A few days ago, I got back from one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It was the first ground school of the PHEnOM training program, delayed from its original date of August 2016 and a repeat of the December 2016 session. Because of this, only two of us showed up – me and Dan Surber. The rest of the astronaut candidates had already taken the December session or received credit for it through the PoSSUM training program (which in some ways overlaps with PHEnOM).
For three of these days, I had a local interpreter. The cost for this wasn’t excessive, because the training only took place for a few hours each day for three days (March 4, 5, and 7). It did take a while to get everything into place, but it was worth it in the end 🙂
After breakfast, we arrived at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine where Patty Wagstaff has her aerobatics school. We were here to experience high g-forces, like what you would experience during a space launch. That’s a short way to say “accelerations that are multiples of Earth’s gravitational pull”. For instance, 2-G is experienced as twice Earth’s gravitational acceleration, 3-G is thrice that, and so on. Some of the maneuvers were up to 4-G. They did not disappoint.
Our pilot for the day met us along with the interpreter. He briefed us on the maneuvers we would be going through, and our parachutes in case we ever have to bail out (these planes don’t have ejection seats!). He then went over the hand signals he would use to communicate with me in the cockpit.
If I needed to stop the aerobatics for any reason, I would tap him on the shoulder and wave my hand, palm down, and he’d fly the plane in a straight line until I recovered. If I needed to get down on the ground ASAP, I’d use the thumbs-down. The thumbs-up was for “please continue”.
After all of that was done, Dan volunteered to go first in the Super Decathlon aircraft. It’s a two-seater with the pilot in front, with the wings on top so the occupants must get in sideways.
A hour later, they came back and it was my turn to get strapped in. We took off and flew over to a heavily wooded zone well away from town. I enjoyed the hard banks, loops, and barrel rolls without any nausea. It turns out I never needed the hand signals except for the thumbs-up!
We returned to Wagstaff’s school the next day at about the same time. Our plane for the day was the Extra 300L, which was a different experience from the Super Decathlon. It has a bubble canopy with the passenger in front, so I had a nearly 360 degree view of the clouds rushing at me, the trees like Legos above my head when upside down, the surf as we dipped near the ocean on the way back. But the biggest difference was my seat, which was more reclined than in the Decathlon so my brain was more horizontal with my heart to allow me to withstand the g-forces better. I was more clear-headed during the maneuvers than the past day, and enjoyed them a lot more.
Being in front meant the pilot couldn’t “ask” me how I was feeling unless I looked back at him. From how I felt the past day, we judged that to be not a problem.
It goes without saying I liked the Extra a lot better than the Decathlon!
After checking out of our hotel and a nice lunch, we visited the Southern AeroMedical Institute in Melbourne, run by Dr. Paul Buza. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on oxygen deprivation (also known as hypoxia). His practice used to cater to divers who wanted to learn about or recover from decompression sickness, but since then he’s switched to the much more lucrative pilot-training contracts with Embraer and several other aeronautical companies.
His clinic has the world’s largest privately owned hypobaric (low-pressure) chamber, which can seat up to ten people. After Dan and I signed a few release sheets, Dr. Buza explained the process to us. They had set up a textpad program on one of the computer workstations inside the chamber so I could communicate with his team outside on their own computers. Being a former Navy pilot, Dan got the workstation with the flight simulator on it. Dr. Buza instructed me to keep typing, regardless of how I was feeling, so they could log everything that went on as the pressure changed inside the chamber. One of the staff was in the chamber with us, to make hand signals through a viewing port to the staff outside.
We were briefly trained on how to don our oxygen masks. They were designed with rigid yet flexible frames to allow you to use the back of your head as support while you put the mask on without using your other hand. The masks had a soft part around the nose where we could equalize our sinuses with the valasalva maneuver.
The door was then sealed and the pressure gradually decreased in the chamber. The air leaving the chamber takes quite some heat with it, so we got a bit cold. But we didn’t feel much change apart from eardrum pain until the pressure dropped before the 15,000-foot level. Between that and 21,000 feet, I felt some tingling and heaviness in my head and a flushed face before they told us to put our masks on. After that, my head cleared.
Dan’s symptoms were a bit different. We went over these in the debriefing. Dr. Buza congratulated us on how well we handled low oxygen. In a space launch, we would be in spacesuits that supply our own oxygen, but any loss in suit/cabin pressure would cause us to feel hypoxia symptoms. This training was about identifying our symptoms and how to deal with them. He said this had to be done quickly, because you can easily pass out within a minute or so of experiencing hypoxia, if you don’t realize it in time.
The whole experience was very well coordinated. Jamie Guined deserves the credit for this. I was impressed that everyone involved had arranged everything – not just the interpreter – to make this experience as easy for me as possible. From the hand-signals to the textpad setup, the aerobatic pilots and Buza’s team figured out their own ways of communicating with me for situations where an interpreter would be impossible, well ahead of time. It required no additional funds on their part.
It drives home the point that much of what we think about deafness is just a refusal to communicate well.
I’ve also said in the past that Dr. Story Musgrave (the six-time shuttle astronaut) would be there. It turns out that this ground school had too few participants for him to justify coming, but he will be there (for sure) at one of the next ground schools when the whole team is expected to meet.
Next Ground School: Land and Sea Survival
The next ground school will take place in the Florida Panhandle region from October 12 to 20, 2017. It will provide land and sea survival training. Much of that time will be spent in the great outdoors working together as a team.
I look forward to meeting each one of them!