Parabolic Flight Training
Commanders Zero-G Flight
After almost two years "abstinence" from cosmonaut training I start my journey again on 03.09.2003 by flying back to Moscow with Lufthansa. When I sit in the aeroplane, I have the thoughts in my head, which I had at that time on 12.09.2001, when I set off to my first adventure, the "Sea Survival Training for Cosmonauts".
At that time it was the first trip to Moscow. Meanwhile, it is the third one. At the beginning of June this year I was also in Moscow at Whitsun to clarify some preparatory things for the parabolic flight and had some conversations with Igor Rudyaev, the Foreign Economic Deputy of Star City. Over time, Igor has become a perfect friend, whom I like very much. In July 2002 he was on a short visit to Germany and visited me at home, and this visit deepened our friendship when he met my whole family during a birthday party. We sat on the terrace until half past six in the morning and talked a lot. How I was able to survive this evening, I don't remember today, as he had brought a good bottle of Russian Vodka as a present on his arrival in the afternoon, which we emptied in two hours. He usually wanted to go back to his hotel in Frankfurt in the evening, but this was also not possible for safety reasons.
In the evening of 03.09., the group, with which I go on the parabolic flight, gets a little medical Check-Up and the brought along medical certificates are checked by the Medical service. For a parabolic flight, one should be in a regular physical state of health. High blood pressure and increased pulse are not life-threatening if they do not exceed the value of 160/100 RR; however, they should not be higher. It is also necessary that a thorough medical examination has been carried out in Germany, where mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and claustrophobia are excluded. Imagine if you can't stand it in an elevator, how you feel on board an Ilyushin that has no windows, and you don't know exactly where you are!
After the medical check, we get a briefing on what a parabolic flight means. A video presentation shows awesome pictures from previous parabolic flights. I'm amazed when I see a very familiar face from Formula 1 on the screen, David Coulthard turns in the Ilyushin around his own axis. The settings later are shown how he sits in his silver arrow, and this one tries to make himself independent during the parabola in weightlessness, he would not be so locked with ropes that he can not float up to the ceiling!
Images of the cosmonaut training are shown, and some members of the group are sitting there in the dark room with their mouths open. Winter Training, Water Survival Training, Desert Training, Jet Training and Mission Training. Russian space travel has adapted to the new international habits of cosmonautics over the last few years: the content of the training is still the same as in the 70s, albeit with more modern technology. However, there are now international astronauts in Star City who will form the future crews of the International Space Station or dock modules on future shuttle missions.
After the video presentation the leader of the parabolic flight team introduces himself, his name is Boris. He is the chief instructor, and he explains in brief what safety conditions must be observed before, during and after the flight. Another instructor explains the behaviour during weightlessness, and I feel immediately transferred back to my training in Sochi. If you follow a path like the one I try to follow, you have to learn to clear your head and suppress "fear". You have to be able to let go because the instructors demand a lot from you. You have to know why you have to go to the right when they say: "Go to the right". A good team readiness is sometimes a pleasant starting situation when you are about to set off for the stars!
The chief physician of the parabolic flight training enters the room and explains the medical effects of the parabolic flight for about a quarter of an hour. Most participants find the climb very unpleasant: when the plane is at an altitude of 6,000 meters, and it begins its climb: at an angle of 45 degrees it climbs at full throttle in the direction of the 10,000-meter mark. The acceleration makes everything on board twice heavier! If, for example, you weigh 80 KG on the ground, you weigh 160 KG during the climb!
I can hardly imagine this feeling on this evening. Admittedly I know these feelings from roller coaster riding like many others, but it is not like on the roller coaster. While with the roller coaster all effects only take place within a few seconds, the climb towards the parabola takes several times more.
I am tired and look at the clock. A very long day is coming to an end. Everyone is tired and just wants to go to bed. The doctor says that it is better to have no more than 8 hours of sleep before a parabolic flight and no less than 6 hours. I look at my watch and see that I could just manage 7 hours if I exerted myself. An hour later I am lying on my bed in the hotel room, and in my head, there are a lot of thoughts about cosmonauts and training. On the one hand, I'm tired, on the other side I'm scratched in anticipation of the parabolic flight the next morning. Sometime around 1 o'clock in the morning, I fall asleep and dream of flying.
04/09/2003 - What goes up, must come down!
