June is tough on me. It’s my heaviest month, burdened by important dates that all relate to my dad. The 6th was my parent’s wedding anniversary (1959), the 9th was my father’s birthday (1932), my dad passed away on the 15th (1988), and Father’s Day is always the third Sunday in June, which every few years, coincides with the date of my dad’s death. It’s no wonder my father has been on my mind almost constantly as the June Gloom, our dense summer marine layer, blankets San Francisco.
I recently penned an essay about my father and his work with the KC135 aircraft. My father, Major Charles Edward Hart, was a navigator on the Stratotanker planes that were used for mid-air refueling missions during the Vietnam War. Most of my father’s work duties were conducted at Castle Air Force Base in California’s Central Valley, where Dad taught other aviators the intricacies of celestial navigation. But occasionally he would be sent on a TDY assignment to another base where he’d work for a few weeks. He’d been to Turkey, Korea, Thailand, England, and several other destinations abroad. But his most exotic TDY, at least for me, was his stint as a navigator on the Vomit Comet.
The standard KC 135 Stratotanker is basically a gas station in the air. The fuselage holds massive quantities of jet fuel that get funneled mid-flight through a boom to the tanks of fighter planes that fly just below the Stratotanker. But the Vomit Comet is an extra special Stratotanker, a KC135 that’s had its fuselage stripped of tanks and lined with cushions that make it akin to the padded room one might find in a psych facility. The repurposed plane with its crew of three—pilot, co-pilot, and navigator—fly a series of parabolas at 25,000 to 35,000 feet creating about 30 seconds of weightlessness at the apex of each arc. This zero gravity environment and padded fuselage are the perfect training resource for astronauts, but can also be helpful for fighter pilots who may experience moments of anti-gravity in their maneuvers. The downside is that this weightlessness fosters nausea for most people, thus the moniker “Vomit Comet”.
I don’t know much about my father’s assignments on the Vomit Comet, but I do know how the aircraft creates the feeling of zero Gs. Basically, the KC135 gives its crew the experience of weightlessness through flying multiple parabolic flight paths relative to the center of the Earth. The parabolas start with the KC135 climbing at a pitch angle of 45 degrees using aggressive engine thrust; during this phase, gravity increases to approximately 2Gs. Weightlessness is achieved by reducing engine thrust and lowering the nose to create a zero lift state, in which the engine thrust perfectly compensates for drag. Weightlessness begins during the last few seconds of ascent and lasts all the way up and over the peak of the parabola until the KC135 reaches a downward pitch angle of around 30 degrees, where gravity normalizes, then increases again to 2G.
On Father’s Day I looked for photographs of the Vomit Comet and found a few of them, including a KC135 Stratotanker bearing NASA livery. But I found something much more fun as well, the band OK Go and their video for the song “Upside Down and Inside Out”. Filmed aboard a Russian version of the Vomit Comet, the video shows the band in multiple scenes of complete weightlessness and utter pandemonium. With my mirror-sensory synaesthesias and obsession with color, this video is my new favorite thing and a wonderful antidote to the emotional weight of June. “Upside Down and Inside Out” makes me feel like I’m floating, and the spinning maneuvers of the flight attendants fill me with giddy joy. My mirror sensory synaesthesia paired with the uptempo song “Upside Down and Inside Out” provides a sensory simulacrum of zero Gs without any of the…..well…..you know. They don’t call it the Vomit Comet for nothing!
I wish my Dad was alive to see this video. I think he’d get a kick out of “Upside Down and Inside Out”, and he’d likely have some wild stories to share that recount his adventures with parabolic flight paths. And of course, I wish I could share my synaesthetic perspectives with him. I don’t know if my father had synaesthesia and I probably never will have an answer to that question. But I do know that my father was, for at least a least for a few moments of his life, weightless.