Learning to Fly, Strip, and Vomit on a 727
Since I was a kid, I've wanted to be weightless. I really wanted to go to space, but part of going to space was being weightless. Just to hold something up in front of me, and have it stay right there is the idea of magic. As I got older, I battled gravity. My start in showbiz was as a juggler. Jugglers fight gravity. The hack jugglers cover a drop with a "standard" (meaning it's been stolen so much, those who didn't write it conveniently consider it to be public domain) 'cover' (it doesn't really cover very much, they know the prop is on the floor and they know you're chasing it, bent over like you're chasing a duck) line, "Sudden gust of gravity."
Now, that I'm 45 years old and I weight 280 pounds, gravity is a less sporting and more real enemy. I'm 6'6" tall and I still remember Leslie Fiedler writing in "Freaks, Myths of our Secret Selves" that "gravity is not kind to those who grow too large." As we get older, it seems the jockey build is healthier.
No one knows what gravity is. I mean we just don't know. There is no good theory. A good theory in science is one that we're damn sure is true: The Earth goes around the Sun. Evolution is how we got here. No one seriously doubts those. But, gravity, well, we just don't know.
So, right now, the only way you can feel weightless for more than a couple rollercoaster seconds is by getting far enough away from Earth, or taking the Vomit Comet. The Vomit Comet is how NASA trains astronauts (the Russians must do it too, right?). They take a big old airplane and they go up and down really fast. When they go up, you weight 1.8 times your weight, and when they go down, you weigh around 0.
The FAA has always given NASA a monopoly on losing all your pounds of ugly fat (along with muscle, bone, and everything else). Astronauts get to ride it, some scientists get to ride it, and that's about it. Ron Howard made some backroom deal (it MUST have included sexual favors) to be able to shoot "Apollo 13," on the NASA Vomit Comet and they talked about it a bit, but it was soon quieted down. You're not REALLY supposed to use a government-funded program to make movies. Not really. I mean, I'm glad Tom, Gary, and Kevin got to fly, but if everyone really thought about it, why can't we all ride?
A couple free-market nuts at NASA decided they LOVED Zero G, and it was time to get off the socialist tit, and buy their own Vomit Comet and start selling rides on it. Everything the Vomit Comet does in within the specs of planes, and why can't we do what Ron and Tom got to do? That was the idea.
When they first got this harebrained scheme, I heard about it. It seems that when anyone gets a harebrained scheme, I'm CC'd on the memo. I loved nuts, I'm for nuts, I am nuts. They all get in touch with me. I told them I thought it was a great idea (and you know how much that means), and I wrote them email, gave them tickets to our show, and went to dinner with them a couple times.
They were going to get approval to fly a 727 very fast right straight down very soon. It was going to be a matter of months. That was 6 years ago. But, I kept talking to them, and whenever they gave me a date, I said I would be there, until it fell through again. Us free-market guys are always fighting the man.
Well, they finally fought the law and kinda sorta won. They at least won enough for me to fly. I finally did it. After 6 years of grueling cheerleading, I got be be weightless. Only about 600 people in the world have felt the feeling. And as I sit here in my office at home, my body knows something it never knew before. It knows how it feels to be weightless for more than a second or two. And I feel it. I feel it every now and again. Just sitting here, I have the feeling in my whole body, that I might be able to just float away. I might be able to just take off. My Zero G buddies tell me that now my body knows, I'll have astronaut dreams. I will dream of floating and flying. I'm a different person. I'm old and huge and I have very bad eyes, it's unlikely I'll get into space for real -- but, I've been weightless, and now my body knows something it didn't know. I know what it feels like to weigh nothing, and I know that all the way through.
It was not without price. I had to get up early. We've been working hard on my show for the Sci-Fi Channel called "Fi-Sci with Penn Jillette, the Fiction Science Show," and I needed a rest, but I got up early in Vegas and caught the 8:10 to Burbank. Getting up, wasn't hard. I was as excited as a little kid and didn't sleep anyway. I decided to have a Cinnebon ("You pig!") for breakfast because I thought it might taste nice coming back up. I slept the whole flight to Burbank. I went from Burbank to Van Nuys by car.
These buddies of mine from NASA, Ray, Bob, and Peter, with a former astronaut, Byron, are the guys that started Zero G, a company to make the Vomit Comet available to the public. They met Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) in an airport and got him on the same jag as me. He's also a guy that cheerleads for nuts. Look at us for christ's sake. He was going up too. This was not a public flight. This was to get the pilots better at hitting perfect "Zero G" and try out the plane.