Around 7 o'clock my mobile phone clatters and I take a long warm shower. The weather in Russia looks quite right when I look out of the window. There's not a cloud in the sky, and it seems like it's going to be a great day. After the shower I put on my flight dress, an original US-Navy-Jet Fighter overall, a rare piece of fabric in Germany. It is fire resistant but very comfortable to wear. It is the summer version, in winter I would probably freeze my ass off in it.
After I have settled my personal things, I meet the group, and a bus takes us to the entrance of Star City, where the crew of the Ilyushin 76 MDK is already waiting for us. From a distance I recognise Igor, I am happy that he is here.
After a short greeting the first "clouds" appear in the sky and I begin to "pray" that the weather should hold. Because it would be very fatal if the parabolic flight could not take place because of a weather problem. By the way, there are only three possibilities that a parabolic plane cannot take off: either technical defects of the aeroplane, weather problems or health problems. This morning I learn that in the long history of Russian space travel it has only happened very rarely that a parabolic flight has not been started or has been aborted during the trip.
After a short, small talk with Boris and Igor I sit on the bus, which brings us to the nearby military airfield. After a quick entrance check the bus moves over the airport, and I notice a lot of aeroplanes standing on the airfields: Antonov´s AH 124, Ilyushin 86 several turboprop aircraft. After another 5 minutes, the bus stops, and we get off. In front of us, the Ilyushin 76 MDK. It is a unique aeroplane and is suitable both for parabolic flights with "living objects" and for laboratory flights, in which the behaviour of liquids or crystals or other materials can be examined. I look at the machine. It seems perfect in shape. The West is not always enthusiastic about Russian technology, some Russian machines are not allowed in Europe at all, either for reasons of volume, emission or technical reasons. I walk around the machine, take some photos and look at the chassis. The profile looks pretty good, I think, then we get the order to go inside the plane.
When I enter the machine, I am surprised, it doesn't look that big from the outside. The interior is about 20 - 30 meters long, about 5 meters wide, 4 meters high. It is well padded on the floor and ceiling, directly behind the entrance is the instructors' command desk. Here medical data is recorded, and movements and exercises are coordinated. I see a Russian officer with the famous big cap. Somehow the officer looks familiar to me, then I recognise him: It was my "chief physician" during the survival training in Sochi. I greet him, he remembers me, and we shake hands. Unfortunately, I forgot his name, later I learn that his name is Yuri! Meanwhile, I know so many Yuris that sometimes I can't tell them apart.
Again it is called, short medical check. Blood pressure and pulse are measured, and the doctor asks about my well-being. My blood pressure is more than okay this morning, and I feel very good. After the routine check, I take a closer look at the machine. The Ilyushin is a transport aeroplane, I recognise the 4 lifting cranes on rails, on each one stands 2,800 kilograms. I walk towards the cockpit, but I don't get far because a crew member won't let me through. Okay, I think I'm on board a military plane, and I understand that.
Then the safety instruction begins again, and we are put on parachutes! Parachutes will ask you? I also asked myself at first, but for safety reasons, it is necessary to carry parachutes during the launch phase. There are no seats! The instructors are patient, there is a special parachute for every body size. So far I have jumped a tandem once in my life, a unique experience and I feel transported back in time. But then someone was there who knew what to do.
After half an hour of instruction in the safety measures on board, we all sit on the floor. At the first parabola, it is recommended to hold on to a pole to give the body enough time to find its way around. Some of the group probably don't think about what I can see on their faces. Since I know why instructors tell me to hold on, I don't think about it and just do it! After 20 minutes the pilot starts the 4 jet engines, it gets loud on board, and you can only communicate with screams. I notice an inner excitement. I am excited about the feeling of weightlessness and can hardly wait. Johan and Steven, two boys from Sweden, sit next to me. I will come to both of them later!
The plane seems to drive forever across the tarmac, and you don't really notice that you are suddenly standing up in the air. The flight is on its prescribed course within minutes. Since it has no windows in the interior, orientation is not possible. I have an excellent orientation ability and notice the flight movements of the Ilyushin. It takes her 20 minutes to climb, and at some point, I see that we have reached our flight altitude. The waiting begins.
Boris smiles and makes his jokes. I forgot to mention something else: before my trip to Russia, a good friend sent me first vomit bags of the British Airways with the request to hand them back to the pilots after use, after all, they are also to blame for a "possible" disaster, if one can examine its stomach contents! The instructors carry "garbage bags" with them. Thank God these are not transparent, I think, and Boris makes his jokes. He says the fee for using a "vomit bag" is 5 dollars! Busy people, these Russians, but more funny!
