Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Instructor Headache #174

You may not be old enough to remember or to have even seen the Excedrin TV commercials that aired back in the 1970s. There were a series of ads that described a bad headache and assigned it a number. I'm not sure why numbering the headaches was helpful, but seemed like a good idea and it helped you keep them straight. Headache #25 (screaming children at a birthday party) was distinctly different from Headache #31 (your boss yelling during the board meeting), for example. And we all know how hard it can be to keep things straight when you have a bad headache.

This was an era when advertising was more benign and actually tried to appeal to your intellect rather than your adrenal glands. They would describe a situation that you could see yourself having a headache and assign it a number. "Oh, number 22. Yeah, I've had that one." Then a pulsating, pounding noise would start. Next, some cheesy graphics would show lightning bolts or heat waves around the silhouette of a human head. Then Excedrin would go to work and the cheesy electricity or heat waves would dissipate and the backlit silhouette would turn into a real person, smiling and obviously feeling better. A person disabled by pain would be restored as a productive member of society. And that would be the story of "Excedrin Headache #52."

As a kid, I always felt oddly satisfied at the conclusion of these commercials. After all, a person in discomfort had found a cure to their pain, returning to a happy, productive life. On the other hand, I had no desire to actually use Excedrin since I didn't get headaches. But I liked watching the commercials and it was good to know that Excedrin was there, if you needed it.

Now I'm older and I do get headaches occasionally, sometimes just from watching one of the current crop of TV ads, replete with flashing, quick cuts, and abrasive audio mixing that only sounds intelligible when turned almost completely down. As a kid, I had to work to induce those sorts of sensory inputs. Now you get them for free on TV. Even Timothy Leary said, before his death, that there was no longer any need for anyone to take hallucinogenic drugs. If you want to take a trip, just watch TV commercials. Unfortunately, it may be a bad trip.

One day last week, my day of instructing started with a headache. A sinus headache, to be exact. It wasn't bad at first and I knew how I could get almost immediate relief - take one, single Tylenol Sinus™ caplet. Two caplets is the recommended dose, but just one works fine for me. After 10 or 15 minutes, my sinuses would open up and the headache would go away. The problem was, we didn't have any of said caplets because I can only buy one package of the stuff every ten days or two packages a month.

Some enterprising drug users, not content with the altered state induced by watching TV ads, like a normal person, have devised ways to cook most anything containing pseudoephidrine into methamphetimine. The AUTHORITIES decided a solution to this problem is to prevent anyone from purchasing too much of any over-the-counter medication containing pseudoephidrine. Drug manufacturers have even come up with new, alternative ingredients for us sinus headache sufferers. The products that contain the new ingredients are readily available for purchase at drug stores because they can't be cooked into methamphetimine. They are also readily available as no one is buying them since they don't work. In the new, hip, advertising/PR spin parlance, this is a win-win for everyone. Even my headache gets to win, oh joy!

So I look at my calendar and try to remember if I'm eligible to purchase more Tylenol Sinus™. I can't figure it out and my head is pounding so badly, it doesn't even occur to me to try to assign it a number. I really don't want to go to the local drug store, ask the pharmacist behind the counter to purchase the product, show them my driver's license, and be told that I'm an ineligible receiver. I look kind of haggard. Perhaps they'll think I'm a meth user, just trying to get my fix. So I make a cup of espresso, drink it, press on some acupressure points with my thumbs, and hope for the best.

Arriving at the airport, the headache is slightly better. I meet my student and we decide to do some ground school on cross-country planning while we wait for the 900 foot overcast ceiling to dissipate. The navigation log forms come out, the plotter, the pencil, and then the dreaded E6B slide rule. We painstakingly make our way through the planning process, marking wind dots, computing ground speed, converting true heading to true course to magnetic course, determining fuel consumption, time en route for each leg. In my mind I'm seeing that silhouette with the cheesy graphics and hearing the pounding noise. Yes, my headache is back, but the sun is shining and the clouds are gone.

So we takeoff and fly the cross country plan. As we climb, my sinuses seem to relax and the headache dissipates. Blessed relief. Back at Oakland, my first lesson finished, I begin digging through my BIG flight bag that I used to carry when I was a freight dog. It's still in the back of my car and I recall I squirreled away all manner of essential items in that bag - dental floss, contact lens solution, even some Jepp charts. I hope that I'll find a Tylenol Sinus™, but I don't.

The next lesson begins - an instrument flight to the central valley. The flight is bumpy and hot, but the skies are completely clear. We quickly determine that the heading indicator is on its last legs and is precessing wildly, so I cover it up . This particular plane is not rigged properly and that, combined with the turbulence makes for a trying flight for my student, who flies a localizer backcourse approach, then the missed approach. Next comes the ILS approach to the same airport and I can tell that it's a handful for my student, who's getting frustrated and demoralized. After another missed approach, I ask to take the controls and demonstrate flying the same ILS.