On board would be two pilots, Ray, Bob, Byron, and Peter. There were also going to be a flight doctor, a nurse, and two paramedics. Peter's girlfriend, who is a platinum blond, way big after-market breasted women in who works in nuclear medicine dressed VERY oddly for space was going for her first ride. And then there was Billy, and me. That was it. Billy, Sandra (the blond), and I were on the manifest as employees. Hey, we are employees. We've been cheerleading for 6 years.
So, there was Billy, big as life, with the big old Warner Brothers cartoon hillbilly beard, an African hat, a $250,000 Gibson starburst, a 6 pack of beer, and a specially made amp. The amp was made in a can of peanuts. He looked great. Billy is thin. Shaved he would weigh about 100 pounds. He was beaming all over. I've known Billy about 15 years, and although we don't see each other much, he feels like a friend. The medical people were very officious and not really joining in the merriment. Ray, the big cheese for Zero G, was so happy to see Billy and me. We were ready to go.
We walked out on the runway and there was the mystical plane that would battle gravity for us. It was a beat up 727 that said, "Mexicargo" on the side. Oh goodness. I'm not one to engage a lot in ethnic humor, but I did have to have some fun talking to Billy about our lives riding on "beans and Bondo." Man, it looked jury-rigged, and fly-by-night. But we were ready.
I explained to everyone that I was trying to shoot a hunk for Fi-Sci. I couldn't have a crew on board, so Ray, was going to do the shooting on a fancy DV camera. The movie Fi-Sci would be exploring the science behind would be "Barbarella" and the idea was to compare Hanoi Jane's strip in Zero G, which of course, was faked by lying on glass in Hollywood, with a REAL strip in Zero G by me. Yup, I was going to go weightless and strip naked. Sandra really wanted to join me, and I thought it would help the show, but Peter, her boyfriend, thought her stripping would hurt Zero G's credibility with the FAA. I guess big fat guys stripping in space is serious research.
Inside the plane is amazing. It's a cargo plane. There's nothing in it. Big open space. At the back were three rows of old coach seats with the oxygen just laying on the seats, and a big mat on the floor. That was it. A cooler tied down with ropes, and a box of Ziplocs that would be used for our vomit. It was sparse. Bob came out to do his little flight attendant speech, except we really listened. This was not some food server in the sky; this was a real former NASA guy. You see, well, they have lost cabin pressure a few times, so we might have to use the oxygen. It didn't drop down and turn on, we had to find it, and turn on the oxygen from the bottle. Of course, if we did lose cabin pressure, we'd be heading down to thicker air so fast we wouldn't have time for the oxygen before we were safe, but Bob was having fun scaring us. You see, the Vomit Comet, for all the weirdness is safe. I mean, it's doing safe stuff. It's as safe as any big plane and that's safer than hanging out on your front steps. It just doesn't seen safe and, for creeps like us -- that adds to the fun.
Bob is a real military guy. EVERY SINGLE SHUTTLE ASTRONAUT has done his or her weightless training with Bob. He also ran the Vomit Comet for the "Apollo 13" movie. He has spent more time weightless than the shuttle astronauts, and he's done it all on a plane like this, in 30-second hunks. He has done equivalent of WEEKS, in 30 seconds hunks. "How's work, Bob?" "Oh, it has its ups and downs.?"
If you don't know how weightless works, I'll run it by you. This huge plane will do parabolas. It'll go pretty close to straight up for 30 seconds, and then it'll turn around and head straight for the ocean. You know that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster before the big drop? That feeling where your stomach goes to your throat. It'll last a second or so. Well, this plane becomes a huge roller coasters, and instead of a second, you get 30 seconds. Thirty seconds of that feeling. 30 seconds! The rollercoaster example doesn't tell you anything. Thirty seconds of Vomit Comet weightless is not 60 times a half second of Six Flags weightless. It's a different thing. Imagine an hour orgasm. You can't and that's my point.
The first thought is that 30 seconds is nothing, you can't even tell a proper joke in 30 seconds, but 30 seconds of that wacky feeling is a lot. Thirty seconds of no weight. Thirty seconds of being able to fly! Another way to look at how it works is that we're falling straight down and the plane, and everyone else, and even the air is staying around us, in the same relativity. It's not easy for the pilots. They're flying straight down at the water, and they're trying to keep the plane heading perfectly straight down, and then they pull out, and back up you go, and when you go back up, you go to 1.8 G's. I would go from weightless to 504 pounds in a few seconds.
