Florida Prepares for Zero G Flights
The airborne roller coaster is a specially modified 727.
Credit: Zero Gravity Corp

Theresa Trawick of Melbourne remembers "bouncing around like a pinball" in a plane during a flight last month. In this case, she couldn't have been happier about it.

"It was unbelievably fun," she said.

What might be cause for panic during a regular flight is a marketable experience for Fort Lauderdale-based Zero Gravity Corp.

The company, which is planning flights out of the Titusville area and Orlando in November, sells spots on what's known as "parabolic flights" for $3,750 per person. The trips offer passengers the thrill of weightlessness.

The company's planes -- modified Boeing 727 cargo jets -- perform a series of up-and-down maneuvers that provide short periods of varying degrees of weightlessness inside the plane's cabin, mimicking what astronauts experience in space.

Noah McMahon, Zero Gravity's chief marketing officer, said it's nothing too drastic.

"It's like a bell-shaped curve," he said about the plane's
flight pattern.

Nevertheless, it was something that the Federal Aviation Administration had to check out and authorize.

In addition, Zero Gravity requires passengers to sign waivers to absolve the company from liabilities if anyone is injured, which McMahon said has not happened in the company's brief history. The flights started in September, and about 1,500 passengers have taken the flights, which have a capacity for 27 passengers and three crew members.

Trawick, a schoolteacher who works in Rockledge, took a Zero Gravity flight out of Fort Lauderdale in July. She didn't have to pay for it. She was sponsored by educational organizations.

She said her trip had educational purposes -- such as getting her students excited about the science behind flight and space travel.

At first, she was worried whether it would be safe.

But those concerns quickly faded. She was supposed to conduct some experiments onboard during the weightless periods, but she got caught up in the moment and was having so much fun that she didn't get everything done.

"I was able to float," she said. "That was the most incredible part."

Trawick said she and other passengers were not used to weightlessness, so they would push off the cabin wall or bump into each other and go flying the other way.

"I'm 50 years old, and I don't do a lot of flips, so I was sore the next day," she said.

Zero Gravity is planning 10 to 15 flights in Brevard County, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in November.

The company may operate flights out of North Brevard on a regular basis because the "space tourism" connection at Kennedy Space Center would be a good fit for the company, McMahon said.

For now, Zero Gravity plans to have flights Nov. 5 out of Space Coast Regional Airport near Titusville. The company also may have flights out of Kennedy Space Center, depending on whether NASA permits it, McMahon said.

In Orlando, the company plans to have flights Nov. 6 to capitalize on a science teachers' conference in Orlando that weekend.

In addition, Zero Gravity has planned more flights out of the Titusville area on Nov. 20 geared toward visiting passengers from The World cruise ship. McMahon expects about 50 passengers from The World will take the flights during a port-of-call stop at Port Canaveral.

Children under age 12 are not allowed on the flights. Those between 12 and 14 are permitted to fly with parents or guardians. And those 15 and older can fly on their own.

Zero Gravity charters two planes for the flights from Miami-based Amerijet International.

Amerijet provides the crew and maintains the planes, while Zero Gravity markets and books the flights.

The flights last about two hours. During that time, the plane performs about 15 parabolas or arcs that provide varying degrees of weightlessness that last about 30 seconds each.

Before the flights, passengers receive some training and get flight suits, among other activities.

The whole experience lasts about five hours, McMahon said.

For the local flights, the plane will fly west over the Gulf of Mexico to perform the maneuvers at heights from 24,000 to 32,000 feet.

There are no windows in the cabin, which has a padded floor to soften the landing for passengers.

McMahon said they "slowly drift down" to the floor once gravity returns to the cabin.

"It's extremely smooth," he said.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said the FAA has inspected Amerijet International's operation and has had no problems with it.

Scott Carr, executive director of the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority, which operates Space Coast Regional Airport, said the Zero Gravity flights should provide a lift for local space tourism.

"I think it will be a good thing for the community," Carr said. "It will help bring space tourism to the local economy -- coupling it with NASA and the space program."

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