Tuesday, 26 November 2019
Most readers will probably be thinking “No it can’t. Don’t be absurd!” I hope so because if not there might not be enough curiosity to encourage you to read on.
Good. You at least have persevered. Absurd it may be but nevertheless, I stand by my statement. Clearly, I haven’t died from motion sickness, or anything else just yet, so I need to tell my story of how motion sickness could have taken, and in fact very nearly took, my life and the life of at least one other. Dramatic enough? A bit too much? Stay with me.
I have had a sulky and slightly green-tinged relationship with motion sickness for as long as I can remember. Ignoring those early queasy rides in the claustrophobic rear seat of my step-father’s Ford Zodiac in the 1960s, weaving and rolling along the windy lanes of the Isle of Wight’s chalk Downs, my first full-on encounter was with mal de mere, zeeziekte or seasickness as the sick-bag provided helpfully explained in 3 languages.
Actually, before we cast into historic oblivion those memories of mildly nauseous, pre-seatbelt era jaunts across the Island, I should perhaps explain the purpose of our journeys. If indeed it really qualifies as a ‘purpose’. My step-father was a curious man, in every aspect of that adjective. Confining our attention to the sort of curiosity that is said to kill cats or to elongate the nose of the elephant’s child (check out Kipling if you are scratching your head), he wanted to know how other people lived.
Obviously, he could visit friends and relations, and note their choice of house, furnishings, garden landscaping, clothes, even partners. But that limited his insatiable curiosity to people he knew and that was far from enough for ‘Jack’. He wanted a much larger sample of the population from which to illustrate his dinner time anecdotes on the habitual idiosyncrasies of our fellow Isle of Wight residents.
Hence, after weekend lunches at our home near the centre of the Island we would head out on a random spoke towards the coastal periphery, in search of new domestic pastures to explore. Mother and step-father in front, brother and occasionally step-sister in the back we would emerge from the driveway on another bizarre quest.
The way it worked was Jack would look for a grand gateway or house sign out in the countryside. I should explain that his curiosity did not extend to how suburban people lived. Once the target was identified he would simply sweep up the drive until we reached the front of whatever house appeared at the end. Handbrake on, engine off he would clamber out (he was a very large curious man) and look about as if a little perplexed.
Eventually an owner or two would appear and ask, “Can I help you?”
“Oh” Jack would reply, “I’m so sorry, we were heading for [insert fictitious location] but must have taken a wrong turn”.
To cut a long, and in my childhood oft repeated, story short, this almost invariably ended with us sipping tea and nibbling cake in the kitchen/parlour/drawing room of the strangers’ house before we kids went to play in the garden with inevitable dogs and the adults had a tour of the property. Curiosity satisfied, at least until next weekend. Now I’ve got that off my chest we really can ignore that first gentle brush with motion sickness and get back to the real thing.
The aforementioned multi-lingual sick-bag was to be found in a cramped inside cabin on the Dutch cruise liner Neu Amsterdam. Mother, brother and I were, for some reason now unclear to me, making our way from Southampton to the Irish port town of Cobh by way of the second leg of the ship’s trans-Atlantic voyage from Rotterdam to New York. Quite why we didn’t take the train and ferry or fly as we had done before I don’t recall.
Ship-board life seemed rather grand until we met an enormous Atlantic swell in the Channel and the great vessel began to sway like an inverted pendulum. Meal services were curtailed, water slopped heavily out of the swimming pools, Mother threw up her false teeth over the ship’s rail and I retreated to the little cabin to wallow in self-pity. Lying in my narrow bunk I was utterly incapacitated by the effects of the ship’s movement and quietly prayed for death; or at least a speedy arrival in Ireland. That’s the thing about motion sickness and me, the instant the motion stops the symptoms disappear. Rather like childbirth (so I’m told) I seem to forget the hours of hell in an instant and become immediately willing to subject myself to a another, similar ‘moving’ experience.
So in part, that is how I came to my next, rather more sustained and significantly more unpleasant, experience with the restless sea. For yet another forgotten purpose, when I finished school I was determined to join Father and brother in the English West Country. As a commercial fisherman. Now with hindsight this can be seen as a questionable choice for someone evidently predisposed to seasickness but with the blithe and blinkered determination of male teenage, I went west. Almost literally, or so it felt.
If you have never experienced the rearing deck of crab fishing boat, tossed on a raging sea, tormented by winds that whip spray from the wave crests, driving it into eyes and ears, as a cold grey dawn rises to the east of some remote place a hundred miles south of the Devon coast, I probably don’t have words adequate to describe it. Seasickness is a psychological malaise as much as a physical one and the torment knew no bounds. In an environment where the men were tough and laughed in the face of adversity, it was an added misery to be the sickly kid barely able to contribute to the task of catching crustaceans and even less able to justify a share of the proceeds from the catch. Especially awkward that as soon as the catch was landed and we hit the pub, I felt fine.
