Are you a student pilot who suffers from motion sickness? Do you get nervous right before a flight lesson? This is fairly normal and is not a reason to give up on your dreams of becoming a pilot. I know because I’ve been there, and I overcame it. This article explains how.
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DISCLAIMER: This is not medical advice, and shouldn’t be treated as such. This is an aviator, speaking from experience with air sickness, trying to help his fellow aviators. Nothing more. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about air sickness.
My First Motion Sickness Incident
I flew for the first time (as a passenger) on an airline flight at the age of 17 and fell in love with being in the air. I loved it! I loved the aircraft, being above everyone…figuratively and literally, the airport environment, and the whole scope of aviation. After that one flight, I was hooked. I wanted to be a pilot.
Before long, I went up on a demonstration flight, at my local airport and flight school. It was a smooth ride and a great experience. This further cemented my desire to fly! I had even just started college, and knew the school I attended just happened to have a top-notch aviation program. Lucky me! My plans were set. I wanted to go to school to become a professional pilot!
So eventually I booked my first lesson, and got hooked up with an instructor. The first lesson was on a cloudy day so we just practiced taxiing the aircraft. No sweat there. I was all over that taxiway, but I was still pumped for my first REAL lesson!
So two days later was my first flight lesson. This time, we went up. It was early summer and my lesson started at 9 am. I did my training in a Cessna 152.
We took off from the field and headed south to the practice area to work on basic flight maneuvers. I was fine until about halfway through that flight. It was a hot, muggy Indiana summer morning, and I started to notice something I hadn’t noticed on my previous couple of flights. Bumps.
We were getting knocked around in that little 152, which started to seem smaller and smaller by the minute. Nausea was starting to creep in, and that little cockpit wasn’t cutting it for me. I had a pretty decent combo of nausea, anxiety, and claustrophobia going on, but I was trying to keep my cool to my instructor so I didn’t say much. I didn’t want him to think I couldn’t cut it as a pilot.
Turns out I was getting my first taste of some good ole’ convection, and my instructor (who was kind of a show-off) was putting me through the paces of what flying really felt like to the body. He demonstrated climbs, turns, slow flight, stalls (both kinds), and by the time he was done with all that, I was more than ready to head back to the airport, and get on the ground. I didn’t throw up, but I was quickly on my way to that point if I didn’t get on the ground soon.
Luckily, I made it through the flight without losing my breakfast. Of course I didn’t quit my flight training, but it was a heartbreaking thing to me (at that time) about all of what happened on that flight.
Feeling sick was obviously not comfortable, but there was a bigger thing at stake here…my dream of becoming a pilot was now in jeopardy. At least I thought it was.
After that lesson my morale was shot. After all, how could I become a professional pilot if I couldn’t handle flying in a little Cessna 152? I went home and sulked in my misery. My dream was fading away. Feeling as nauseous as I did inside that little, cramped Cessna 152 cockpit had me questioning whether or not I could or should keep going.
But I pressed on. I wasn’t about to give up. But how could I have gotten so nauseous on that flight but been fine on the previous flights? In hindsight, I think I narrowed it down to about 3 main things.
Don’t Fly On Empty Stomach
I’m not much of a breakfast eater. Some people get up and prepare large sit-down types of breakfast meals, then head off to work with a full meal under their belt…literally. That’s not me. I get up at the last possible minute, and usually drink a glass of orange juice as I’m rushing out the door to work. On a good day I have a granola bar or banana with it. These probably aren’t the healthiest of habits, and I’m not the proudest of them, but it’s the habits I’ve had for several years now.
On the morning of that first flight lesson, I probably had some OJ and not much else. It worked for me most other days, so why not that day, right? Wrong! Turns out, getting knocked around in that little Cessna 152 that morning was wreaking havoc on what my body and mind were used to seeing and feeling.
Flying introduces your body to sights and sensations that you just can’t possibly experience on the ground. When you are getting bombarded with new sensations and visuals, your body should be as ready as possible for it.
Only drinking a glass of orange juice before a morning flight is not a good idea. I came to learn later into my flight training that having food in your system is essential to preventing motion sickness.
I cannot stress enough. If you are new to flying, make sure you have a solid, nutritious meal in your system before you go flying.
That doesn’t mean to shovel in a bunch of food just before the flight. I’d wait about 45 minutes minimum between your last meal and flight time. This way your food can digest and you’re not sitting in the plane with a stomach full of undigested food.
And for Heaven’s sake, stay away from the heavier foods before flights. No spicy enchiladas or burritos. No greasy pizza. Stick to the plain Jane stuff.
There’s something about having that food in my system that prevents me from getting air sickness. At least, it puts the odds in my favor! I recommend you do the same.
Drink Plenty Of Water
I think this is a matter of common sense, but if you have a tendency to get queasy in the aircraft during turbulence or chop, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water on the days you fly.
I’m not talking about chugging a bunch of water right before your flight. That’s a sure way to have to pee in the cockpit. I’m talking about getting plenty of hydrating liquids in your system several hours before your flight.
Fly Later In The Day
The other tip I have for student pilots is to fly later in the day or evening if possible. I have found this to be the time of day that I am the least likely to be bothered by motion sickness.
It’s almost guaranteed to satisfy the above two suggestions. A requirement for the aviation program at my college, I had to have both a tailwheel and unusual attitude/upset recovery signoff.
One of the days I did tailwheel training it was early, and my instructor decided to go to our practice area and have fun with me. We did some loops, rolls, and all that good stuff. I was excited at first and had fun, but once again about halfway through I got that nauseous feeling again. I made it to the ground just in time before things got ugly. And this was after I had a couple hundred hours of flying under my belt!
On a later date I had to do spin training to satisfy the requirement for the CFI checkride. I was pretty nervous for this fight. Not because of any safety issues, but because I was afraid I would get nauseous again.
This time however, the flight was early evening. I already had a couple of square meals in me that day, and I’m assuming I was well hydrated. I didn’t get the least bit sick, and I absolutely loved it! That flight was the most fun I ever had in an airplane. I didn’t experience the least bit of nausea, and if there was ever a flight to get nauseous, that one was it!
If you are prone to motion/air sickness, it might be wise to schedule your lessons later in the afternoon or in the evenings. It worked out good for me.
Get Plenty of Sleep the Night Before Fly
Getting a good night’s rest before doing anything physically or mentally strenuous is just plain old common sense. Flying there’s no exception.
You are more alert, you can think clearly, and fight off any motion sickness or airsickness better than you could if you didn’t sleep well.
Take flying seriously and get your butt to bed at a decent time tonight before you fly.
As I mentioned previously, I am not a doctor. But I do have experience with motion sickness as a student pilot. As much as I did not enjoy the feeling of getting nauseous in the air, I’m thankful for having that experience in my very early days of flying.
I think it gave me an incredible amount of respect for flying airplanes and the demands they put on the human body and mind.
Have you ever gotten motion sickness in the air? Tell me a little bit about your experience. How bad did it get? What did you learn from it? Thanks for reading, and stay safe up there!