Monday, May 11, 2009
About two or three weeks ago I had a lesson on a day with extremely stiff winds, probably about 25 kts, gusting to 32 (so sayeth AWOS). It was certainly extremely windy at the field, and we really got bounced around on takeoff. The plan was to fly down to the South Bay and do ground reference maneuvers around the salt ponds (nicely rectangular and unpopulated save for a few stray cyclists). I'd done rectangular courses once before and was familiar with what I needed to accomplish. I was feeling pretty good about it going in, and was excited to try ground reference maneuvers with substantial crosswind. We made seven or eight trips around one of the salt ponds, and I was really beginning to feel comfortable with it, like I was really tracking the line, or as my instructor says, "working the plane". And then, something scary and unexpected happened.
I have no idea what brought it on, but during a turn I was, with no warning, overcome by a strong wave of vertigo, followed by a sense of confusion and then a creeping nausea. I told my instructor that I needed a break, and he took the plane. We flew straight out over the bay, and I tried to recover my composure. It didn't work. I felt sweaty and sick, and generally fuzzy and disoriented. I told my instructor what was up and he immediately said, "we're going home". I was embarrassed and overwhelmed, but too shaky to put up a fight. We landed in a strong crosswind and hightailed it to the fuel center. We went inside and I had a cup of juice, and two cups of water, and slowly began to feel more normal. My instructor and I sat and talked about what had happened, and he told me some stories of when he'd gotten vertigo, or sick, and said that it still happens occasionally, even after thousands of hours of flying small planes.
I was feeling pretty darn dejected nonetheless. At that point a fellow student (we have the same instructor, and are friends off-airport as well) walked into the FBO and greeted us. I told him about my vertigo episode and he immediately shared a similar experience he'd had a few months ago. It was amazing how hearing his story perked up my mood and started to make me feel less embarrassed. The three of us talked for a while about wind and disorientation and flying in general, and about 45 minutes after that first cup of juice I was ready to taxi back to the tie-downs. My fellow student and I went to dinner and talked flying and life for a long, long time. By the end of the evening I felt physically okay, though I was left with a headache and a gnawing feeling of self-doubt.
My instructor was incredibly encouraging in the days afterward, and even wrote me an email to remind me of how great I had been flying (which I do remember feeling) before the vertigo set in. A few weeks out from that experience I still have a slight apprehension of returning to the salt ponds, but also have an understanding of the high and low tides of the learning experience. Being in the plane and getting to fly is ALWAYS mind-blowingly wonderful. But some lessons are more amazing than others.