Pilots & Motion Sickness
If you’ve ever been one to wonder whether or not pilots get motion sickness, or whether or not you could become a pilot if you experience motion sickness yourself, then you’re in the right place. The short answer to both of those questions is yes. Even the most experienced pilots still get motion sickness once in a while and it’s still possible to become a pilot even if you know you’re prone to get motion sickness. It’s important to understand what motion sickness is, the signs and symptoms, and what the FAA recommends in order to remedy motion sickness.
Pilot Motion Sickness: Not a Disorder
First, it’s important to understand that motion sickness is not a disorder whatsoever. Rather, it’s a completely normal response to an abnormal stimulus. Whether it be on land, on sea, or in the air, all types of motion sickness are caused by a disagreement between the information your eyes receive and the information from organs in your inner ear. Essentially this means a clash between what you see and what you feel which confuses the brain’s normal sensory awareness processing.
Motion sickness is much less common among highly experienced pilots and more common to students and passengers. This is due to a couple main reasons with the first being exposure. The more you fly, the more your body becomes accustomed to the “foreign” stimulus and the more natural it becomes causing less of a reaction. Secondly, you are likely to become sick when your focus is on the tasks of flying. When your mind is preoccupied, your brain is less likely to notice the disturbance in your senses. A good example of this is when the student pilot does not become sick when controlling the aircraft but the experienced instructor who is now sitting as passenger might. Similarly, you could compare this to when someone gets car sick as a passenger, but they are completely fine if they are the one driving the vehicle.
Pilot Motion Sickness: Signs and Symptoms
If you’ve never experienced motion sickness before, understanding the signs and symptoms can help you to anticipate what’s to come so you can take action to try and remedy the situation. The most common signs and symptoms one experiencing motion sickness will experience are:
- Increased Salvation and Swallowing
- Stomach Awareness (queasiness or fluttering in the stomach)
- Cold Sweats
- Apathy (lack of interest)
- Increased yawning
Symptoms are usually progressive, becoming worse over time. The first signs you’ll usually notice is to lose the desire for any food which will then turn to increased saliva collecting in the mouth. From there perspiration begins to occur as well as nausea, disorientation, headaches, and a tendency to vomit. If severe enough, pilots can even become completely incapacitated.
Pilot Motion Sickness: Prevention
There is no way to predict who will experience motion sickness and when. If you are concerned about motion sickness, you should never take medication, prescription or otherwise, that eliminate motion sickness as a preventative. There is no known remedy that doesn’t have negative side effects on pilots and therefore the FAA does not allow them. All preventative medications can cause drowsiness and can even cause deterioration in navigational skills. However, there are a number of things that can make you more susceptible to getting motion sickness, so the easiest course of prevention is to remove these things as much as possible if not entirely. They include:
- Stress and Anxiety
- Large meals, especially those that are spicy, high in salt, protein, or dairy products.
- Empty stomach
- Abrupt head movements
In order to prevent motion sickness before flight, it’s recommended to wear loose fitted clothing and to eat a light snack 2-3 hours before flight. Simple foods that can be easily tolerated are vegetables, fruits, breads and cereals and low-fat foods. It’s also important to drink lots of water. Reduce any anxiety or stress about the flight by making sure to take adequate time to prepare. Become familiar with the planned flight including where you will go and what maneuvers will be done. Ask your instructor any outstanding questions you may have regarding the flight until you are comfortable.
Pilot Motion Sickness: Remedy and Care
If at any point you do begin to experience motion sickness as a pilot, there are a few things you can do to try and remedy the situation which include:
- Open the air vents to get cool air on your face.
- Loosen any tight-fitting clothing.
- Use supplemental oxygen if available.
- Focus on a point outside of the plane.
- Put your head on the headrest and avoid any unnecessary head movements.
- Concentrate on flying tasks keeping the aircraft straight and level or in a precise turn.
- If possible, cancel the flight and land.
Once you experience motion sickness, you’re more likely to experience it again. Unfortunately, since motion sickness is a disturbance of the senses, the only way to combat it is by more exposure. That means fly more and fly often! Take it easy with gentle maneuvers and once comfortable, begin to increase the intensity with more extreme maneuvers until you’ve conditioned your body to accept the sensory disturbance as a normal feeling.