John Henry Benisch II is a pilot for the Zero Gravity Corporation, which carries passengers (and microgravity experiments) aboard a modified Boeing 727 that flies repeated parabolic arcs to mimic weightlessness, albeit for shorter periods. Captain Benisch spoke last December with senior editor Pat Trenner, who “went zero” herself in October 2009.
Air & Space: What attracted you to the job as pilot of the Boeing 727 G-FORCE ONE?
Benisch: My chief pilot, Captain Ed Cook, asked me if I would be interested in training for Parabolic Flight on G-FORCE ONE. I said, “maybe?” I was in class two days later. Sometimes opportunity knocks on your front door, and sometimes it sneaks in the back door. I cannot imagine my life without ZERO-G. I am ever in debt to a wise chief pilot. The thrill and challenge of parabolic flight is the never-ending pursuit of the “perfect” parabolic arc; as conditions change, no two arcs are ever the same. It helps to be flying an incredible airplane. In my opinion, the Boeing 727-200 platform is the perfect airframe for parabolic flight. It has three crew members and three tail mounted engines, which allows for triple redundancy for all aspects related to safety. It is not only built like a Sherman Tank, it is also built for speed.
How many hours have you logged flying parabolic arcs, and how many hours have you spent in the other end of G-FORCE ONE, experiencing microgravity yourself?
I have 3,300 pilot-in-command hours on the B-727-200 platform, and I have accomplished 4,136 parabolic arcs. I have been in the cabin floating zone twice during initial training. Another trainee and I had the whole back of the aircraft to ourselves to see if we would experience motion sickness. It was simply awesome.
Some arcs seem more intense, with more hang time, so to speak, than others. What is your technique for achieving those extended arcs?
I was trained by Captain Nader Daily. He said to me on the first day of training, “John, it is so much more of an art than it is a science.” About parabolic flight, no truer words have been spoken. Each mission brings with it different aircraft weights, different weather, different center of gravity and different airspace to work in. My personal technique begins the night before each mission. I meditate about the mission from pre-flight through post flight while listening to very relaxing music. There is a lot going on in the flight deck, so it is essential that all three crew members be relaxed and focused on achieving great arcs. We all focus intently on the instruments. I am responsible for THE PULL and controlling the hyper gravity, or 1.8Gs, in the climb segment, and on the PUSH OVER controlling the amount of micro gravity that is experienced. We can create lunar, Martian or zero gravity depending on the mission requirements. The key is controlling the micro-gravity in the PUSH with micro precision. It is quite a workout.
The First Officer is responsible for controlling the thrust on the climb portion and on the PUSH OVER where the pod-mounted engines are set to idle thrust and the center engine thrust must be precisely set to avoid forward or aft drift in the back. A small error in this part could result in all of the fliers piling up in either the front or back of the aircraft. The Flight Engineer monitors all the aircraft systems on the flight engineer’s panel. He also monitors all instruments and G limits, and co-ordinates all the flight deck callouts, and all the communications with the flight coaches and flight attendants in the back. It is always nice to have a 150 -knot headwind too. But in the end, trust me: all arcs are intense!
Why did ZERO-G put winglets on G-FORCE ONE?
Winglets improve aerodynamic lift on the wing by decreasing a portion of induced drag. This allows for greater fuel efficiency. And they look really cool too.
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!