avoiding airsickness in your cockpit

I recently heard from a pilot requesting suggestions for minimizing airsickness. Among the non-drug tricks I’ve learned for combating nausea in the cockpit:

1. Fly inexperienced, nervous, and nausea-prone passengers only under smooth conditions — if this means going earlier or later in the day, or even postponing the flight, so be it.

2. Keep your cockpit temperature cool. (Again, this may mean flying early or late in the day.) I counsel my passengers before takeoff to tell me immediately if they feel warm. If that happens I open all the vents and have them remove any outerwear. Don’t hesitate to slow down and open a window if necessary to keep passengers cool.

3. In summertime always carry ice water in your cockpit; a touch to the face with a cold bottle or a few sips will help keep you and your passengers from overheating. (I use water bottles half-filled and frozen and then topped off with water, in a small cooler.) Helps a lot in high temperatures.

4. When possible, point out anticipated bumps ahead of time (like under windy conditions, downwind of ridges, flying low over barren or paved terrain in summertime, in the vicinity of cumulus clouds, etc.). When passengers know turbulence is coming and see that you can predict it, they are less bothered by it.

5. Keep your feet firmly on the rudder pedals during turbulence to counteract yaw. Since the center of gravity in most light aircraft is near the front seats, yaw in turbulence is generally far worse in the back seat. So in addition to serving as a human yaw damper, put your least-experienced or most nervous passenger in the front seat.

6. During the preflight briefing say something like, “you’re not likely to get sick on this flight, but on the rare chance you do get uncomfortable, there are sick sacks located here… Keep in mind that there is nothing embarrassing about using a sick sack if you need it. It’s not using one that’s embarrassing!” Say it with a nonchalant smile on your face, but say it!

7. Most importantly, if a passenger does get sick, do not get distracted from flying the airplane! Your passengers’ safety is more important than their comfort! (For a story about the hazards of this, see “Bowling Alley Hot Dogs” in my book, Flying Carpet.)

8. Many pilot friends report good results with ginger chews to relieve/prevent nausea. Chew one 20 minutes before takeoff and about every 20 minutes during flight. I keep them in the airplane at all times. If all else fails, have your passengers see their pharmacist or doctor for one of the very effective oral and skin-patch over-the-counter anti-motion-sickness meds. (Most if not all of these are NOT FAA-approved for pilots, so be sure to check in advance if relevant.)

9. Sinus and ear congestion can cause vertigo, so flyers and passengers suffering such symptoms should appropriately pre-medicate to relieve symptoms before flying. (Pilots within FAA guidelines, of course.)

Finally, I’d like to offer encouragement that if airsickness plagues you as a new pilot, be patient. Your “air legs” will rapidly improve the longer you fly. Almost no one is entirely immune to occasional discomfort if it’s hot and bumpy enough, but as pilot and passenger experience grows such discomfort grows exceedingly rare. Again, the trick is to keep your temperature down.

For more on avoiding airsickness in the cockpit, read my March, 2004, column, Thirty Queasy Minutes. For the lighter side, see my August, 2008 column, Zack Flies.

©2010, 2016, 2021 Gregory N. Brown

3 thoughts on “avoiding airsickness in your cockpit

  1. Since this just happened to me with my son in the back seat of the Arrow, I will say that I appreciated seeing this post now. Luckily I kept air-sickness sack in every pocket of my flight bag, so it was easy to take “care” of the situation. Thanks for the post! Craig

    1. It’s my pleasure, Craig! Happily the problem doesn’t occur too often, especially if you avoid hot, bumpy days. Did your son enjoy the flight anyway? I hope so!

      1. Amazingly, once the event was over, he recovered in about 5 minutes. I got us back on the ground in 10. He was perfectly happy and can’t wait to go again. I was actually practicing an approach with a safety pilot who commented that it was great real world practice… silver lining in everything. 🙂

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