Bob explained that it wasn't the Zero G, that would make us vomit, it was the 1.8 G. He said that we needed to sit down at the end of Zero G and get our heads straight up, perpendicular to the floor. He said it would be better if we didn't talk or laugh or look around, but just sit. That was out best chance of not getting sick. We would go from 0G to 1.8G and we were going to do it over 30 times! We would be weightless for at least 15 minutes all together. That would be longer than Alan Shepard on his first flight. I would also weight 504 pounds for 15 minutes. The plane has only one small window in the middle of the open space. It's recessed and hard to look though. We would have no idea where we were. We wouldn't be able to synch our eyes with what our bodies were feeling. Like a roller coaster in the dark with NO WIND. Everything would be moving with us. We would just feel it in our bodies.
We sat waiting. I sat with Billy. The plane got really hot as they got ready. We were pouring sweat and talking about our nutty lives. After about a half hour, strapped in, we couldn't keep up the tension and talk turned to ZZ and P&T. We talked showbiz. We talked music. We told stories as the sweat poured off us. The woman doctor in her "Flight Doctor" labeled scrubs asked us questions about anti-nausea drugs and bragged about all her flight experience. The paramedics sat quietly, Sandra and Peter kissed. Ray, and Byron talked on headsets to the crew, and Billy and I told stories and sweated. It was a long, hot wait.
It's very weird to be in an airplane unable to see out any windows. I mean, you sit on the aisle, you may not think you're seeing out the windows, but it's so odd when you really can't. We took off and then had to fly out over the ocean, it took a while with all the noise regulations over Southern California. Finally, it was time. Bob explained we'd do "2 Martians, 2 lunars, and then go to zero." That meant we'd have two 30 seconds at 1/3rd gravity, two at 1/6th gravity and then the real deal. In between each one, we'd get heavy. They told us we might want to stay in our seats for the first few until we got used to it. We were told to start slow. Bob was just talking to Billy and me. They said if we felt sick, we should come back to the seats, and strap in and they'd be there to help us. Bob made with his arm, the orientation of the airplane, so we were understand a little of what we were feeling. Even though we were told to be careful, Ray, and Bob (backwards from the comedy team) were walking around, even during the going up times. His arm sloped up and I felt heavy. I mean I was really pushed into my seat and then . . . his hand . . . as I stared at his arm curving, I felt lighter.
I was lighter. And Ray, and Bob, started dancing and jumping. I had to shake my head. They were moving in slow motion. I had seen this motion in movies, but I had never seen it. They are both stocky men, but they were jumping huge distances and they did backflips together and landed on their feet. I felt my arms, they were so light. I stayed seated. And then we got heavy. I could feel the skin of my face pull down and it was hard to lift my arms. That lasted 30 seconds and it was time for another Martian.
Billy couldn't wait; he was up out of his seat, jumping, and giving a Texas "Whoooo." I was a little more cautious; I unbuckled, and lifted myself from my seat. I was a gymnast. I could hold my whole weight with my arms with no strain. Man, oh man. "30 seconds!" and we got heavy. I was back in my seat, looking straight up, trying not to get sick. But, I was doing fine. Okay, on lunar, I would rock.
Bob's hand told us it was coming, and we were lunar. Weighing 47 pounds, I jumped into the big empty space with the mat on the floor and I jumped, very cautiously. I went right to the ceiling (not far for me), and then, well, I've always wanted to walk on my hands. There I was, like the greatest circus star you've ever seen, running along on my hands. Billy was dancing some weird ZZ Top, Texan nut dance. Sandra was doing cartwheels and flips. The medical people were just getting up out of their seats. "30 Seconds!", Bob warned us.
I hurried to the edge of the plane and sat on the floor with my head straight up. I really felt the weight this time. My second lunar was great. My handstand was better, and I tried a flip. I fell over, but it felt great. I was so strong. The body that I've been stuck in for decades, became new. I was stronger. Looking at the others was amazing. It really was slow motion. I HAD NEVER EVEN SEEN what I was seeing let alone FELT IT! Amazing. I stood on one hand. I spun and flew. "30 seconds!," rush to the wall, and feel the oppressive weight come back almost double. Time to pay the piper.
Now it was straight up and down. Now the weight was really heavy. Soon we were going to be weightless. I sat straight and quiet and waited. It was a long 30 seconds of gravity oppression and then, Bob's hand -- and FREEDOM. I mean complete freedom. Peter threw M&Ms around Sandra's head and they just floated around her. Ray started just flying. I pushed off and, still seated, I floated in the air. Billy came flying at me and I caught him. There was no up or down, I was upside-down and Peter's ass was over my head. I grabbed Sandra and toss her lightly to Billy. When she got to Billy they both went off together. Ray grabbed me and spun me around. "30 Seconds!"