During my considerations, I suddenly notice that I am getting heavier and can hardly move my legs. The group falls into a state of excitement, and everyone saw that the machine was about to take the first parabola at a 45-degree angle. All of a sudden Boris jumps into the air and grabs the 4-meter high ceiling of the plane. I see this and think: This is it, weightlessness begins. I squeeze my feet off the softly padded floor, but quickly fall back to the ground! Nothing with weightlessness and notice that Boris has been back on the ground for a long time! Astonishment is spreading, have I slept through weightlessness?
Only later will I learn: professional and trained pilots who are allowed to fly parabolas can cause a condition of 0.3 G shortly before weightlessness. 0.3 G have you heard of before? Correct: this is the gravity you can experience on the lunar surface. You probably remember the Apollo astronauts' pictures jumping around on the moon: it was precisely this movement I saw with Boris, a fast one flying to the ceiling, and a slow one returning to the ground!
Still, in my thoughts of the Apollo astronauts, I am surprised by the weightlessness from one second to the next: I notice how the weightlessness spreads from the tail of the plane, I set about in the middle. My feet, in front of me, suddenly move towards the ceiling. Hold on, I think, just don't let go, and my mind wins! I turn on my head, my feet stand on the ceiling. I see my Swedish colleagues turning around their own vertical axis like in a merry-go-round, and an instructor gently leads their hands back to the bar. My mind doesn't really realise that I am weightless for the first time in 38 years! I see the world with different eyes and feel very good. It is as if my mind leaves my body and can observe myself in the state of weightlessness.
A now almost indescribable feeling (Boris says to me later in a quiet second: "Zero-G is better than Sex!") seizes me, it is almost a spiritual experience. Thousands of thoughts shoot through my head, I think strangely of black holes and their transitions of matter, called "Event Horizon". I don't remember how I came up with it. I move down again with muscle movements, then up again, always holding the pole. What happens around me, I only notice like in a dream: I see something, but I don't know what.
As fast as weightlessness has started, it ends again. There is a lamp in the plane that indicates when the weightlessness is coming to an end, and then you should quickly move back towards the "ground" of the plane, even if at first you don't know where the ground really is. The first parabola comes to an end, and the acceleration forces increase again to 2 G, which, however, is not perceived by my mind any more as when the Ilyushin ascends into the parabola!
The whole thing is often repeated, I float through the Ilyushin like a bird. Free-flying, turning around its own axis, rolling along the ceiling of the plane (with the support of an instructor, mind you). I get used to weightlessness. I am neither sick nor euphoric! During the parabolas, the thought manifests itself in me as it is to be weightless for a more extended period. I am on a flight into my inner self, and now I belong to those people in the world who have experienced the loss of weight in this way since 1961 - be it through parabolic flights or through flights into space, and I am proud of myself. If I had been asked three years ago whether I could imagine this, I would have said: Never. How could I achieve such a goal?
And now I have experienced weightlessness. A feeling that is difficult to describe. You have to have experienced it yourself to be able to express it only approximately. Or try to explain the sensation during sex with words, if I may quote Boris!
After 1.5 hours we return to the military airport and land safely on the tarmac. The whole flight passes in minutes. The weightlessness lasts with each parabola only approx. 25 to 27 seconds. Doesn't sound like much, but try the following. Look at your watch and check for yourself how long 27 seconds can last, half an eternity for you, milliseconds for me in weightlessness! When I get out of the plane and feel "firm" ground under me again, I would like to get back in immediately and experience the whole thing again. But I think there will be a next time! Unimaginable.
Thoughts go through my head: 6 years ago I built my first own homepage on the Internet, which had taken care of the topics space travel and astronomy because there were no tremendous German-language homepages to the topics in the time. And 4 years later I was allowed to train with American and Russian space travellers what it means to leave a Soyuz after an emergency landing and to survive in the sea. 6 years later I walk along the ceiling of an Ilyushin! My way manifests itself in my head: I have to go into space. Must make this my experience in my life! My soul insists on it! And I will share this experience with everyone!
By Andreas P. Bergweiler - Parabolic Flight - September 2003
Andreas P. Bergweiler – Parabolic Flight Training - September 2003