Flying Weightless

After twenty years of being an aviation buff, I’d had three bad experiences in a row on airplanes which (combined with other negative life experiences) left me with a fear of flying that lasted many years.  During that time I missed out on a lot of fun stuff because I wouldn’t get on the airplane.

One night in 2009 I was surfing the internet idly, not looking for anything in particular, and came across an article about a company that flew people in a weightless state — not just celebrities but anyone who had five grand to spare and met the minimum health requirements.  I went to their website and it was all true, and in a few months they were flying their plane out of Las Vegas.  I’d been a space nut my entire life, and the thought of being weightless was irresistable.  For this, I’d get on the airplane.  Within minutes I had my flight booked, along with my connecting flight to get to Las Vegas, and a hotel reservation.  I even threw in an extra flight to visit a friend in Victoria.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t sleep much that night, nor was I concerned about draining the savings account.  I was dazed and confused, but happy — I was so ready for an adventure!  Plus, that I was finally taking the big step that would help me overcome my fear of flying.  If I could get through this flight, I wouldn’t have any problems with regular, right-side-up flying any longer; I even checked this out with my doctor, who referred to it as my graduation.

September came along and I packed a small suitcase and boarded the Boeing 737 to fly to Las Vegas.  The whole way I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to be scared .. a strange noise or a little bump would provoke a nervous reaction, but I’d think about where I was going and what I was going to do there and somehow that calmed me for a while.  Besides, I’d been an airplane fan and it was just too stupid to love something and be scared of it at the same time.  The flight went well … the worst part was trying to find somebody in the terminal to make change of a dollar so I could phone my hotel for the shuttle bus.  I think I walked the entire airport, and found most of it closed.  Even- tually I went out to the bus loading area and finally came upon one labeled with the name of my hotel — yay!

Unable to sleep, I spent half the night in the hotel’s business center emailing friends in far-flung places about my butterflies and excitement.  Slept a little, didn’t eat breakfast (the Zero Gravity company would provide appropriate food), and called a cab to go to the hotel where they were  holding the breakfast and briefing.

A few weeks before the flight I’d visited the Canadian Forces display at the Klondike Days midway and the guys at the Air Force gave me fistfuls of temporary tattoos showing the logo of the 2009 Canadian Centennial of Powered Flight, most of which I dropped off at the Alberta Aviation Museum so they’d had something to give to little kids.  The rest I took to Las Vegas —  while we waited for all of the passengers to show up, I wandered around sticking these tattoos on the hands of everyone I could, engaging them in conversation about Canada.  Turned out most of them were American, but with quite a number from Europe and Australia.  I still have a couple of these tattoos in my den. Maury, a nice man from San Jose, was very friendly but his lady friend not so much — she saw me holding the tattoo in place on Maury’s hand and came charging through the crowd to give me a really nasty glare.  What else could I do?  I grabbed her hand and smacked a tattoo on it, complete with 30 seconds of holding it in place.  She forgave me for holding hands with her boyfriend, and we all went to eat.

The breakfast was important — they served only things that tended not to upset stomachs very much.  Coffee and carbohydrates, pastries and fruit.  I’d never been airsick so I didn’t bother to take Gravol.  The briefing was a video of what to expect, and some warnings about things like overcoming the instinct to swim because all that would accomplish is kicking other people.  There were about 30 people booked on the flight, and we all got flight suits to put on over our clothes, complete with patches showing the plane, the company logo, and a US flag.  After we got dressed, we were ushered out to a bus which would take us to the airport.  The standard airport security was done right there at the hotel as we would not be going through the airport terminal, then we were off on the short trip to the airport, the same one whose terminal I’d explored so thoroughly the night before.  We disembarked on the tarmac beside a Boeing 727 named “G-Force One” and spent some time taking pictures and having our pictures taken in groups with the plane in the background … the groups were gold, silver and bronze, representing which section of the plane you’d fly in.  I’d asked for gold, which I thought might bring perks, but all it meant was that I’d be at the front.  You got colored socks so staff could tell which group you belonged to.   Shoes were all dumped in a big bag.

We climbed the steps into the hatch at the underside of the tail, and came up into a cavernous cargo hold all covered in padding, with a few rows of seats in the tail.  I took my seat and just sat there for a bit with my butterflies.  The plane rolled out and took off promptly to the designated flight zone, a moveable box in the sky ten miles long, ten miles deep, and I’m not sure how wide. Once airborne we left our seats and moved to our assigned sections with our coaches, people in charge of seeing we all had fun and didn’t get into trouble.  When we reached the near end of the flight zone we were told to lie down, as the plane was about to dive and give us the experience of Martian gravity, where our weight would be about a third of Earth normal.

The first thing I noticed in the dive was that I didn’t feel like I was being pushed up, more like the floor was moving out from beneath me.  I was able to do pushups with great ease and even bounce a few times.  The second thing I noticed was that everyone aboard was laughing.  I was completely unaware that the plane was diving, I just felt light.  When the plane got to the bottom of its dive and started climbing again there was a sudden drop to the floor and extra weight pulling me down.  The next dive was calibrated to simulate Moon gravity, a sixth of Earth normal, and a light push was enough to lift me off the floor, but I’d come gently back down again so I was (as instructed) on the floor when the coach called “Feet down, coming out!”  This was followed by another heavy climb.  The third dive was the real thing, with the plane undetectably moving out from under me and leaving me in midair, truly weightless!  I could fly across the cabin and stop myself with a light touch on the padded wall, to rebound across the area once more.  The laughter was giddy, people calling to their friends, the coach calling to passengers to try this or that maneuver.  Unbelievable noise, happiest sound I’ve ever heard.

