Sunday, October 15, 2006

Motion Sickness and AFTE with Dr. Particia S. Cowings of NASA Ames Research Center

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Argue with the worms, barf, bark at the ants, bile geyser, blow groceries, call Huey on the big white telephone, the call of the walrus, chorkle, drive the porcelain bus, flash the hash, heave, honk, hoark, hurl, liquid burp, look for aardvarks, spew, spit the furry lifesaver, park a tiger, puke, ralph, roop, sell Buicks, shout at your shoes, technicolor yawn, toss your cookies, unswallow, upchuck, vurp, woof cookies, yack, yark, yodel.

There are many ways to say it. There are many ways to do it. It’s funny and it’s not funny. But it’s a part of almost everyone’s life and Airspeed isn’t about to let this stone go unturned.

We’re talking about hurling and we’re talking about motion sickness in particular.

It has its funny side. But it also has a serious side. We may never know how many people have decided not to explore aviation because of this strange artifact of human evolution. We may also never know how many current pilots and student pilots have this extra burden on the road to the big dream.

Pilots don’t like to talk about motion sickness. It somehow makes us less Scott Crossfield-like or less Patty Wagstaff-like to admit that we get a little green around the gills. But motion sickness, in addition to being inconvenient and embarrassing, can be a safety issue. Some studies show that being motion-sick can reduce your effectiveness below that of someone who is legally drunk.

I had problems with motion sickness issues on each of my first two flights and I worried about it recurring for many flights after that. In fact, after experiencing a vurp (that’s where you do a little burp that’s more than just a burp but doesn’t quite make it out of your mouth) on my second flight, I resolved that I was going to stick it out for a total of five flights and, if I felt sick after that, I was going to hang it up.

Fortunately for me, flight number three was good and I haven’t been green around the gills since except for some extended sessions of stall training and a few sessions of unusual attitude training under the hood. All completely natural.

I went to ground school with a guy who has become a good friend over the years. He’s a very good pilot and we flew to Oshkosh together in 2002. I admire him because it took him a lot longer time than it did me to get over his motion sickness. Our mutual flight instructor nicknamed him “Cool Hand” because he was fine when his hand was on the yoke but, as soon as he gave the controls to someone else, he got sick. And our mutual flight instructor admitted to being a sympathetic puker, so he let Cool Hand have the controls as often as possible.

The point is that everyone either deals with motion sickness or knows someone who does. It’s a near-universal issue that bears on the enjoyment and safety of flight, but that gets short shrift in the aviation media. In other words, it’s a perfect topic for Airspeed.

The FAA’s Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge doesn’t have much to say about motion sickness. It states, in relevant part, as follows. “[A]void lessons in turbulent conditions until becoming more comfortable in the airplane, or start with shorter flights and graduate to longer instruction periods. If symptoms of motion sickness are experienced during a lesson, opening fresh air vents, focusing on objects outside the airplane, and avoiding unnecessary head movements may help alleviate some of the discomfort.”

Good advice, to be sure, but we had heard about training and exercise regimes that directly address motion sickness and provide better tools with which to combat it.

So we went directly to one of the world’s foremost experts on motion sickness, Dr. Patricia S. Cowings. Dr. Cowings is a research psychologist with the Human Factors Research and Technology Division and Human Information Processing Research Branch of NASA-Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California. She is the inventor of the autogenic-feedback training exercise (AFTE) method and system and is the inventor of that method as stated in US Patent no. 5,694,939 issued in 1997.

Dr. Cowings was the first female scientist trained as an astronaut. She was a backup payload specialist for Spacelab Mission Development 3, the first simulation of a life-sciences-dedicated space shuttle mission. Her experiments have flown on STS 51-B and STS 51-C in 1984 and Spacelab-J in 1992. She continues to do and administer human factors research.

We caught up with Dr. Cowings by phone at her office at NASA-Ames office.


If you’re interested in AFTE, you can contact Dr. Cowings or BioSentient, Inc. Dr. Cowings’ e-mail address is and you can reach BioSentient at or There’s more complete contact information in the show notes at

As always, nothing you hear here on Airspeed is flight instruction, legal advice, or medical advice. You should consult a certified flight instructor or a qualified physician or both before acting on anything you hear on Airspeed.

Note that certain kinds or intensities of motion sickness could be disqualifying for an airman medical certificate and I can tell you from personal but unrelated experience that some aviation medical examiners are more involved and collaborative than others. If you have real trouble with motion sickness but still want to be a pilot, you might want to consult your personal physician or other qualified and licensed medical or phychological professional before applying for an airman medical certificate. Get any issues identified and taken care of before you apply for an airman medical certificate so you can check all the right boxes with a smile on your face. Remember that most AME's are great guys and gals, but they're the FAA's doctor, not yours.
And, as ever, if you're going to fly, be safe and comply with the regs.

Last and unrelated disclaimer: Although Dr. Cowings very kindly appeared on Airspeed, Airspeed is not endorsed or recommended by NASA or any related person or agency. They didn't ask me to say that. I just throught it might be courteous to say it.


Contact Information and Links

Patricia S. Cowings, PH.D
NASA Ames Research Center
Moffett Field, California 94035
Phone: (650) 604-5000

Psychophisiology Lab – Nasa Ames Research Center

BioSentient, Inc.

Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison

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