Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cadet Barf

In the back of every passenger seat, on every aircraft I fly, there is a small bag that has one single purpose, to vomit in. I looked at one recently, and printed in six different languages, were the words, “comfort bag”. Countless unfortunate individuals have become acquainted with these little bags. They have no instructions printed on them. It is left to the individual and their specific situation, to determine the proper use of the bag. A few months ago I was catching a ride home with another carrier, soundly sleeping. During the descent of that flight I awoke to an awful smell and much commotion around me.

A young man sat down in the aisle seat next to me, his face ashen and his hands trembling. Behind me several people were getting up and moving as far away from him as possible. He had gotten sick in the row behind me. He did not use his little bag and had left a mess all over the seats and floor. It was obvious he had seen happier times. He looked over at me as if he was in trouble an apologized profusely. I told him that this happens all the time and showed him how to direct cool air to his face. I had a bottle of water with me and gave that to him as well. Soon, he felt better and I talked to him until we got to our arrival gate. He thanked me and said he was surprised that I stayed with him, as everyone else got as far away as possible. I told him I was used to it. What I did not tell him was how I had become immune to vomiting events. It is with great pleasure, after 25 years, I would like to share with you the story of Cadet Barf.

When I entered pilot training in the Air Force, my entire class was subjected to a myriad of training events, before flying a jet. We were told about the rigors of our training and what would be expected of us. There were grading standards in many areas and all would have to be passed satisfactorily, or we risked being eliminated from the program. We were also told that there was a time limit to the program as well. You could not keep trying to pass a part of the program over and over. At a certain point enough was enough and you were out. One of the reasons you could be eliminated was getting airsick. Like other events, you could get sick as a dog for a time, but if you could not get it under control, you were medically eliminated. The acrobatic and high G environment really played havoc with many trainees’ stomachs. It was the contention that getting airsick in combat was simply unacceptable and therefore your services were not needed. Another layer of stress was added to the already stressful training environment.

About six weeks after we started flying, we entered the acrobatic part of our training. We were taught to do several maneuvers in the high g force environment. This caused many of us to get sick inflight. In my class, one trainee was eliminated for airsickness. This of course, freaked us out more. Many of us were immune to airsickness and it was not a factor. It was a factor for FlyGuy and I struggled through several flying lessons trying to not vomit and fly my jet at the same time. I remember one flight where my instructor tried to get me sick. He had us all over the sky in a nonstop demonstration of every maneuver I had to learn and perform. We called these pilots, stick hogs, as they liked to do most of the flying and left little time for us, the students, to practice. “Are ya gonna puke?”, he yelled. “No sir, give me more of this shit, I love it!”, I would yell back louder, in one big lie. I started to sweat and felt nauseous. My concentration diminished as I felt my stomach flip flop and I started to drool, you know, that pre barf alarm clock that clangs the upchucking inevitable. “Show me another barrel roll.” He said. It was like being asked to disembowel myself. I was focusing on the maneuver when I regurgitated.

My greatest fear had come true. I don’t know how I did it, but I stopped the mass of vomit in my mouth. The training jets were unpressurized, this was one of the reasons we wore full face oxygen masks. You did not want to throw up in your oxygen mask. My teeth were acting like a lock on a canal and the locks were stuck closed. After completing the barrel roll, I was told to do more acrobatic maneuvers. Somewhere in this nightmare, I decided to swallow everything. I hope and pray that I never have to swallow something so foul, again. I did not throw up again on that flight but I feared a recurrence. I did not tell my instructor that I got sick as he would have had to log it in my grade book, and I did not want to give that stupid asshole the satisfaction of knowing he made me puke. I went to the bathroom and washed my mouth out for a while and cooled off. During my debrief, the instructor was kind and complimentary on my performance, and I avoided an airsickness write up in my grade book. There were a few instructors like this guy who were normal on the ground but turned into raging maniacs in the air. We students called them “flamers", as they screamed and yelled like they were on fire and you were the reason. Yeah, this guy was a flaming, stupid asshole, stick hog.