Norcal gives me vectors back to the localizer and I demonstrate timed turns to a heading as well as some strategies for dealing with small heading corrections using just the compass. Now my head is really pounding. Then the view limiting device that I clip on to my sunglasses starts to slip, causing me to have to raise my chin to be able to see the instruments on the left side of the plane. Now I've got another problem. Raising my chin has me looking through the "reader" portion of my sunglasses. Those of you who have yet to experience the indignity of bifocals won't be able to appreciate the effect, but now the instruments are blurry. In spite of all this and the turbulence, I manage to fly a credible ILS, on the glideslope. At the Missed Approach Point, the localizer is about two dots to the right of center, which disappoints me. My student's comment? "After watching you fly it, I don't feel so bad about my performance." I guess that's a victory, of sorts.

The flight back to the Bay Area is long and bumpy. I find myself envisioning my head as a cantaloupe that's been split in two and try pushing on the acupressure points again. Back on the ground, I do the de-brief, make the appropriate logbook entries, and head to my car. Putting my flight bag away, I see my big flight bag still in disarray and it occurs to me: I never looked in the small, zippered side pocket. I open that pocket and find two Tylenol Sinus™ caplets, still sealed in their plastic/foil container. I take one and begin the drive home with the AC on full blast. Half way home, the pseudoephedrine is beginning to work its magic, and the pounding subsides.

And that was the end of Instructor Headache #174.


Christian Goetze said...

Just want to let you know that I really love reading your stories. I learn a lot, and I've already had chances to apply some of the things - especially how to set up correct sequencing when being vectored - that alone is a jewel.

Anonymous said...

Ive been reading your blog for the last couple months and I just wanted to say how helpful it has been, especially to a new CFI like me. I also had one quick question: Im thinking of getting the Lightspeed Mach 1 headset here in the near future. Is it sensible to use this headset in a C172 or similar propeller plane?

John said...

Thanks Christian, glad you enjoy the blog.

Anonymous, I like my Mach 1 just fine and I fly plenty in various C172s. I think the custom ear molds are better than the replacable blue tips, but you may find they work just fine. The big advantages are that the headset takes up very little space in your bag and is very comfortable. I'd say go for it.

Billwayne said...

I used to suffer from sinus headaches. Used to. I could not tolerate any medications though...they zonked me out, leaving me in a zombie-like state. That's not good.
My mother, after goading me for years, finally persuaded me to try this simple cure:
8 ozs of very warm water.
1 rounded teaspoon of PLAIN salt. (NOT iodized)
Stir well...allow a couple of minutes for it to settle.
(now the hard part)
Cup your hand. Pour this hand full of the mixture.
Raise your cupped hand to your nostrils and vigorously inhale. Ackk!
Blow your nose.
Do this every day, faithfully.
You will probably be amazed at the sheer amount of mucus discharge this causes, relieving the pressure in your sinus cavities.
I hope this helps you as much as it did me, inasmuch as I can't even remember my last headache. (8 years?....10 years?)

Sky Captain said...

Sorry that this comment is off-topic, John.

Don't know if you were aware of this report in the Miami Herald in which the Caravan figures prominantly.

Thanks for leaving your Part 135 Blog up as I thoroughly enjoyed reading the year's worth of posting over a week or so.

John said...

sky captain,

Thanks for the pointer to the Miami Herald article.

While parts of the article are somewhat sensationalized, there is a lot of truth there as well. Cargo pilots tend to have screwed-up sleep schedules and most probably don't realize they are suffering from on-going fatigue.

I do think it's true that most cargo aircraft accidents receive little attention since they usually result in a single death - the lone pilot.

The pay scale for single-pilot operations is very poor, but the quality of aircraft varies. I was fortunate to fly well-maintained Caravans. Others are not so fortunate.

I think it's an unfair generalization to say that the safety of cargo operations is a low priority for the FAA. My experience was that the FAA regularly ramp-checked our aircraft and was interested in airworthiness issues. In addition, my company has a safety officer who gives regular line checks and the BIG company sent out safety auditors at least twice a year. Unsafe behavior on the part of pilots was not tolerated.

Still, there is a culture of denial and braggadocio among many professional pilots. I met a few pilots who were proud of going below minima on an approach, flying with inoperative equipment, and surviving a hairy icing encounter. All for very low pay and in demanding working conditions. The only explanation I can think of is that these gals and guys really love to fly.

In the meantime, the public seems to have an endless appetite for overnight shipping for their documents, golf clubs, flowers, tropical fish, and exotic car parts. The consumers of these shipping services have no idea what is required to get their package to their door and I hazard to guess that most probably wouldn't care that people's lives were put at risk.

Like the article says, until a cargo aircraft crashes into a school or a shopping mall and there are more injuries and fatalities, it's unlikely that anything will change.