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What it’s like to have a nicotine fit aboard a B-52 mid-flight



Even astronauts sometimes have really bad flights, and retired Major General Michael Collins, who flew on the legendary Apollo 11 mission to the moon and died Wednesday at the age of 90, was no exception. In fact, Collins said the worst four hours of his life took place one day in 1962 while standing as a co-pilot aboard a B-52 for a friend who was flying a test flight on the then new strategic bomber.

What made the flight so awful was not the flight or the turbulence or a stomach upset. It was the fact that Collins had stopped smoking cold turkey the day before. Before that, he had a habit of smoking two packs a day, Collins wrote in his autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.

“One Sunday in the spring of 1

962, I got up badly hung with a throbbing head and neck like an old chimney, drier and dirtier than the sand of the Mojave Desert outside my door,” wrote Collins, who later became the chief spokesman for the State Department and director for the National Air and Space Museum.

“I barked at Pat [his wife, Patricia Finnegan], ‘Okay, hell, when this pack of cigarettes runs out, it’s it!’ Collins said.

'The worst 4 hours of my life' - The legendary astronaut Michael Collins on what it's like to have a nicotine fit aboard a B-52 mid-flight
Portrait of Michael Collins in a space suit taken on April 16, 1969, three months before the launch of Apollo 11 (NASA photo via Wikipedia Commons)

The decision marked a major turning point in the life of the Air Force fighter pilot. Collins enjoyed smoking “immensely, though less and less each year,” as smoking cigarettes was increasingly linked to lung cancer, he wrote. “Self-inflicted cancer – what obscenity!”

Quitting cigarettes proved to be “a most difficult but satisfying milestone for me,” Collins wrote. But boy was it hard. He quickly ran through the last pack of cigarettes, “and in the evening I was empty-handed, fidgety, angry, and determined.”

Things only got worse. The next morning, Collins reported to Edwards Air Force Base, California, where he was reminded of his promise to Ted Sturmthal, a test pilot for the XB-70 strategic bomber, that he would drive in the right seat with him on a routine test of a B -52 with new engines. Collins’ only job was to throw a few contacts that Sturmthal could not reach from the pilot seat, but even this proved to be a challenge for the kidney reformed Collins.

“The only problem was that we had to keep the heavy animal up for four hours, hardly enough to get a bomber pilot to go up, but at least twice as long as any self-respecting fighter likes to stay in the air, and of course an eternity. for one who expects the impending onset of delirium tremens as the least ominous symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, ”Collins wrote. “But a promise is a promise, and in addition I might as well log flight time when I was shaking and swarming so we left.

“In four of the most miserable hours I’ve ever spent, I convinced Ted that fighter pilots were actually weird. Like a child of teeth, I dulled and rubbed my fingertips, my pencils, the corner of my handkerchief. I blew imaginary smoke rings, I inhaled heavily and exhaled in staccato small breaths. Ted looked at me strangely and I realized he was moving to one of my contacts. I threw it and three or four more. I screwed up everything I touched and I’m sure Ted was just as happy as getting back on earth. ”

'The worst 4 hours of my life' - The legendary astronaut Michael Collins on what it's like to have a nicotine fit aboard a B-52 mid-flight
Michael Collins when he was an Air Force fighter (Screenshot via Twitter / National Air and Space Museum)

However, it was all worth it, in part because it helped Collins enjoy exercise even more than he did when he smoked cigarettes. IN Carries the fire, the pilot wrote that a body, like a brain, “should be used, stretched, forced to its limits.” He later said he felt “pity for those who will never know the desperate pound at 180 beats per minute or the golden afterglow after recovery from it.”

Within three months of quitting cigarettes, Collins was pleased to find that “to my amazement, my endurance had improved by about 20 percent” during a physical examination, “despite the fact that I had not changed weight or exercise habits or done something different except giving up my two packs a day. ”

Of course, not everyone can stop cigarettes so quickly, and jumping aboard an expensive strategic bomber in the midst of nicotine withdrawal is probably not the healthiest medical advice. But Collins’ story highlights the intense willpower of many early Jet Age pilots. That kind of intensity may be a requirement for you to sign up to be among the first people to reach the moon.

'The worst 4 hours of my life' - The legendary astronaut Michael Collins on what it's like to have a nicotine fit aboard a B-52 mid-flight
Still image from an interview with Collins for the National Air and Space Museum, published March 18, 2021 (Screenshot via Twitter / National Air and Space Museum)

In either case, flying with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard Apollo 11 was just the most notable topic on Collins’ long resume of excellent service. Others include flying with the smooth F-86 Saber fighter; pushing experimental jets to the extreme at the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base; becomes the first person to perform two spacewalks in the same mission during a trip around the Earth with the Gemini program; leading the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs through one of the most turbulent periods in American history (including the end of the Vietnam War and the Kent State shooting); and help the National Air and Space Museum get going (pun intended) to become the milestone it is today.

On top of that, the pilot had three children and he remained married to his wife Patricia until she died in 2014. Collins died even after cancer Wednesday in Naples, Florida, according to his family. Collins was often called the “forgotten astronaut” because he stayed behind on the Apollo 11 command module to control it around the moon, while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the moon’s surface. But he will not be forgotten here. Clear skies and tailwind.

Related: A NASA Astronaut’s Advice for Space Travel: Bring a Credit Card




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