When Nature Calls in the Cabin, Be Prepared

Things can get messy if you don't have a plan for airsickness.

I’m note sure this has been discussed in many aviation publications—especially one as eminent as FLYING—but, if you’ve been aviating for a while, you’re probably familiar with the challenges of biological as well as aeronautical functions. And, if you’re a brand-new pilot…well, I guarantee you will be. I don’t think it’s addressed extensively in the Aeronautical Information Manual or shows up as a test question, but it’s really practical information.

Airsickness (what my grandnieces call “the spits”) can happen to anybody—students, passengers, seasoned pilots, and even instructors and check airmen. There’s no surefire way to prevent it, but I have some stories, experiences, and suggestions to avoid it and, if necessary, deal with the subsequent mess.


Before takeoff, be sure every new passenger knows to say loudly and clearly if they feel the least bit queasy in flight and then get them on the ground ASAP. Before launching out on a first-timer’s flight, consider a couple of gentle circles near the airport in relatively smooth air.

A guy told me last week about a friend whose kids had finished school and, having himself retired, realized he had the free time and resources for flying lessons. On the introductory flight, his young instructor loaded him in a Cessna 172 on a bumpy summer afternoon. After clearing the airport area, the CFI decided he would “wow” him with some stalls. Soon the potential student wasn’t feeling too well and decided he’d take up pickleball instead. Bad strategy, but I kind of understand. With a new private certificate in a 65 hp Ercoupe, I took up my first passenger, a corporate pilot friend. And what better way to impress him than, “Hey, Will, ya wanna see some stalls?”

Another one I heard about recently involved a pilot and five pilot/passengers heading to the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Florida from the Midwest in a Cessna 206. One was still a student and, from the get-go, in a bumpy overcast he was obviously uncomfortable. The nausea increased and the inevitable was about to happen. Alas, there were no Sic-Sacs (poor planning), so somebody gave him a cloth headset bag…which he filled and then some. They landed for fuel at a small airport in rural South Carolina, nowhere near a rental car agency, but the poor guy had more than enough. He found a local who, for $100, drove him to Greenville, where he rented a car.

“Hey, we’ll see you tomorrow in Lakeland?”

“Hell, no, I’m heading home to Ohio.”

I nearly “lost it” while giving a commercial test from the back seat of a P-51. A great aerobatic and all-around pilot and mechanic named Paul Redlich asked me if we really needed to do “those chandelles and lazy 8s” in this gorgeous bird. To which I replied, “Do whatever you want.” Stuffed in that little back seat, I lasted for something less than 10 minutes of sky and ground, positive and negative G-forces, and accelerations and decelerations. I swallowed all pride and yelled, “Paul, stop!” He touched down at Todd Winemiller’s long, smooth grass strip, and I tumbled out on the ground, laughing and thankful I hadn’t lost my cookies.

The thing about airsickness is that it’s not going to get better, period. I flew two photographers who needed lowlevel shots of all Procter & Gamble facilities in the Cincinnati area. The guy who climbed in the back seat assured me he was an “old hand” at this stuff but that I’d better keep an eye on the new guy up front since it was his first experience with aerial photography.

It was a hot and bumpy summer day, and we were pretty low, but the guy next to me was enjoying every minute. Then I noticed an ominous silence and suspicious odor emanating from the back and turned around. The “old hand” was grabbing for (and mostly missing) the Sic-Sacs. Too often, that means everybody in the airplane is going to follow suit, but we made it back. Then the cleanup began.

All the “surefire” remedies for handling airsickness usually don’t work. Once it’s happened, the only thing that works is brushes and buckets of water, lots of Ozium spray, and a couple pounds of newly ground fresh coffee beans spread on the floors and seats for a day or two. Yeah, that actually works!

A word of caution: Be sure to stick one of those cheap CO detectors on your panel. Nausea, headaches, and feeling “weird” can mean a carbon monoxide leak.

The, uh, other end of possible physiological problems requires a different approach in GA airplanes.

Rule No. 1: Do not let anybody drink coffee before a morning departure in an airplane with no “blue room.” A friend who flew a Metroliner for years told me about a winter morning flight to Toronto from Cincinnati. Passengers had been drinking hot coffee, figuring they’d arrive in plenty of time to drain their tanks on the ground. Unfortunately, there was a considerable hold at Toronto, and one passenger simply couldn’t wait. The crew told him to come forward and kneel between the pilot and copilot seats (pre-9/11). Even though he positioned a Sic-Sac strategically between his legs, my friend said, “Damn, he peed all over my approach plates!”

I abandoned all modesty leaving Hagerstown, Maryland, after an Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association event. I was flying the “prize” 172 with an Air Mod interior—the owner and his wife along for the ride. Departing, the line to pick up clearances was lengthy (weather over the Alleghenies), and I had to go. We were about No. 4 in line and, of course, there were few trees or bushes around a taxiway. The only thing to do was to hop out, pretend I was semi-inconspicuous in the grass, and drain my sump.

There was a fastidious corporate pilot at Lunken airport (KLUK) who flew a gleaming, immaculate Beech 18 for Mead Corp. Mrs. Mead was delighted when they installed a potty in the back of the airplane, but Lloyd Fuller was horrified at the thought of someone actually using it—and the cleanup. “Mrs. Mead, I’m glad you’re more comfortable, but you need to know that air traffic controllers can see everything that comes out of the airplane on radar,” Fuller said.

There are plenty of “relief gadgets” on sale, but the truth is men are easy—a pop bottle or mason jar. For feminine persons, a large paper coffee cup works. After use, attach the lid or transfer the contents into one of those gel-filled containers. But don’t forget the coffee grounds!

This column first appeared in the August 2023/Issue 940 print edition of FLYING.


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