Like a ton of bricks. I scrambled to the wall. I breathed through my nose. I lifted my arms and it took all I had. I could feel my stomach, and my head was hard to hold up. This was only 1.8 G, but 30 seconds is a long time.
And we were weightless again. Billy and I were laughing, hugging, and floating. I did all the stuff I remembered seeing astronauts doing. I got myself spinning in one place in a little ball. Up and down didn't matter. We were all bumping into each other. Well, wait a minute, not all. Billy and I looked over at the cocky medical team. All but one of them, were over in their fancy scrubs, seat belted in and vomiting their guts out. They were gone. I don't even know if they had stood up. They looked miserable -- it was going to be a VERY long flight for them. We were going to be doing this for 2 hours. The one woman, that one that wasn't a doctor, was up playing with us, but the other three were out. They weren't going to be there to help us. I said to Billy, "Yeah, flight doctors aren't ready for this. But, the old road dogs can do anything, we've played Cleveland!" Billy got to laughing. There he was with his stupid hat, hillbilly beard, voodoo necklaces, and tight rocker jeans, spinning in space, yelling, "We've played Cincinnati!" (He changed it.) It was wild. "30 seconds!"
I wasn't quite sitting down, I was kind of lying near the wall, and I slid down the wall. They had told me to keep my head up, so I fought, man did I fight, and I got to a sitting position and I tried to breath slow and remember it would be over soon. I won't detail each time, but cool things happened: I got into a full lotus yoga position and floated around. Billy liked that, and then next time he did it too. We sat next to each other and got all ready -- we took off together and floated by the video. I found myself over Billy right as "30 Seconds" came and had to use all my strength to not crush him. The same thing happened with Sandra, and I used a little less of my strength and crushed her a little just for fun.
All this was being videoed by Ray. I did a few jokes, "I'm about to lose 280 pounds of ugly fat," stuff like that, but it was hard to think. My body had never felt any of this before.
The pilots were doing a good job of keeping the plane right around us. Once in a while, we'd bang to the sides. Toward the end, we had one surprising negative G that threw us to the ceiling, but it was mostly smooth. It was time to get to work. Billy went first, with help from Bob and Byron, he got out his guitar, this beautiful Gibson that he borrowed for this flight. Now, Bob, Peter, Ray, and Byron, don't sit down at 1.8, they walk around. Nothing changes for them, except how they move. They go back and forth from flying to trudging, but they're over helping the vomiting medics, and shooting video and running up and talking to the pilots. These guys are used to it. So, they got Billy's guitar out and they shot some rock video stuff. I tried to stay out of the shot, but as he was spinning the guitar, ZZ style, in front of him, he lost control and I had to catch it. Sandra was trying to get into the shots. Man, it looked great. The beard flying, the necklaces flying, and the guitar just floating.
I played around with a ball; it would just float in front of me. Amazing. And, even more amazing was 1.8, because you never seen THAT in movies. There's no way to fake it. The ball moved so fast. Throwing it HARD, I couldn't hit the ceiling. Throwing and catching the one ball wasn't easy. Amazing. I really want to try to juggle three in 1.8. It would take some time.
Billy had gotten the video test that he wanted, and it was time for me to work. I was going to strip. We had been back and forth a lot of times and I was getting beads of sweat on my forehead and it was getting tough. They're thinking of doing 15 parabolas for civilians and we'd already done 20. It was getting a little panicky, but it was time for the real wildness.
I told everyone that I was going all the way, that I would be naked. I let my hair down and it flew. I licked my lips. We went 0 G and I tried to work the camera and lick my lips and play the eyes and get my hands in my hairs. I sexily unlaced my big old size 14 Doc, and I let it float, with my sock, in front of me. Man, it looked great.
I couldn't do the whole strip in 30 seconds and even in hunks, it would take too long, so I had to keep stripping in 1.8. Man, that was hard, but I got my other boot off. Now, I'd take the boot off and it would float, and then Byron, and Bob, would scramble to grab it and tie it down so it wouldn't hurt anyone. My clothes were being tied and taped down as I went. I undid my belt, played with it stripped style, and let it go to float like a sea snake. Next were the pants and those came off while I twirled in a ball. In a few 30-second hunks, I was down to t-shirt and boxers. I whipped the shirt off and then tried for a move I was really hoping would work. I hit the wall so I would be spinning, and I took off my boxers as I went to the camera, I timed it right and Ray said it was perfect, as I took them off my ass went right at him and hit the camera.
Now, I was in zero G and naked! I was free. The first person to have been naked on the vomit comet. Bob said, "It's the first time I've been nauseous in Zero G!" Ray got shots of the medics throwing up. Okay, the next few times, I was just going wild. I put my hands over my package, and I was spinning on my axis. I was trying to cover my dick and balls, and do all the sexy Jane faces. Without my arms the whole thing got much harder.
