Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or The Vomit Comet

"There are those that have, and those that will." It's a saying that refers to many things. Bicyclists use it to talk about wipe outs. Pilots often use it to refer to forgetting to put the landing gear down. Well, there's another one in that area that just happened to me this weekend. I used to be able to claim: I've never had a single passenger get sick while I've flown. I still can make that claim, but now must add, "only in pairs."

The "mission" was to fly to a small airport, about a half hour away, pick up three friends, and then find the even smaller town where they lived and take some aerial pictures of their house. I had done a good bit of planning, computing the weight and balance information and double checking the various seating configurations for the passengers. In addition, since this was going to be a full flight and I was running with 32g of fuel (out of 40), I had also carefully planned out the fuel burn, to make sure I could comfortably fly the trip and still have a reserve (or get gas at the airport before returning home). The weather was beautiful. Clear, blue sky, 20 miles visibility, nice warm day. Just a hint of occasional, light turbulence at low altitudes. The sort that I wouldn't even pay attention to if someone didn't tell me.

The trip to Norwich was uneventful. It's actually nice to do some VFR flying and navigating by pilotage and dead reckoning, and knowing where you are with respect to the ground, as opposed to just charts and airways. I arrived in the early afternoon and was met by my three friends.

The back seat of a Skyhawk is not a very spacious space, and it FELT like we were sitting pretty tail low. I've only flown the plane a few times at maximum weight (though I was aware of what to expect performance-wise). After giving the passenger briefing (and again, forgetting to say "don't try to slam the door, you have to pull it and then move the latch lever" until I heard the familiar <SLAM!>, "d'oh!"), we were ready to go. Everyone had also taken off their jackets ahead of time. Because we didn't have enough spare headsets for four people, I decided to just use the microphone and external speaker and make due.

We taxied into position, and with a final check, I added full-power and we started the takeoff roll. The plane was more ponderous getting off the ground. Instead of leaping off the ground (flying a 172 solo, with less than full fuel), it rotated and obediently climbed into the sky. The initial comments were along the lines of "wow" and "this is really pretty."

While I had studied the charts earlier, I was using my passengers to spot the roads and local landmarks to lead us to the destination. About 5 minutes in, the front seat passenger told me in a matter-of-fact way, "yeah...before this is done, I'll be sick." The tone had a "don't worry about me" sort of undercurrent, and to be honest, I'm not sure exactly what I was thinking. I did the standard procedures, get some more cool, fresh air flowing, tried to provide some distraction, get them to look to the distance, but let's face it, the one thing I should have done that I didn't was to immediately turn around and return to the airport. The air was pretty smooth, and the bumps infrequent. I think it was just the confined cabin, the unusual sights and slight motion that all added up.

As she got worse, one of the rear passengers was starting to get uncomfortable too. She was also doing some navigation, but that distraction proved to be of little use. I climbed to get to some smoother air, but that only seemed to accentuate the fact that we weren't on the ground. We got to the little town (under 10 minutes away), and did a gentle pass around it (I was banking less than 10 degrees). Around this time, the front passenger, who had a barf bag handy, was studying it more and more intently, as if the inscriptions on it were some magical runes that, once deciphered, would answer one of life's great mysteries. To be honest, I think the only mystery she was pondering was: "Can I puke right now, or will I have to wait yet another minute?" and "I wonder if I can actually fill up the entire bag."

I'm not cruel and unusual, so I decided at that point that this wasn't working out and was going to return. The illing rear passenger just pointed towards the right and said, "If you want to go back, it's that way." Even though she might have had a strong motivation to maintain a good situational/positional awareness, it still impressed me. I knew where I was going...sort of. I took her advice and headed back. Shortly after that, the front passenger suggested we end the flight, and I told her we were already heading back.

I hadn't mentioned much on the other rear passenger. Basically, he was happy and content. He took some pictures, though was a little disappointed, since I had climbed to a higher altitude. He had little to say.