Each dive gave us about 22 seconds of zero gravity, but it felt like so much longer.  There were 15 dives, 12 of them completely weightless.  I have to admit I was a bit timid and spent way too much time clutching the safety lines, just bobbing there in midair, soaking up the sensations.

It was all over way too soon, but I was thrilled to realize that I hadn’t been frightened in the least,  and I knew that I wouldn’t be avoiding air travel any longer — the world was open to me again, I could go wherever I wanted.  The only bad news was realizing near the end that I should have taken the Gravol … got a bit green, but managed not to use my sick bag. After the landing we were bussed back to the hotel for lunch and chatting with our section’s coach.  Gorgeous man, got a huge crush.  After lunch we were given our certificates in a fancy folder with an 8 x 10 of us in front of the plane.  I went back to the hotel and emailed everyone about the flight.  Then, as now, I completely failed to convey the joy and the sensation of weightlessness.  All I can say is that everybody should try it at least once.  One of my emails went to the Air Force, which is worth another post all its own.

I dined out on the Zero Gravity experience for months, and used my flight suit to display my small collection of crests and badges.  The plane had been equipped with video cameras to record the experience in high resolution; there had been a photographer aboard as well, who took hundreds of still photographs of the adventure.  I bought copies of everything, which I spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing over and over.  I regretted having been so timid and having wasted the opportunity to somersault and twirl … so much so that when I got an emailed ad for a special flight, I signed up for it without a second thought.

In April of 2010 I found myself southbound again, all the way to Florida, complete with a new haircut suitable for the occasion.  This time the Zero Gravity flight was going out of a small airport not far from Cape Canaveral, one of the few places on Earth I’d dreamed about visiting.  As I’d hoped and expected, the flight to Orlando wasn’t very scary.  This time I had arranged to rent a car, quite a distance from the Space Coast.  In a fit of foolishness, I decided to make the drive in a Corvette.  I also traveled in my flight suit, which had a military look about it and made it easy to strike up conversations everywhere.  It also  reduced my baggage considerably as I didn’t have to bring clothes to wear except a couple of tee shirts and some pyjamas, and there were plenty of pockets for my wallet, camera, passport, etc..  No checked baggage — I only took the backpack that had been a souvenir of my first Zero Gravity flight.  The drive to Titusville was pleasant, despite discovering that putting a Targa top onto a Corvette required arms six inches longer than mine.

The drill for this Zero Gravity flight was nearly the same as for the first, except everything was upgraded to suit the upgraded cost.  Fewer tickets were sold so you had more “airspace” on the plane, the food was better, and the souvenirs costlier.  I drove myself to the company hotel the morning of the flight, and took a couple of Gravol when I arrived … no way I wanted to waste a minute of weightlessness, and I intended to be a lot more active this time.  My stomach would just have to to tough it out.  Again I worked my way through the crowd putting Canadian Air Force tattoos on all the hands I could get hold of, except for one daring Japanese lady who wanted hers on her chest.  My section’s coach was another good-looking guy (I think that’s a condition of employment with them) who hugged a lot.  I got silver this time, so I was in the back of the plane where there were windows … did I mention that they kept people in their section by making us wear socks that matched our section color?  I was popular with the photographer since everyone was in plain blue flight suits and mine was blinged up with flashy patches … one of his shots is my Facebook picture, shown below.  I let the coach guide me through all the recommended activities, and had a fabulous time doing somersaults in midair, curling up to get thrown back and forth across the plane like a dodgeball, then standing on the side to throw a fellow flier, and doing handstands.  The best one was the “worm” maneuver, where you launched yourself toward a wall with considerable speed and then paddled your hands so you crawled up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall, around and around.  Tons of fun!  Sadly, almost everyone in my section was stricken with airsickness, and the final third of the flight was spacious indeed with only me and one other flier occupying our section, having a total blast.

Darlene weightless
Darlene weightless

In all fairness, I ought to mention that there were downsides to this adventuring.  One was that my first flight was too crowded, and when I ventured away from the safety lines I got a little banged up by people flailing about.  That’s why my second try was a premium flight — fewer passengers, and more parabolas — but that didn’t entirely work out.  I had lots of room and lots of attention from the coach, but the two extra parabolas never happened and the maneuvers I had dreamed up (twirling like Julie Payette and a dance) never got done … if I ever go again, I’ll do them first.  Another unexpected downside was that the pilot and caller weren’t well co-ordinated on the second flight … when we heard “feet down” we expected a couple of seconds to actually get our feet down, but the dive reversed simultaneously with the call.  On one of the parabolas I was upside down when I heard the call, and  crashed to the floor on my neck.  Fortunately, it only hurt for a couple of minutes.  Scared the crap out of the coach, though.

Lunch was good, and the certificates were individually presented by the coaches so you got a still photo of the presentation.  Since I already had a flight suit, my souvenir backpack contained a book about the company and a baseball cap with the logo on it.  As I drove back to Titusville I saw a war plane museum and pulled in to explore.  One of the senior volunteers took me for a terrific tour, and eventually we wound up on the tarmac out behind the museum, which just happened to adjoin the runway used by G-Force One.  We heard jet engines firing up, and sure enough, here came G-Force One down the runway, and turned to take off in the other direction … I was lucky enough to get video of the whole thing!

Among the souvenirs in my den are the two diplomas certifying that I flew weightless.   Considering everything, these flights were my most exciting adventure to date but even now that they’re in the blog, I still don’t think I’ll discard my certificates, just the big folders they’re in. Nor will I discard the flash drive that has all the photos and videos.  And I think I will part with the two backpacks, and a couple of pairs of coloured socks.  Okay, not the baseball cap, and I’m keeping the t-shirt, too.  And the flight suit.  That’s all.  Really.