Suffice to say that I have since dabbled in offshore yacht racing (a mix of becalmed boredom and storm-driven chaos), served as an apprentice in the Royal Navy and navigated ships in the Merchant Navy, so there have been plenty of other aquatic experiences that have challenged my semi-circular canals. But none of them can support my assertion that motion sickness can kill. What this catalogue of deeply unpleasant episodes did reveal is that some of us can be ‘desensitised’ from the undesirable effects of the condition. After the first predictably nauseous 24 hours at sea the symptoms would vanish and I could spend the rest of each voyage reading books, eating meals and doing my job just like a real seafarer. Of course, I did begin to suffer from ‘land sickness’ when returning from a long spell at sea but that is another story.
Having learned of my vulnerability to motion sickness, my next adventure was not the obvious choice. I decided that I needed to become a pilot. Not just any pilot but a military pilot. Not just any military pilot but one of the ones who flies jets. The ones who roar around the place at airshows making lots of noise, pulling lots of g-s, before turning on a sixpence and coming back to do it again. It turns out that isn’t all they do either; they spend some time hurtling through the twisting valleys of Wales or chasing each other around the sky in mock dog-fights. Mostly because it’s good fun. Unless you get airsick of course…
I started my flying career on a fairly sedate jet trainer – capable of 300 knots through the air but nevertheless sedate in comparison to what was to come. However, there was a new problem I hadn’t bargained for. I discovered I was a bit of a party animal in what was, to be frank, ‘party town’. A horde of young aspiring fighter pilots all vying for the attention of; well of anyone who would pay them attention. Drinking alcohol appeared to be an essential element of every activity except flying. There was even a beer fridge in the squadron crew room and a polished stainless steel Harvey Wall-banger bucket hanging from a bracket on the wall. I suspect those days have gone.
0700 AM met brief with a raging hangover could be a bit of challenge in itself but a 45 minute general handling sortie of steep turns and stalls, seated cheek-by-jowl next to a vigilant and critical instructor, was a whole new game.
“Feeling OK today Gillespie?”
“Hundred and ten percent Sir! Ready to give it a thrashing.”
Apparently, hangovers are also a form of emetic and I learnt my lesson quickly, after sheepishly carrying a soggy sick bag back to the line office. Motion sickness wasn’t going to kill me just yet.
The rest of the basic flying training went well from what I recall, apart from a 300 knots encounter with a seagull just above the Northamptonshire countryside. With surprising inertia for a bird it peeled open the metal nose of the aircraft, turned itself into mince and obliterated the entire of my windscreen. Fortunately, there was a colleague in the other seat who could still see and safely flew us home.
Non-hangover induced airsickness, the real thing, turned up early in the next phase of training. Very early. With good reason the first scheduled sortie of most flying courses is something of a demo flight; no specific exercises just a chance for the instructor to show how the new aircraft type performs. With far less good reason most instructors seem to interpret this loose sortie plan to mean ‘throw the aeroplane around at the very limits of its performance to see just what the student is made of’. Mercifully, in the new aircraft the student sat in front of the instructor not beside him but it was still tricky to disguise retching and vomiting into a paper bag whilst upside down at 500 knots.
This was the first of a number of unfortunate events and, although we discovered that I was far less prone to sickness when doing the flying myself, it was only a matter of time before lost and curtailed sorties raised a question mark over my career. The doctors tried medication but as I suspected, the tablets were placebos and had no noticeable effect. Turns out you can’t take conventional travel sickness pills and fly jets; who knew? Something about drowsiness.
At some point I remembered the desensitising effects of prolonged exposure to motion at sea, perhaps that could help? Alarmingly, the Doc’s response was to suggest a spell on the centrifuge at the Institute of Aviation Medicine! Kill or cure. That sounded horrific so I hastily proposed an alternative period of daily exposure to flying similar manoeuvres but as a ‘passenger’ in the back seat. Plenty of sorties flew with only one seat occupied so this was viable and eventually the bosses were persuaded to give it a try. The quid pro quo was that I was suspended from training for the duration. Seemed a bit drastic to me but I had no choice – it was that or the centrifuge.
And it worked. I had a bit of a struggle for the first day or so but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t trying to fly as well as vomit. Just like at sea, I soon lost sensitivity to the rolling, spinning, looping and generally hurtling around and within weeks I was allocated a place on the next course. Just with the proviso to ‘keep him flying’. A few months later the course was complete and I was awarded my ‘wings’, now officially a pilot. Albeit one rather prone to motion sickness. Still not dead though.
