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Suppose a person suffers from motion sickness when flying, but wishes to become a pilot (let us say, with the eventual goal of flying for a major commercial airline). Is this possible?

  • Is motion sickness a medical disqualification for a pilot's license, in many or most jurisdictions?

  • Most over-the-counter motion sickness medications cause drowsiness, so they are obviously not a good idea for a pilot to take. Do pilots have access to other effective treatments that are safe to use while operating an aircraft?

  • Do pilots find that they get over motion sickness the more they fly, similar to the way sailors develop "sea legs"?

  • Are pilots taught techniques to remain focused on flying even if they are experiencing motion sickness symptoms (nausea, vomiting, dizziness, etc)?

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    $\begingroup$ I should read the question better, saw you mentioned sea legs :P What I also found is that being mentally occupied/stimulated also distracts from the nausea. If you need to fly the plane, I think the nausea will not be such a significant distraction. $\endgroup$ – Thunderstrike Nov 8 '15 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ In a car the driver does not experience motion sickness even if they usually do as passengers. However in a car one can anticipate most motions from the control inputs and what they see, which is not the case of aircraft in turbulence. In a car one also always has visual reference, which again is not true of aircraft in instrument meteorological conditions. Therefore I am not sure how much the effect applies to aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 8 '15 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec: Also, for aircraft with two pilots, the "control inputs" point would not be much help for the PNF. There would be a similar issue for a plane with an autopilot. $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '15 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ Visual cues do help ppl with motion sickness. I am slighly prone to motion sickness in the back seat of a car, but not the front passenger seat or while driving. If I try to read or something where im not loking out the window I can get a little queasy too. For me it's the lack of correlation between visual cues and vestibular cues. But there's a difference with flying. You can see bumps and curves, but you can't see turbulence. Sometimes you can't see anything. Oddly, though, I never get sick riding on an airplane - go figure. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Nov 8 '15 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ I have motion sickness (can't read while in a car even), but flying is fine except for unusual attitude practice. That makes me sick, so we always just do that last. Oddly flying IFR through bumpy clouds is fine. It's just the specific procedures for unusual attitudes that make it unbearable. $\endgroup$ – Brian Knoblauch May 26 '16 at 16:30
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The short answer is yes. I can't answer all your questions in detail, but here's some US-based information.

First, is it disqualifying? According to the FAA, if a candidate for a medical says he suffers from motion sickness then "a careful history" is required, and if the person requires medication then FAA approval (i.e. a special issuance) is needed. So it all depends on the person's individual situation, but it is definitely possible to get a medical, even if you require medication. Motion sickness also seems to be fairly common in new pilots, by the way:

Approximately 10% of all students taking flight training will become airsick at some point during their first 10 flights; 15-20% of these will have a severe enough form to interfere with their control of the aircraft.

Second, are there alternatives to medication? The FAA has a video about motion sickness and how to deal with. I haven't watched it but the description implies yes:

This video provides practical advice on diet, medications and other exercises to help cope with this potential problem

Wikipedia also mentions various treatments although some (like head-mounted displays) seem impractical for civil aviation at least.

Third, do pilots adjust over time? Apparently, yes. This FAA document says:

The experienced or acrobatic pilot is conditioned to withstand abrupt attitude changes that a passenger or helicopter pilot might not have experienced.

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Continued gradually escalating exposure is the most common process for facilitating adaptation. Several days and repeated sessions of flying usually conditions the patient to the new environment.

That exposure would also be an alternative to medication, of course. And Sami's answer has some interesting personal experiences.

Finally, are pilots taught techniques to stay focused on flying? Instrument rated pilots are trained to ignore their physical sensations and focus fully on their instruments instead. But that training has nothing to do with motion sickness as such, and I have no idea how pilots who do suffer from motion sickness are affected (or not) when flying on instruments.

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I think there is no straight yes or no answer to this question. It all depends on the level of one's sickness.
"To suffer from motion sickness" is a relatively loose definition. I would say everyone suffers from it, once the motion is rough enough. The key is how much can one take and how much it affects one's ability to pilot the aircraft. A pilot shouldn't get sick in normal operation.
Out of personal experience, I suffered from motion sickness during my initial training in air force. I got nausious on aerobatic flights, and that prevented me from going beyond basic training. However, I applied to a civil aviation academy and I'm currently employed as a commercial airline pilot, and have no problems with motion sickness in an airliner.
A commercial jet pilot doesn't experience aerobatics or rough maneuvres and therefore is less prone to nausea.
As of the sea legs, yes. Experience most certainly helps, and one gets less and less nausious.
Simplified a little, motion sickness itself is caused by conflicting perceptions from your balance organs (sorry, don't know all the english terms) in your middle ear and from your secondary balance receptors, such as sight.
Meaning that if your inner ear organs feel that you're for example tilting your head to the right, but if you read a book and the book stays still, your sight is telling you that you're still. Your brain can't decide which one is correct, and you get nausious.
During pilot training this is explained, but at least in my studies, the techniques to handle motion sickness was mostly up to me.

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With regular practice, your body may become used to the motion so that motion sickness lessens or goes away (also going on roller coasters etc may help - although I personally don't like roller coasters and have never tried it).

You may find that being in the driving seat (i.e. doing the flying), lessens or removes motion sickness and you only feel it as a passenger when you are not looking at an horizon (real or artificial). I can go up in the roughest weather when I'm doing the flying but don't like it too much when a passenger.

But if these (and other measures) don't work, ultimately it may well stop you if you have symptoms anything other than very minor, because motion sickness is so debilitating, it would prevent you from relaxing and stop you from thinking and functioning as a pilot.

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