It took another three or four rides to not get sick during acrobatic flying. This was a huge relief to me. My classmates talked about their experiences getting airsick, many were much worse than mine. We always kept the little white sick sacks in our flight suit leg pockets. These were zippered pockets the length of our foreleg and about eight inches wide. This was the perfect size for full sick sacks. The key to vomiting success was to make sure that you got your little white bag out, then open the bag, get your oxygen mask off, and place your mouth into the barf bag. This was to ensure that you did not throw up all over yourself, the cockpit, and most importantly, your instructor. Timing in this matter was critical. There were plenty of sick sacks to go around as the instructors carried at least two. Once the sick sacks were full, it was imperative that you seal them off so as not to leak or break open. On more than one occasion a sick sack would break open while resting in the pant leg of a student pilot. There was one student who forgot his sick sacks and when he asked his instructor for a sick sack, he was told to throw up in his helmet bag. This was the flight bag we used to carry our helmet, checklist, and other items required for our flights. Nasty!

For a short time there were sick sack fights within my class. I am not sure how this demented fracas started. Someone realized that a full sick sack was a potent weapon. For about two weeks, flying sick sacks were regarded with abject terror amongst us students. Bloated, opened, sick sacks were placed in victims helmet bags, cars, and lockers. My first experience with this was during a debrief and hearing the words, “Jesus Christ, who fuckin did this!” Everyone turned to see one of the students holding a vomit covered hand over his helmet bag. Someone had dumped their sick sack into his helmet bag and he had reached into the bag to retrieve something and he came out with a hand full of vomit. I have rarely heard laughter that hard. The victims face turned crimson, he turned to the table next to him and flung the vomit off his hand into the faces of two other students. What happened next was a blur. Chairs flew back as everyone stood up, with most of us running for the door. Pushing, shoving, and bad words were coming from the vomit victim table. The instructors were ordering a stop to the melee and the rest of us were exiting the room. Things calmed down for the rest of that day but the vomit abuse continued, randomly, as sick sacks were filled. Under the cover of darkness, someone tossed a full sick sack onto the windshield of a car leaving the squadron parking lot one night. The driver of that car was the flaming, stupid asshole, stick hog. His car came to a screeching stop and he jumped out daring the tosser to identify himself, and if he did not identify himself, he would hunt him down. No one emerged from the shadows that evening, but later that year I found out the vomit tosser was another instructor pilot, who thought the guy was, well, a flaming, stupid asshole, stick hog. So it went for a couple of weeks, puke paranoia at an all time high. One of my classmates confided in me that he was a puke cheater. He filled sick sacks with yogurt from the snack bar, then used these vomit decoys as a defense against the real thing. I considered this a brilliant move and made myself two decoys. It is the sharing of such stupendous secrets like this, that make one a friend for life. The decoys worked great, but after a few days the decoys swelled from the biological processes in the yogurt. They looked like a bag of chips that are made in a factory at sea level, but are sold at a ski resort at 7,000 feet. We made new decoys and no one was the wiser. The next day our flight commander let it be known that the puke wars were over.

I became an instructor pilot after graduating from flight training. I returned to my base and was assigned to a training flight. Before I was allowed to take a student sortie, I was sent through a checkout program. I would fly with senior instructors and squadron leaders, who acted like students. I was supposed to treat them as if we were on a real training flight. I was excited to finally be in a real training squadron doing what I liked best. I showed up for my first checkout ride and was shocked to find flaming, stupid asshole, stick hog, waiting for me. “Great to have you back.” He said. We got our gear and headed out to the flight line. “Listen, I don’t feel that well today so I will let you do most of the flying.” He said. This was to be a contact flight with acrobatic and spin training.

As we entered our training area, I started to babble about my first maneuver, then demonstrated that maneuver. I then let him try it. I flew a series of maneuvers and was setting us up for a spin demonstration, when he dropped his mask, opened a sick sack and violently threw up. I acted as though I had not seen him get sick and forced my jet into the violent void of uncontrolled flight. This is a weird place to go as the aircraft loses all of its lift and starts to rotate around its central axis like a spinning top. If I remember correctly, the jet would rotate 360 degrees every three seconds, and drop about 700 feet with each turn. I would find out soon enough that this made many students sick. The intention of teaching this was to allow the student to get themselves out of this uncontrolled flight and get the jet flying again, a big confidence booster.

