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.