Even though Sandra had been told she couldn't strip, she was inspired. As I sat across from her, in 1.8 she took lifted up her shirt. In 1.8, her saline did not even bend. Man, that's some nutty surgery. These huge tits didn't even feel the 1.8. Wow. This time, I was going to spin around naked, and she was going to take her shirt off. Ray didn't know what to cover. He knew he should cover me, and he wanted to cover her.
Well, as I was spinning, and Sandra was starting to strip, we got a gust of negative G that threw us to the ceiling. I was rolling, naked, across the ceiling and then 30 was up, and I was back on the floor rolling. As I went by, I hit my belt and saw that my Dad's silver dollar was gone from his buckle. That's the silver dollar my Dad gave to me. He wore it all his life and now it's mine. I was really worried. I yelled to Byron, "Find the silver dollar, please!" I thought I was going to cry. He had no trouble finding it, but in all the excitement, of being naked, bumped around, Sandra whacking the ceiling with her top over her head, and just worrying about the belt buckle, I didn't get myself to a nice seated position, by the time of 1.8 and I couldn't get my orientation. I was dizzy from spinning (that axis thing is an advanced move), and, BAM, did I feel sick.
Whoa. I said to Ray, "Man, I'm going to be sick." He got me a bag and I leaned over into it and started vomiting. It really hurt the muscles in 1.8, then we went weightless, and I panicked a little. Ray said, "I've got you, don't worry about anything." He held my arm as I floated, naked and vomiting. He told me later he kept the camera on me and I floated naked and vomited into my hair, the bag, and all over him and myself. SEXY!!!! Actually, I didn't really vomit on myself or him. The vomit just floated there in 0 G and THEN it went to 1.8 vomit and landed all over us. Heavy vomit.
Byron and Bob were all over me with paper towels and they really cleaned me up. Now, I don't like to vomit, but I've heard on heroin you vomit and don't care. This was like that. I didn't care much. Also, this wasn't flu-bile-pizza vomit. This was friendly Caffeine-free-Diet-Coke-we're-having-fun vomit. Billy had almost vomited a while before, and was staying cool. He didn't vomit. The problem was that I got near sick, and then did all this stupid stuff for camera.
After I was cleaned up, I put on my boxers in 1.8, and felt mostly better. We only had a couple of zeros left and I enjoyed them quietly. I really enjoyed them. I floated in my boxers. Sandra gave up on getting her top off ? it takes a man to strip in space.
We were done and had to go all the way back to the airport. It was about an hour flight. I was uncomfortable, but elated. I sat down next to the vomiting medics (great name for a band), who never had any fun and I talked with Byron about spending his first 2 days in space really really sick. They said I was over the worst, and next time up, even the 1.8 wouldn't bother me much. My whole body was different. Every time the plane took a little dip, I got ready to lift off. Man, my body knew what it was to fly and I can't let that go.
It was a long flight back. I came off the plane in my boxers. I got dressed and did some Fi-Sci interview stuff with Billy and Ray. I didn't know what I was feeling. I wasn't even excited. As Billy said, "I have to get back my sea legs." I didn't know what to feel. I had --
Billy, Bob, Ray, (sounds like one Texan name) and I went to a Mexican bar and restaurant and ate. I was hungry. We talked. I pitched an idea for the Zero G ZZ Top/P&T video to Billy. We talked about how to get these guys to make a ton of money off this and how to get through the rest of the red tape that's already taken 6 years. We laughed and talked to other patrons. Billy and I will be close friends from now on.
After 4 hours in the bar, they drove me to the airport, and I flew back to Vegas. I slept on the flight, and every time there was a little bump, my arms went to the arms of the chair, and I was ready to push off and fly.
In bed last night, I could feel myself getting light. I'm sore and tired today, but as I sit here typing, I feel every 10 minutes or so like I'm going to be able to spin in the middle of the room.
My body has learned that it can fly.
[Reproduced without permission. The text was scraped out of the google cache of its initial publisher, Art Bell's site, "artbell.com", which for some reason is inaccessible a lot. It was accompanied by a .mpeg movie that didn't get cached and that I don't have. Rather than relying on google's cache to persist, I've given it a new semi-permanent home here; it's frequently quoted, and I'm tired of trying to hunt it down. If you're involved with this production and got a problem with that, complain, and I'll take it down. If you want a copy, grab one and delete this note; the only copyrighted material here is from Penn, and he generally seems cool with his old articles floating around. Ha.]