Thanks to the Education Department of the European Space Agency (ESA) I was lucky enough to participate in the 8th Student Parabolic Flight Campaign (SPFC), which took place in Bordeaux from the 12th to the 29th July 2005. This is a small account of my experience during those days, with a special focus on the aviation part of it.
For those of you who do not know, a parabolic flight is a flight when, during a few seconds at a time, the occupants have the opportunity to experience weightlessness. In this specific case, a converted Airbus A300B2 (F-BUAD, the third prototype to come off the line and the oldest-flying Airbus around) is used. The aircraft is owned by Novespace (which also guarantees the safety of all the experiments onboard), maintained by EADS Sogerma (their next-door neighbours at Bordeaux-Mérignac) and crewed by the CEV (Centre d’Essais en Vol, the French flight test centre).
The basic process adopted by this aircraft is the following (some of the numbers came from the safety briefing from the Captain and I am not too sure if I remember them correctly). In level flight (at 20,000 ft and 340 knots, I believe) one of the pilots pulls on the yoke rapidly so that the airplane assumes an unusually steep nose-up pitch. During about 20 seconds the aircraft and its occupants suffer an acceleration of 1,8 g (hyper-gravity), until the aircraft is in the extremely unusual attitude of 47º nose-up (I think I heard at 25,000 ft but that would be an extremely high rate-of-climb). When this occurs the throttle is reduced so as to match as closely as possible the drag and the aircraft is placed near the angle of attack of zero-lift. With weight the only resulting force acting on the aircraft the aircraft assumes a ballistic (parabolic) trajectory, resulting in lack of apparent gravity (actually, closer to + or - 0,05 g) for 20-22 seconds. During that time the aircraft isn’t actually flying but more falling out of the sky (at the top of the parabola the speed is around 120 knots).
When the attitude of the aircraft is 42º nose-down the pilots initiate the recovery manoeuvre (again, 1,8g for approximately 20 seconds). During this whole process, one (test) pilot controls only the pitch axis while the other one controls the roll axis, the throttles being operated by one of the flight engineers. In normal weather conditions the flights take place over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France, with the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Corsica the alternative. A dedicated air traffic controller is assigned for the parabolic flights.
The most visible differences of the aircraft are in the interior: just behind the cockpit there are two flight-test consoles. On the fore and aft parts of the cabin there are normal airline seats for take-off, landing and other occasions, with the experimental area in the middle, completely covered with protective foam. Most of the airline equipment, including lavatories and some escape slides, has been deactivated, with the exception of some storage places at the galley filled with two things: vomit bags and bottles of water (for after the parabolas)!
Now for my experiences:
As a part of the second group of students I arrived by car at Bordeaux on the 19th July (a Tuesday), after a 12-hour car trip. Our experiment was relatively simple, so we had it ready at the end of the next day (we transported it mostly pre-assembled). Being the first team to load the experiment on the aircraft on Thursday morning we thought we would get the next two days basically free. Unfortunately we had electrical problems when using the aircraft power distribution system and so had to spend those two days working inside the (extremely hot) aircraft.
The planning of the campaign had one familiarization flight on the following Monday afternoon (where all four team members would travel together) and experimental flights on Tuesday and Wednesday morning (two team members on each flight). Even though on Sunday some of us went to the beach (la Dune du Pyla) and I was very tired I can assure you I hardly slept that night!
On Monday morning we had the safety briefing. After some words from Phillipe Willekens, head of ESA’s education department, and Elisabeth Celton, the campaign organizer, we had presentations from the Captain (with details on the flight and the aircraft) as well as the very funny on-board doctor and chief safety assistant (during the flights there are about 4 cabin safety assistants, distinguishable by their orange flight suits – ours are blue – to ensure everything is safe and people don’t fool around too much). From the doctor we learned why people get sick in absence of gravity (the inner ear stops working and the brain relies solely on the eyes for information on orientation) and the best way to stop it from happening (try not to move and to look at a fixed point during the 1,8g phase), while Didier (the safety assistant) gave some tips on how to control your movements in zero-g and detailed what is forbidden to do.
