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 Floating In Space

A Jetson-like environment in the future may not be just a cartoon.

Imagine floating as if you were in space, drifting in a gravity free environment.  Manhasset native Captain John Henry Benisch II no longer has to imagine it — he lives it. Captain Benisch, a pilot for the Zero Gravity Corporation, is one of the three-man team that maneuvers the Boeing 727, G-FORCE ONE, flying parabolic arcs to create weightlessness.  

On April 6, this amazing plane flew out of LaGuardia Airport with Captain Benisch, assisted by first officer Erich Domitrovits and flight engineer Dexter Franklin. While the pilot controls the plane, the first officer monitors the instruments and adjusts the thrust levers and the flight engineer monitors all the aircraft’s systems.

Domitrovits, a captain-in-training who is learning under the guidance of Captain Benisch, exclaimed, “He’s good! Nobody can compete with John.”

Captain Benisch said he was 3 years old when he first wanted to be a pilot. Christ Episcopal Church in Manhasset played a big part in his decision, he remembered, because it was there he realized he wanted to go into the world and fly.  He said his family always supported his decision and his sister, Diane Benisch, was at LaGuardia Airport April 6 to see her brother and his plane. She remembered how thrilled he was when, as a child, he got to sit in the cockpit of an airplane and wear the pilot’s hat. “He always wanted to fly,” she smiled.

Benisch attended Buckley County Day School in Roslyn and Friends Academy in Locust Valley when, at age 16, he took his first flying less at MacArthur Airport.

Later he pursued his dream by attending Skidmore College in Sarasota Springs, NY and then signed up for ROTC at the University of Washington.  Just after graduation in 1993, he joined the Air Force where he trained as a maintenance officer for special operations at Hurlburt Field in Mariesta, FL. from 1994-1996.  He is also certified as an airframe and power plant technician. From 1996-1998, he attended Comair Aviation Academy, now called Delta Connection Academy, in Sanford, Fl.  “A great flight school,” he said.  

Captain Benisch was a pilot for Amerijet when, five years ago, he learned about zero gravity from Captain Ed Cook.  “Training for Zero G was very intense,” he said.  “It is different from regular commercial flights because we pitch the nose of the aircraft 45 degrees nose up and 45 degrees nose down in order to create the parabolic arcs that create lunar, Martian, and zero gravity simulations.”  When asked to describe his first zero gravity flight, he simply said,  “Awesome!”  Terese Brewster, president and COO of Zero Gravity Corporation affirmed,  “John is a pleasure to work with and flies incredible parabolas.”    

An upgrade to G-FORCE ONE’s hydraulic system allows for continuous hydraulic pressure during parabolic maneuvers. The modification, along with the addition of accelerometers in the cockpit, were tested and approved by the FAA.  No structural modifications were made to the aircraft’s interior or exterior. The Boeing 727 has three engines and three fuel tanks so the plane is a sturdy aircraft well suited for parabolic flight.  

Their aircraft accommodates up to 36 passengers and the front of the cabin, called the floating area, is padded for the comfort and safety of the passenger.  The parabolic maneuvers require about 10 linear miles per parabola so the FAA assigns a 100 mile track of airspace either over the water or uninhabited land.  The plane flies in normal commercial airspace, between 22,000 and 32,000 feet skyward, about 15 parabolas in about 60 minutes of flight time.

Captain Benisch said the most exciting flight for him was one for a television program entitled, The View From My Chair,  where handicapped children were given the opportunity to experience life out of their wheelchairs. “The kids had amazing abilities,” he said recalling the laughter emanating from the rear of the plane.

In addition to the flights he pilots for thrill seekers, Captain Benisch also flies more complicated missions for NASA. Brewster said these flights typically achieve 40 parabolas per flight and are used for education and for research in a microgravity environment. “It’s a whole different animal and he does a fantastic job,” Brewster said.  The captain explained that when NASA is using the plane for research, different padding that allows experiments to be mounted on the floor grid, is put into place.    

“The future of the space race is going gang busters,” Benisch said.

“There is a lot of job security here.”