The things we do for science

img_2288Last summer, during the research flights for the ATom Mission, I caught a cold, which, combined with a 9 hour flight of constant ascents and descents, caused by ears to be unable to equalize. This was not only painful, but quite dangerous, as there was a risk of my ear drums bursting. I ended up grounded on Hawaii for a week, and missing two research flights.

Once I got back to Colorado at the end of the mission, I saw a number of specialists to find out why this happened and if it would likely be a problem in the future. It looked like everything had cleared up fine, and there should be no complications going forwards. However, I recently flew back to the UK to visit family and friends, and suffered intense pain on landing and subsequently. It was very disheartening to be suffering from this again, and worrying, with the next set of research flights so close (test flights begin in 8 days). It was diagnosed that the original problem from the summer had caused an ongoing effusion in the middle ears, which would likely make the upcoming set of research flight painful, dangerous and perhaps impossible for me to complete.

Pilots who have this issue sometimes get tubes put in their ear-drums so that, no-matter what, the ear always equalizes pressure (it’s also a common procedure for young children). I spoke with doctors in the UK and US and we decided this was the best course of action for me if I wanted to be able to complete the mission. The procedure has some very minor risks in terms of hearing and infection, but ones I’m willing to take. I should stress, this is very much my personal decision and there has been zero pressure from work to do this. It’s a personal choice to get these so that I can simply fly as much as I want (both personally and professionally) and get to take part in the excitement of going around the world in a flying laboratory without worrying about my ears.

So this morning I had the surgery done at the hospital in Denver. After extensive hearing tests, and a few more checks, the surgeon numbed my ear-drums (this was the most painful part of the procedure), and inserted a small tube into each one. The whole thing only took about 10 minutes, and now I’ll be able to equalize my ears properly for the upcoming flights! A friend drove me home after the procedure, and I’m having to take at least the rest of the morning off work as I’m pretty sore and dizzy, but overall very relieved to have it done. Right now everything sounds like I’m underwater, but I’ve been assured that’ll pass soon, as my brain and ears get used to the difference.

We fly down to California on Friday to start on-board calibrations and test flights for part two of the mission. I can’t wait to get started, just as soon as I can walk in a straight line and do a little less lip-reading!


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