After a very early and light lunch (I started being more careful with the food and stopped drinking the great Bordeaux wine the day before) I got dressed for flight and took the little magic pill the doctor gave us (anti-sickness medication). Even though take-off was only at 14:00, the aircraft doors closed at 13:30.
Before take-off we taxied by EADS Sogerma and the Dassault factory, where I was able to see a green Falcon 900 (I believe) and a Mirage 2000. Heading for the Atlantic, everyone was at their seats buzzing with anticipation (during the 5 parabolas of the familiarization flight everyone has to remain seated with the seatbelt fastened with some slack), except for a safety assistant who somehow was sleeping.
“10 minutes for first parabola”, we heard over the P.A. system. Were it not for the Valium-like side-effects of the medication calming me down I would be jumping all over the cabin. “5 minutes”: the anticipation grew. “1 minute”. As time passed we started hearing the words that have become very famous in our minds. “10…..5…3…2…1…Pull up”: hyper-gravity starts, everyone is very still trying not to get sick on the first parabola. “30” (degrees nose-up). “40……Injection”. A second or two after this magical word and all the dedicated future scientists turn into little kids. You can hear screams of joy everywhere (as in a roller coaster) and I can assure you no-one on that aircraft is thinking about their experiment. During the first few parabolas, especially when you’re sitting down, you feel either like you are falling down (which you are…) or that someone has turned you upside down like in roller coaster. “20” (degrees nose-down). “30…….Pull out”. As the pilots recovers the aircraft from this fall the occupants face 1,8g once again (you know it is happening when you hear the sound of posteriors crashing onto the seat cushions). The end of the pull-out phase is marked by the sound of the ventilation system supplying the cabin with fresh air (it does not work during the parabola). During the next four parabolas we had the opportunity to watch Didier show what not to do in zero gravity.
Even though for most people it is a wonderfully liberating experience some become very sick: one person threw up seven times during the 5 parabolas, felt horribly and decided not to go on the much longer experimental flight. Oddly enough some people feel sick after the parabolas have ended, not during them. When we landed I heard a really deserved round of applause for the first time on an aircraft.
In the rest of the afternoon we had to battle the desire to sleep caused by the medication and the unbearable heat and humidity of Bordeaux in order to get some work done.
Even though I had to wake up very early the following day (Tuesday 26th) for the flight (doors close at 8:30) I went to bed late because of stuff I had to do. I was concerned that only 5 hours of sleep and a crappy breakfast would make me get sick during the flight, which fortunately did not happen. This time the good doctor also gave us a caffeine tablet, to take only in case we got too drowsy.
In spite of going to the Mediterranean to avoid bad weather during the Atlantic (the flight length increases from 3 to 4 hours) we still found turbulence, which affected some of the parabolas. After take-off we headed for the experiment area, turned things on and patiently waited. “10 minutes to first parabola”: a spontaneous choir started singing “The Final Countdown”, by Europe.
