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Usually — but not always — after descending in a commercial jet airliner, my ears really hurt for several days, accompanied by minor hearing loss.

Nonetheless, I am still in love with aviation. I am thinking of starting my lessons to become an ultralight (UL) pilot. Could flying a non-pressurized plane actually make these problems worse?

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False. UL airplanes usually will not climb very high(to avoid controlled airspace or other reasons) and climb rates are not so impressive either. Cabin altitude is about 10000ft inside an airliner. You can fly UL at 1000ft most of the time and enjoy the scenery unless you live somewhere in the mountains. I am a glider tug pilot and usually I don't feel anything though I drop from 800m(2600ft) at a maximum rate plane can handle exceeding 2000ft/min. I sometimes can feel the pressure difference in a commercial airplane.

Also you don't have to wait till you feel the pain. Just hold your nose with the fingers, close the mouth and try to blow as soon as you start to feel anything. It will release an inside pressure. Do it many times during the altitude change. If you wait to long if will be much harder or impossible to do that. I towed gliders while sick and having running nose, cold, ect. No problems at all.

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  • $\begingroup$ The general practice that passengers need to do to avoid ear pain is called ear clearing. If you're not able to use one ear clearing method, try some other ones. $\endgroup$ – Tanner Swett Feb 8 '18 at 17:38
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Commercial airliners are generally pressurized to a cabin altitude of around 8000 feet when at high altitudes. So it depends a bit on where you live. If you live near sea level, you're feeling around 8000 feet of pressure change. If you live somewhere higher like Denver, you're only feeling around 3000.

Small unpressurized planes, especially ultralights, will tend to fly at lower altitudes, usually within a few thousand feet from the ground. If you live at a lower elevation, this will be much less pressure change than in an airliner. If you live at a higher elevation, it would be more comparable.

That being said, it may only take a few hundred feet of elevation change for the pressure to noticeably change, and each person may react differently. If you're worried about making commitments to flight training before you know how you'll handle it, you can go on a discovery flight, even just in a small Cessna.

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  • $\begingroup$ The last sentence of this answer really is the most important IMO. Beyond generalizations, it's hard to tell exactly how unpressurized light aircraft movement will affect the OP specifically, but a discovery flight is a relatively low-cost (\$100-\$150 or even \$200 really isn't much if you're contemplating getting a pilot's license), low-commitment option to find out whether it's likely to work out in one's specific case. It also allows for the option of the proverbial bailing out at almost any time by simply telling the pilot "I can't handle this, let's head back to the airport". $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 6 '18 at 12:10
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It is not only the absolute pressure (aka cabin altitude, an altitude at which the standard ambient pressure is the same as in the cabin) that counts, but the rate of change as well.

As other have said, the cabin altitude in typical non-pressurised GA airplanes will often be more favourable than in airliners, by the virtue of flying lower. But the cabin climb rate, and especially the descent rate (which we tolerate worse), can be much higher.

The pressurisation systems are typically programmed such that the cabin altitude rates didn't exceed ±500 fpm in normal operation, regardless of what the aircraft is doing. That is, even if the aircraft descends at -2000 fpm, the cabin altitude will 'descend' much slower. In the end, it only needs to 'descend' from (typically) 8000 ft, rather than from the airliner's 30000 ft.

Conversely, in a non-pressurised aircraft you'll have the same rate of change as the aircraft's own climb/descent rate. Touring GA aircraft typically descend at about -500 fpm, which is gentle enough. Yet now it depends on the pilot's skill and the task at hand. A fast descent even from a low altitude may hurt.

I don't have particular problems with altitude changes, but the most painful experience I ever had was similar to what @Andrius referred to: a very fast descent (or rather dive!) after dropping parachutists from 800 m, so that we land before them. Not only my ears, my eyes felt hurt!

In other words, if you are touring and not flying over mountains (above ~8000 ft), and have a minimally experienced pilot (or learn to fly yourself), you may feel better than in an airliner. But many kinds of special airwork, or an emergency, may pose a greater problem.

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