UCSD physician helps free children from gravity and wheelchairs


By Greg Alder


Erik Viirre, a physician and associate professor at the UCSD School of Medicine, took part in a zero-gravity flight that let four paraplegic kids get out of their wheelchairs and become free from the burdens of weight on earth.

The flight, which happened in October, took off from Florida and was filmed for the Nickelodeon show “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee.”

Chase from Tennessee, Juan from Florida, Nia from Connecticut, and Wensday from Arkansas can’t use their legs and spend every day seated or lying down. But when the youngsters were carried onto G-Force One, a modified Boeing 727, they were in for something life-changing.

Viirre was chief medical officer for this flight, and upon hearing Wensday gush over her experience he said, “As a physician, it truly lifts the heart.”

Up and down

After the aircraft climbed to 32,000 feet, where a normal airliner levels out and turns off the seatbelt signs, the children were moved to an open area with padded walls. Then the plane aimed its nose down.

The only way to create sustained weightlessness without going into space is through what is called parabolic flight. Zero G. Corp., which operated the flight, describes the flight on its Web site: The plane essentially flies the path of a rollercoaster. After it goes up, it goes steeply down. And on its way down, gravity is defied and weightlessness is created.

This is the identical method NASA uses to train its astronauts, and the operator of the flight, Zero G Corp., has obtained FAA approval to bring the weightless flight experiences to the public.

Free from gravity

Chase, Juan, Nia and Wensday floated into the air. They frolicked in the freedom of zero gravity, twirling themselves around, squirting water and chasing the roaming drops. They even found that legs are actually pretty useless in space.

But Wensday still wanted to try and use hers. On the Nickelodeon show you can hear her asking the crew to help her stand - which they did.

“It was amazing,” she wrote later on her Web site. “The best experience of my life.”

After about 30 seconds of weightlessness, the plane reaches 24,000 feet and must start going up again.

And as with roller coasters, parabolic flights can cause motion sickness, which is where Viirre’s expertise comes in. He specializes in the study of the inner ear and designed a motion sickness program for Zero G.

By controlling what a person eats before the flight, prescribing a combination of oral medications, maintaining a cool ventilated cabin, and timing the orientation of the body throughout the flight, more than 98 percent of passengers do not experience any nausea, according to a UCSD press release.