Well, it's a 10 minute flight back, and the front seat passenger detonated just around the time we were about to head back (I don't remember if it was right before or after we were heading back...she was studying the inside of the bag for a minute or two. The rules say that the priorities are: 1) aviate, 2) navigate, 3) communicate. There was little I could do at this point, other than get them back, and, to be honest, I had little interest watching someone empty their guts into a bag.

The rear passenger was about 5 minutes behind the front one, and yorked in her respective bag. The drone of the engine masked out the retching, so it could have been worse. And the smell was only vaguely of BBQ chicken... At one point, I tried to increase the power to see if we could get back faster, but as the speed increased, so did the plane's motion and I didn't think that would help.

After her technicolor yawn, the front passenger pretty quickly came back into the land of the living, which was good. The rear one wanted a napkin, tissue, or something. I had one in my pocket, but it was difficult for me to reach. The front passenger asked, "Can I help?" and I was tempted to let her take the control for the 5 seconds it would take me to reach the tissues. Instead, I let her reach in my pocket.

"Is that a tissue in there or are you just glad to see me?"

At least she was feeling better.

Briefly looking up from her bag, the rear passenger manages to say, "the airport is just to the left, in the valley between the two hills." She MUST have some sort of GPS or INS built into her brain. I mean she wasn't even WATCHING where we were. Of course the airport WAS right on the far side of the ridge to our left, just as she had said. I could save face and say that I had to fly beyond the ridge and over to make a proper traffic pattern entry...

We land and let the afflicted passengers ooze out of the plane. Since there was time, I went up with the non-illing passenger. He mentioned how he was surprised how little of the runway was used for takeoff and landing. I was feeling a little flustered having been careful about my flying and still had 2 people puke. I turned and said, "'d you like to see a short-field takeoff?" He said, "Sure. What's a short-field takeoff?"

We got to the end, I set 10 degrees of flaps, held the brakes, applied full power and then let it go. The plane happily leaped off the runway and shot into the sky. My headset that was sitting next to the windscreen fell into my lap as we rotated. He was happy and so was I, since he felt no distress. After finding his house, taking some pictures, we headed back. I wasn't sure exactly of which road to follow, and just had a general direction and looked for landmarks. I dialed in one of the radio beacons to serve as a backup, as well. We found the airport with no problem and made it back.

By then, the other two were feeling a little better, managing to eat some saltine crackers and giner snaps. They were in good spirits. After saying goodbye, I headed home. Upon arriving at Ithaca, I managed to get the pilot's seat off its track when I pushed it back to get out of the plane. Not my most successful flight.

Some post-game analysis

What becomes very obvious now is that I should have turned around at the first signs of trouble. There are many situations in flying in which there are insidious chains of events that have an unfortunate outcome that could have been avoided if any of the events leading up to them had happened differently. It's hard to say what was the very "first" sign, but obviously, a passenger saying they are going to throw up, no matter how they say it is good grounds to end a flight if practical.

It was an easy option to just go up with the one with the steady stomach and the camera, yet I resisted doing that initially. You get stuck in a certain mindset and ignore all the better options. Like getting so locked into salvaging a landing, that the option of a go-around never enters your head. This can be related to the 5 hazardous attitudes for flying, as well, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader. The important point is to try to recognize getting locked into a situation and running out of options. This one wasn't life threatening, we had barf bags, and we were 10 minutes from an airport. But that's still not something you want to see your passengers doing.

The other thing is that I let these two get a bad impression of flying. I doubt they'll want to go up in a small plane again. Had I turned around sooner, they still might have vomited, but there is a chance they might not have. All I did was reinforce built-in biases against flying they might have had.

I try to learn something from every flight I take. Suffice to say that that flight taught me a few things. I am hopeful that these are things that I can learn from, and avoid in the future. Oh, and the final thing is to ALWAYS have a supply of barf bags in the plane (or flight bag).

Written on October 13th, 1997 by FNA.