Airsickness in Aircrew


Airsickness came about due to aircraft motion and is characterised by nausea and malaise. This condition also affects other forms of motion, for example, car sickness, seasickness and swing sickness.

Many aircrew trainees suffer from airsickness, and this is especially so during the early stages of training. It is natural to be distressed by this condition but those who are airsick should also know that they are actually among the majority and, like their predecessors, will overcome it as they learn to relax and to have confidence in their ability to succeed.

Symptoms of Airsickness

There are several signs and symptoms associated with airsickness. They are as follows:

  1. Apathy
  2. Headache
  3. Stomach Awareness
  4. Pallor
  5. Perspiration
  6. Nausea
  7. Vomiting
  8. Prostration

Although the symptoms of airsickness usually occur in that sequence, this is not always the case and individuals might vary in their response to this condition. Certain people experience many of these effects, feeling ill for a significant period of time, but they may not actually vomit; others might have a relatively short warning period, vomit and feel better almost instantly.

As far as an aircrew is concerned, the particular symptoms are not significant in themselves. It is the effect that they have on his/her ability to concentrate and to carry out his task which is vital. Vomiting may have special significance as it is commonly perceived as humiliating and therefore slowing down the recovery. The adverse effects of airsickness on aircrew performance are not only important because they waste training time, they also make it challenging for an instructor to assess a student's true ability. If an individual feels mildly unwell, but keeps his symptoms hidden, his poor performance in the air may be attributed to a lack of skill or potential.

Incidence of Airsickness

In a survey conducted on 577 RAF trainee pilots, it showed that:

  • 61.3% of the aircrew trainees suffered from airsickness
  • 24.1% of aircrew trainees suffered from mild airsickness
  • 14.6% of the aircrew trainees suffered from severe airsickness

In this survey, the values of the figures highlighted that airsickness is indeed a common complaint.

Causes of Airsickness

Although the mechanism has not yet been determined with absolute certainty, it is clear that changing acceleration acting on the labyrinth of the inner ear is a basic cause. This is indicated by two observations; firstly, that the incidence and severity of airsickness is closely related to the duration and severity of these accelerations and secondly that individuals without functioning labyrinths are immune to this condition.

It is convenient to categorize and examine these three causes of airsickness as: physiological, physiological with psychological (anxiety) overlay, and purely psychological.

(a) Physiological aspects of airsickness

Head movements during aircraft accelerations predispose to airsickness because of the relatively great angular accelerations imposed on the semi-circular canals due to the short radius of rotation of the head. Furthermore, movement of the head during aircraft rotation can bring different pairs of semi-circular canals into operation, resulting in a sudden rapid disturbance of the fluid within these canals. However, with experience, aircrew adapts to the types of acceleration associated with their particular aircraft and flight manoeuvres.

(b) Psychological factors in the causation of airsickness

I. Anxiety overlay - Worry about adaptation to certain manoeuvres (i.e. spinning & aerobatics) which are commonly associated with airsickness.

II. Primary cause of sickness in the air - Psychological factors: Feeling tense

Prevention of Airsickness

  • Acclimatising to the new environment and radial accelerations by having flights at regular and short intervals.
  • Introduce to trainee gentle air experience flights before engaging in aerobatic manoeuvres.
  • Refresher training for experienced aircrew who was away on long period of ground duty.
  • Aircrew should not fly unless he feels fit and well.

Treatment of Airsickness

  • Aircrew who is suffering from "tension sickness" must realize that his sickness is a reflection of his personality and when he gets to grip with it, he will do very well as his tension disappears.
  • Airsickness is a combination of psychological and physiological factors.
  • Aircrew must never indulge in self-medication for airsickness unless the medical officer decides to prescribe some form of medication.
  • Overcome airsickness by flying regularly.


  • Motion sickness is due to effects of accelerations on the vestibular apparatus.
  • Majority of aircrew trainees suffer some degree of airsickness.
  • Vast majority of individuals adapt with practice.
  • Associated anxiety slows down normal adaptation.
  • Self-medication is dangerous, consult your flight surgeon.
  • Sickness in the air may reflect tension, learn to relax.


1. Antunano, Melchor J., M.D. Medical Facts for Pilots (pdf) Federal Aviation Administration, Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. Publication: AM-400-03/1.

2. T.G.Dobie. (1974). Airsickness in Aircrew. Leeds, UK: Technical Editing and Reproduction Ltd.

3. Kirkner, Frank J. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol 42(4), Aug 1949, 273-285.

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