Let me tell you one thing: first of all, you cannot swim in air, with or without gravity. It simply isn’t dense enough. For that reason, it is difficult to move around in zero-g unless you grab on to or push something. The experimental cabin is filled with places you can grab (ropes, straps and handrails) and the safety assistants are there to assure you don’t just start floating around (if you wish there is a special area at the front where you can do it, protected by nets – I went there twice). As you can easily fall on someone’s experiment (there is a reason they have foam all around) you are forbidden to free-float in the cabin. This all leads up to one story:
The first parabola is for crew warm-up and for experimenters to get a comfortable position for working. For the second parabola I had my leg around one of the floor straps to have my hands clear. As 0-g started my leg accidentally got loose: what happened afterwards is still a bit blurry but I remember hitting my head against something (to this day I still don’t know if it was the padded ceiling or the hard handrail) and trying desperately to hang on to something. As my team-mate was unable to grab me I just floated around the cabin out of control until I accidentally kicked Elisabeth. At that point her and a safety assistant that had reached the scene were able to hold me down against the floor until pull-out. The safety assistant who saw the whole thing called the doctor to make sure my head was ok (must be a change from seeing all the vomiting people) but there was no problem. Even though I explained everything was an accident I believe they got a bit mad at me, as during the next few parabolas one of them was always close…
The rest of the flight went without problems. I discovered it was actually easier for me to stand hypergravity standing up and holding on to something (they don’t recommend it but that is what they do) and we were able to perform all our scientific objectives and still have some fun – the ceiling of that particular A300 is full of my footprints. By the 10th parabola, approximately, I managed to have a good (not perfect) sense of orientation in 0-g and control my movements better, which means they weren’t as fun but still extremely enjoyable…
This time no-one threw up, even though some people got a bit sick. The hardest part is probably after the parabolas have ended – 31 parabolas in a hot suit is a lot, and the side effects of the medication (like a dry throat) really start kicking in. During the 45-minute cruise back to Bordeaux we had ample time to consider how lucky we were to have that unforgettable opportunity to experience something very few people have felt. It really is the ultimate “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” experience.
I was also lucky enough to experience a parabola from the cockpit. During one of the breaks I entered the cockpit, where four very concentrated people (two pilots and two flight engineers) didn’t even notice me come in. I seated on a specially assigned seat on the left of the cockpit and waited for the next parabola. Unfortunately the very dark cockpit and the very bright outside world, coupled with the position of the seat means you have very little visual situational awareness (i.e. by looking outside you do not get to feel the true aircraft pitch). From where I was seating I could see clearly two cockpit instruments: the airspeed indicator and the artificial horizon. During the pull-up phase I managed to see the airspeed really dropping, which is a bit scary. As we reached 0-g the most striking things were one of the flight engineers floating in the cockpit (his seatbelt was a bit loose) and the almost continuous sounding of the stall warning (I figure with all the modifications they did to the aircraft they could have done something about it…). When pull-out came I decided to focus my sight (recommended) on the artificial horizon: I was a bit scared to see a giant brown ball taking over the entire thing! Luckily I started seeing some blue until finally things were stabilized. Even though for an aviation geek like myself it is an experience you cannot miss I have to admit someone would probably have more fun spending that parabola in the cabin.
Even though Bordeaux is one of the largest cities in the country the airport is not particularly busy, perhaps due to the centralization of almost all transport in France around Paris. Apart from the occasional Air France A319 or A320 most of the traffic you see headed for the civil terminal is regional aircraft. Luckily some facilities around the airport make it more interesting to see. EADS Sogerma, a large civil and military maintenance facility, is responsible for a few interesting movements in Bordeaux-Mérignac (like C-235s) and a lot of parked aircraft (I counted at least eight VolareWeb A320s waiting for new owners and one retired Caravelle). Dassault also has their only final-assembly plant located in the airport, which means you occasionally get to see fly past Atlantiques and “green” Falcons (they are painted and fitted in the USA) and hear Mirages/Rafales fly past (hear because when you try to get outside to look at them they are already gone). Luckily there is also a training facility from the French Air Force with about a dozen Alpha Jets and a few twin-propeller aircraft I couldn’t identify. During the (long) slow periods it was fairly usual to watch them train over the airport: I often ran outside after hearing a loud noise, hoping to see a gorgeous Rafale, only to watch two Alpha Jets performing mock dogfights low over the airport.
I would just like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at the ESA Education Department that made this fantastic campaign possible: Elisabeth (sorry about the kick), Garric, José, Aage, Thor and of course Phillipe. To every student involved in the campaign, especially those in the second group: thank you very much for the two unforgettable weeks I spent in Bordeaux, this campaign would be nothing without committed, energetic and fun people like you.
As for the most helpful people at Novespace (Christophe, Frederic and Thierry) and the very professional flight crew: you have the best job in the world!