To get out of a spin, one has to force the jet into a cone of recovery and to get there requires an aggressive series of movements to the control surfaces. It is a violent maneuver to say the least and requires much altitude to recover in. I finished the spin recovery and asked my fake student to show me one. “Didn’t you see me drop my mask!” he yelled. I looked over and he had vomit all over him and the sidewall of the cockpit.
The centrifugal forces of the spin had sent the vomit flying to the side and away from me. This was due to the direction I chose to enter the spin as I did not want the vomit to come flying in my direction. It was a long time before I was so proud of myself again. In one moment I was able to pay back the dozens of students this flaming, stupid asshole, stick hog, had gotten sick. Because I was an instructor, he couldn’t do a thing to me and I told him he had to buy me a beer for throwing up in my jet.

During my years as an instructor, I flew with a few students who were in the process of being medically eliminated due to airsickness. They were told they had three extra rides to get it together or they were gone. Once they were assigned to you, they flew all three rides with the same instructor. I treated these poor men with kid gloves. I would talk to them all the way out to the training area, letting them know that I wanted them to succeed. I would tell them about my experience with airsickness and that they needed to relax and focus on one maneuver at a time. There were a few times that these students did get sick. While we were still sitting in our jet at the end of these fights, I would tell the student that there would be nothing in their grade book about getting sick, they needed to relax more, and when they got their wings they owed me a beer. Every one of those students completed the course and pinned on their wings. One of them flies commercially for the same company I fly for. I see him now and then and remind him he still owes me that beer. I opened sick sacks for many students and witnessed some gruesome vomiting, but no one came close to the infamous Cadet Barf.

A few times a year, the Air Force would fly in a plane load of ROTC cadets for orientation rides. These young adults were college students who were taking military courses that would lead to being commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. Most of them wanted to be pilots. Part of their program was to experience a flight in a real training jet. This gave them an idea of what they would be doing after graduating and it was an incentive to stay in the ROTC program. They would show up in groups of about fifty, usually early in the morning. They were given safety briefings and kept in a large classroom where they would wait for their flight. This was an all day affair and there was not much for them to do. Each squadron had a snack bar that served all kinds of things to eat. It was a self serve room where you could get or make things yourself and pay at a cash register operated by a student who was not flying. These ROTC cadets were told to be careful what they ate and to eat as little as possible. There were hot dogs, chili dogs, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, ice cream bars, chips, candy bars, frozen breakfasts, nachos, sodas, and many other delicacies.

That day I was assigned three orientation flights with the visiting cadets. The cadets were enjoyable to fly with as they were happy to be there and excited about jet flying. I went to the classroom, found my first student and went out to fly. The flights lasted about thirty minutes. We would fly out to a training area and let the cadet try to fly a few simple maneuvers and we would demonstrate a few. On return to the base the cadet would be allowed to fly a bit more. That was it, quick and simple. At the end of the day, the cadets would be flown out to return home. My third and last flight was with a pleasant young man who was just finishing a chili dog. I noticed that he had a few ice cream sandwich wrappers, empty bags of chips, and soda cans in font of him on the table. “Did you eat all of that?” I asked. “Yes, sir, and two more hotdogs.” he said. “Was it the gas and go special?” I asked. “Yes, sir, but don’t worry about me sir, I can take whatever you give me, I’m immune to everything.” He said. The gas and go special was a good deal. You got two hotdogs, a can of chili, bag of chips, and a soda for two dollars. Cadet barf had consumed that and all the other stuff. Airsickness is an individual symptom and many people are not affected by it at all. I assumed he knew enough about his eating habits to know when to stop. He and I went out to the flight line, found our jet and took off. I suspected something was not right on our way out to the training area. I made a shallow turn after takeoff, where Cadet Barf grabbed the instrument panel in front of him and said, “Your a little aggressive there, aren’t you?” I told him this was normal flying and we really had not done anything wild yet. Cadet Barf remained silent. Upon reaching the area, I let him fly straight and then make a turn. I asked him if he wanted to see anything specific. He told me he wanted to see all the acrobatic “stuff. I flew for about three minutes showing him different maneuvers. After the demonstration, I asked him if he wanted to try a loop. My question was met with silence, I looked over at him and all vomit hell broke loose.

Cadet Barfs’ head jerked a few times and vomit came squirting out the sides of his oxygen mask. Not more than a second later another wave of vomit came out of his mask. I remember thinking that this kid was going to drown in his own puke if that mask did not drop off his face. “Take your oxygen mask off!” I said, but he just sat there jerking his head and gagging. The oxygen masks had microphones in them that were hot wired, which allowed us to talk to each other without having to push any buttons. This system worked well when you were not listening to someone gag.

