air sickness bag.  I suspected the passenger noticed me looking around, but I tried to play it cool.  Turns out there weren’t any air sickness bags with me up front.  Why would there be? The pilot isn’t supposed to need one. The only bags on board were in the seatback pockets in front of each passenger – so to get one it’d have to come from a passenger seat.  The nausea waxed and waned for a few minutes and I started to think it might just go away.

Non-Verbal Communication

The nausea didn’t go away. About 10 minutes prior to landing I was certain I would be sick.  I needed to find a bag. Without passengers, I’d just grab one from a seat pocket and get this over with.  But I do have a passenger; one holding her infant child. To her, the sole pilot of the flight puking during final approach might not go over so well.  I tried to figure out how to explain what was going on.   Small airplane cabins are noisy, there was no intercom, and since she’s seated in the row behind me the only way for me to communicate is to twist around in my seat and try to shout over the engine noise.  I worried such a maneuver might cause me to lose my breakfast immediately. At least that would take care of the explanation.

Instead of turning around, I very calmly reached back into the seatback pocket in front of her, took out her air sickness bag, and set it in my lap.  There is absolutely zero chance she didn’t notice that.  Unsure what thoughts might be running through her head, and not wanting to frighten her unnecessarily, I gave her a thumbs up.  You know, like any cool pilot would.  Well, I’m sure that settles everything.

A Different Sort of Multitasking

I have a new problem: we’re almost to the destination. I know I’m going to get sick, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Ten miles to go and I’m running out of time.  Of course, an airplane doesn’t careen out of control if the pilot diverts their attention to, say, filling an air sickness bag.  But, approach and landing to a remote gravel airstrip really isn’t the best time for all of that. I need this to happen before we get there.  Five miles to go I alternate between making radio calls and holding the plastic bag to my face. Willing oneself to get sick is not as easy as it may seem.  I run the before landing checks and then go back to the bag. My passenger has witnessed half a dozen false alarms by now. At least I assume she’s noticed – I haven’t made eye contact since this all began.

Three miles out it finally happens.  Again, zero chance this escaped my passengers attention.  No time to worry about it. I tie off the bag, recompose myself, turn final, and land.  It was a really good landing. As we rolled out on the runway I hear my passenger shout from the back seat, “Hey, are you okay!?”  I gave her a thumbs up. You know, the way cool pilots do.

I felt great the rest of the day.


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