Commercial, Services, Training

Spin and Puke: The Effects of Alcohol

By By Pat Gray | June 1, 2012
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Dr. Scott Schappell

While participating in the CHC Safety Summit in Vancouver last month, I counted some 40 different subjects being discussed. The titles were all very professional sounding and kept with the themes of the summit of talent, training and trust. All but one, that is. The title of that presentation was “Spin and Puke” with no added description listed on the schedule, and it was hosted by Dr. Scott Schappell, an engineering professor at Clemson University, a psychologist and a noted human factors expert. I had to go to this one! It was a great presentation, laced with humor, facts and abundant information as to the causes of hangovers after a night out.

Schappell also examined why some pilots end up in a smoking heap of sheet metal after entering IFR conditions without having instrument training or not applying what training they did have (with or without night before alcohol inducement). Though I could not possibly duplicate Schappell’s presentation and his use of many pictures, charts and humor, I can give some salient facts concerning his subject. A good portion was about the vestibular system within our bodies, which is made up of five areas of function: vision, cortical, auditory, proprioceptive and vestibular apparatus. All five of these functions combined contribute to what he referred to as the “vomit center” especially when you treat them with an alcohol overdose.


Schappell began with an in-depth description of the vestibular apparatus describing 10 different areas of the inner ear from the ampullae to the semi-circular canals. And these were just the major parts. He described what went on in the canals and the parts therein, such as hair cells. He even had an actual photograph of a hair cell (it looked like a cross between a squid and a jellyfish) explaining the forces of acceleration and inhibition and the effects of the signals sent to the brain.

When you drink alcohol, it loves to get into the semi-circular canals and wreak havoc. Using volunteers, he gave demonstrations on how to upset the systems without alcohol. A popular segment was Schappell’s description of the drunk who is put to bed and the room starts to spin, leading to a sure vomit situation, but if you put your foot on the floor, sit up and turn on the TV or radio and engage your brain, you can overcome the vomit stage. You attain some vestibular orientation.

He also stated that recovery from intoxication really has no defined time period, but would fall between eight and 12 hours in most cases. The recovery depends on several factors, including size and ethnic background. The eight-hour abstinence period was at best an arbitrary decision by WWII Air Corps flight surgeons and had no basis in science.

The rest of the presentation concerned acceleration and turning forces inherent to aviation. Schappell gave a good example of naval carrier pilots who catapult and undergo an extreme acceleration in a few seconds. Even though they are wings level, the sensation is a nose-up attitude and the counter-correction has put some of them in the water over the years.

So far we have not had to catapult a helicopter (to my knowledge), but we do have the same vertigo possibilities when we are in the clouds. All in all, a great presentation.

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