I reached up and flipped open his sun and wind visors, then released one side of his oxygen mask, which swung open on one side. His face looked like a toddlers face after eating mashed ham, peas, and cereal for the first time. All the vomit in his mask fell onto his flight suit as he threw up onto the windscreen in front of him. I had never seen projectile vomit before, but there it was traveling straight out of his mouth to a point in space in front of him, which happened to be the windscreen. I pulled a sick sack out of my leg pocket, opened it and thrust it in front of his face. “Here use this!” I said. His hands were shaking as he grabbed the bag and filled it to the brim in an instant. I snapped another bag open, told him to give the full one to me, and take the empty one. He managed to do that and continued to fill the second bag up before I had tied the first one closed. I opened a third bag and exchange it for the full bag. He sat there with his mouth over the bag drooling, looking like he wanted to die. Meanwhile I was flying the jet, keeping myself oriented in the training area, closing and storing barf bags, and trying to help this poor bastard. I reached down to store the second full sick sack and when I looked back up, he had already filled the third bag. I gave him my fourth and last sick sack and told him to hang in there, we were going back to base. He just moaned and filled the last sick sack I had to the brim. What am I going to do now, I wondered. The only thing I could think to say was,”Take your gloves off and use those.” He fumbled with his gloves, pulled them off and filled them both up in less than a minute. By this time I had coordinated to depart my training area, and was heading back. The poor guy was holding both gloves in one hand. He was so sick that he had squeezed the contents out and onto himself. It took about 15 minutes to get back into the flight pattern. We would normally fly up the runway and pitch out in an aggressive manner, throw our gear and flaps down, and land. I asked for a straight in approach, the most gentle way of getting to the ground. Twice more, Cadet Barf vomited on the way back. As I lined up on final and got my gear down I surveyed the damage. I will never forget that horrible scene. It looked like someone had used cans of vomit spray and liberally sprayed Cadet Barf, the windscreen, most of the instrument panel, the floor beneath Cadet Barf, the upper canopy, the side wall, the throttle quadrant, and parts of my left side and leg. To complete the mission Cadet Barf vomited one more time after we landed and I noticed that the last part was a dry heave. I wondered if he was now empty of all the food he had eaten earlier in the day.

When we finished any flight, a crew chief was waiting for us in the parking area. We would taxi in perpendicular to our crew chief and make a sharp 90 degree turn as we came abeam him or her. These jets could turn on a dime and we liked to be precise for our crew chiefs. They were overworked, underpaid, and always happy to help us. They were young, maybe 19 to 20 something, full of energy. As we made our turn in, the crew chief would look at the instructor for a thumbs up or thumbs down sign. Thumbs up meant the jet was good to go for another flight, thumbs down meant something was not right or had to be fixed. I made the turn that day and from thirty feet away the crew chief got a puzzled look on his face. I stuck my hand out with a thumbs down, but the crew chief never saw it. At about that time he realized what it was he was looking at all over the windshield. He started jumping and cussing, shaking his fists and stomping the ground. I stopped the jet, shutdown and started the process of getting out of the cockpit. Poor Cadet Barf was so sick and disoriented, he needed help getting out. The crew chief was very upset and said to me, “Holy shit sir, what did you do, shoot him with a shotgun!” Normally any student who got sick in a cockpit was responsible for cleaning up their own mess. The crew chiefs would give them a bucket of water and some rags. In this case however, the cadets were not required to do their own cleanup. It would not have mattered anyway as Cadet Barf was barely capable of walking in a straight line, let alone focusing on cleaning up lots and lots of vomit. I told the crew chief that the cadet was going to have to wear that vomit covered flight suit until he got back home many hours from now, and that would be punishment enough. I also told him I would help him clean up the jet. This was a shock to him, I could tell. I said, “Come on, lets’ get to work.” I sent Cadet Barf into the squadron and told him I would debrief him shortly. That cockpit looked like someone had butchered small mammals in it. The crew chief kept gagging as we cleaned it all up. “Sir, how do you not get sick doing this?” he said. It was a defining moment for me, one that I have always remembered. I had become immune to the sights, sounds, and smells of vomit.

