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In the Zero-G Cockpit

As the pilot of a 727 that simulates weightlessness, John Benisch is always searching for that perfect parabola.

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How does one arrange to cordon off a big block of airspace at each location you fly?

We have a great dispatch team in Miami, Florida, that takes amazing care of us. They co-ordinate with Air Traffic Control days before each mission to ensure that the “track” is reserved and ready on-time for us to fly in. Tracks are usually 100 nautical miles long, and they are blocked from Flight Level 190 to Flight Level 350 (19,000 feet above sea level to 35,000 feet above sea level). Each parabola takes between seven to 10 miles, depending on the winds.

Is a G-FORCE ONE pilot as susceptible as passengers to microgravity airsickness?

We are so intensely focused on the instruments and our separate responsibilities, which need to be coordinated like clockwork, that we really do not notice the parabolas like the fliers do. We are harnessed in our flight seats with five-point belts, and we have the flight deck windows to see the horizon, the moon and Earth in all [parts] of the arc, which helps a lot. In other words, we have visual cues that passengers don’t have—there are very few windows in the back-cabin floating zone. You cannot complete training if you get sick. Many crew members have tried, and they could not get past that part of the experience. I have never felt sick. However, our bodies do experience all the same forces. That fact, combined with how focused we all are during the mission, usually leads to a meal and big nap after each mission. It is very energy-consuming as a crew member.

What is the most fun about your job? The least?

When customers show up, they are all different ages ranging from eight to 80. They travel from all parts of the world, and come with many different life experiences. But when they “GO ZERO,” it’s as if everyone is transformed into a youngster, filled with the wonder and excitement of discovering some new and exhilarating thing that they can’t really process or explain. And those feelings stay with them for days after their flight. This experience is a natural high like no other. It is one of the reasons we have so many repeat customers. One of my first flights was for a television show, Nick News: “The View from My Chair.” We flew children who use wheelchairs. After that flight, when I saw the smiles on all of their faces, I honestly felt that I had helped create a positive and radical shift in other people’s lives. I will never forget that day or that feeling.

We also fly experiments for NASA and for our own customers. When the researchers show up, it is interesting to see that they are from all walks of life, of different ages and backgrounds. But they are all focused on finding the answers to questions that will benefit the planet and the whole human race. I really wish the media would cover more of this type of news. It is amazing, the things they are working on.

On the commercial, fun flights, I just cannot get enough of all the hysterical laughter that we hear in the flight deck, and all the smiles as the customers deplane.

The entire crew agrees that our least favorite part is when we finish our last parabola. But the crew knows that there is a future mission to do it all over again: the perfect arc is out there somewhere!

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