Predictably, between the advanced flying course and the next phase of tactical weapons training there was a gap in flying. What happens in a gap? I become re-sensitised to motion and the whole thing begins again. This course was designed to take well-trained pilots and teach them how to fight; same plane so not much new there but the exercises were more aggressive, more dynamic, more sickness inducing. One might expect this to have been a course too far for me but contrarily, the worse it got the more determined I became to keep going. And my bosses had spent a lot of time and money on me by then so they had no incentive to let me go.
The solution? Same again: suspended from training, sat in the back, daily flying, short period of struggle then sorted. The time between courses was a bit longer this time so they dreamed up ‘useful’ things for me to do while I waited for the next course to start. I was taught how to aerial tow an air-to-air gunnery target for example. Bearing in mind there were weapons students loosing off live rounds of ammunition a few hundred metres behind my aircraft, hopefully destined for the ‘flag’ target, it wasn’t my favourite option. Rather better was leading the ‘cine weave’ exercise, as the pursuers fought to keep my aircraft in their gun sight as I banked and rolled ahead of them. No live ammo but the collision risk was significant.
I was beginning to enjoy myself and getting very comfortable with the aircraft. One morning I was assigned to fly in the back seat with one of the instructors, on a ‘bounce’ sortie. Two other similar jets had been tasked with a low-level simulated bombing mission, following a route through the Welsh countryside to attack a couple of targets. ‘Low-level’ for a training flight was constrained by a 250 feet minimum separation distance, meaning they had to stay at least 250 feet above the ground and anything attached to the ground. The same rule applied to us and it was our job to find them, ‘attack’ them and stop them hitting their targets.
We knew their planned route, which was very helpful and perhaps slightly unrealistic, and we knew they would be flying at 420 knots, or 7 miles a minute, so we could work out where they would be at any given time. Before take-off the front-seater and I agreed the best spot for our ambush would be in valley to the northeast of the town of Carmarthen. The attack pair set off and after short time we barrelled down the runway, took off and banked steeply out over the Bristol Channel, as we had so many times before.
Things happen fast at 400 plus knots and soon we flashed over the Welsh coast at the Gower Peninsula. No time to admire the view, we had planes to catch! Leaving Carmarthen to our right we banked around the outskirts and dropped down into a valley to the north of the town, perfect cover for our attack. The aircraft did not have a radar altimeter but from experience I judged that we were spot on our minimum separation distance of 250 feet above the valley floor, with trees and fields whipping past on either side. My estimate was later proven to be eerily accurate.
Visibility was a bit misty but as I looked out to our left, I saw the dark angular webbed outline of an electricity pylon, perched on the ridge line above us. Quickly looking to the right, I saw a similar pylon silhouetted against the pale grey sky behind it. Chances were that there was something joining these two together.
I just had time to shout “Pylons!” before something dark flicked past the canopy and our little cockpit world lit up in great blue flash of light. This was followed immediately by the illumination of just about every warning light the instrument panel had, accompanied by a deafening a cacophony of bells and horns. Something clearly wasn’t as it should have been.
The instructor pulled back on the control column sending us almost vertically skywards, gaining precious altitude in case our one engine was damaged. As we shot up, the pilots of our target aircraft just a few miles away had seen the bright flash of light and broke off their mission to investigate. What they saw was our jet trailing a plume of what they thought was smoke and told us on the radio. It later turned out to be a fine mist of hydraulic fluid leaking from the damaged wing but the message had the effect of focusing our attention even more, if that were possible. We discussed whether we would need to eject, and I nervously tightened my straps in anticipation.
But wait a minute, the engine was still running, the aircraft was still flying and it was responding correctly to the controls. Perhaps we weren’t going to die. Thoughts turned to other things.
“We’re going to be in trouble for this”, groaned my colleague.
I was a bit offended by the ‘we’ part but it wasn’t the time to argue. After assessing the damage and finding what bits of the aircraft were still working, we headed to the nearest available military airfield. Miraculously we were soon parked on the runway and clambering out of the cockpit to some very welcome terra firma. It looked as if someone had taken a giant can-opener to our wings.
The subsequent board of enquiry determined that the aircraft had hit and severed the top three cables between the pylons, at 70 degrees of right bank and about 440 knots. The left wing took out the top cable and the right wing took care of the pair below. Clearly, we hadn’t maintained the requisite separation from the cables! Lucky for us, geometry showed that in normal conditions the lowest point of the cables would be 246 feet above the valley floor. The bosses seemed to think that was an acceptable margin of error.
So did I die? No. But it was frighteningly clear that if we had been wings level at impact and any of the cables had struck the cockpit canopy, it would have taken the canopy off and both our heads with it. I understand that’s usually fatal. And was motion sickness to blame? Well I was only in that seat, at that time, flying down that valley because of my recurring airsickness, so I think so, yes… Motion sickness can kill!