Going back into the squadron was like running a gauntlet of grief. My first stop as always was the parachute shop, to drop off my gear. The senior technician who oversaw the parachute shop saw me and waved me over. The chief master sergeant was pointing to a parachute and said, “How the hell do you puke on the BACK of a parachute sir?” He was holding Cadet Barfs’ parachute, pointing to a large amount of vomit. “This is going to have to be repacked!” he yelled. “Sorry chief.” Was all I could say. I left the parachute shop and entered the squadron to find Cadet Barf. I found him in the briefing room, at a table in a corner, alone. He stood up at attention as I approached and I told him to sit. He was apologizing profusely, when I held my hand up. I told him what he did was not normal, but I was quite sure that no human being would do such a thing to themselves on purpose. I made him promise me that he would not let this deter his quest to become a military pilot. I told him of my bout with airsickness and the many students that I had seen deal with it and get through the program. I told him to go to the bathroom and wait for me. I was close to one of the squadron supply clerks, who I went to for a favor. I went to the bathroom and Cadet Barf was there waiting for me. “Get out of that awful thing and put this on.” I said. I handed him a brand new flight suit, still in its’ plastic wrapping. “Just throw the one your wearing away and meet me back in the briefing room.” I said. Cadet Barf came back into the room, where I finished my debriefing. It was late and the leaders of the cadets were starting to round them up to leave. I could tell he wanted to talk more, but it was not to be. I dismissed him, he stood and gave me a salute, turned and left.

Years later, halfway around the world, I found myself flying an airlift mission for a global training exercise. We had the day off and some of us went to the local strip of clubs and bars lining a beautiful beach. We hung out at a joint with a thatched roof that only served ice cold beer, had sand for a floor, had no walls, and faced open ocean. The bar slowly filled up and soon we were elbow to elbow with other military members from around the world. I had one of the few precious bar stools facing the bartender and the Indian Ocean. I’m not sure what number beer I was on, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find a tall, handsome young man smiling at me. He shook my shoulders and said, “I did it. I got through pilot training and I’m flying Hercs out of Yokota! Remember me, I’m the guy that puked all over you!” “Oh Yeah, I remember.” I said. There was Cadet Barf, years older, and with much more confidence standing in front of me. I bought him a cold beer on the condition that he wouldn’t throw it all up on me. We talked for a while. He told me that the experience he had that day, as bad as it was, helped him fight harder to get his wings. What was amazing to me, was that he never got airsick in pilot training, not once! I asked him to explain that to me. “Hell man, I took it all out on you, in one day.” He said with a laugh. Yes, he did.

Be Safe, FlyGuy

You can listen to this story (soon to be posted) at my good buddy Joe's podcasting site at, http://joepodcaster.libsyn.com/

Monday, January 07, 2008

FlyGuy Returns

Hello and Happy New Year everyone!  It has been a while since I posted and I have received a few requests to start writing again.  I have been busy getting the permits to rebuild my house that burned down this past summer and helping my girlfriend with her terminal father who just passed away.  

It seems odd that at the same time, I was trying to bring life back to a destroyed home and was helping a good man leave this life.  His name was John and he led a full and fast life.  He was lucky to have a loving and compassionate daughter who was with him as he took his last breath.  We should all be fortunate enough to go that way.

I have been flying for over two decades and with that passage of time a few of my fellow aviators have died doing what they loved most, flying.  I was young and inexperienced when the first pilot died.  He was a student pilot flying solo and lost control of his jet in one of the local training areas.  There was Frank who flew into the ground, at night, in an F-16.  Dave was on a training flight in a C-130 on a sunny day, when at low level, gusty winds took part of the wing off.... they never had a chance.  Mitch was flying an F-4 that got too low on a low level flight.   There are others and time has diminished the shock of hearing these tragic stories.  

There is a poem that is often read at a pilots' memorial.  It was written by an American pilot flying the Supermarine Spitfire in England, at the beginning of WW II .  It was during a test flight up to 30,000 feet in a new Spitfire 5 that the inspiration came to him and he wrote this poem.  Like my fellow aviators above, he too died doing what he loved most.  He was 19 years old. The poem is called "High Flight".

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of- wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.  Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew-
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
No 412 Squadron, RCAF
Killed 11 December, 1941

Be Safe, FlyGuy.