Know the signs of hypoxia

It only takes a few seconds for the heads-up — if you know what you’re feeling. And in an airplane, those few seconds spell the difference between getting back safely — or not.

We’re talking decompression — one of the things the flight attendants or video tell you about when they’re demonstrating the deployment and use of those bright yellow oxygen masks.

“It can happen real fast,” said Dr. Warren Jensen (pictured above), a flight surgeon and Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Aviation in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Jensen also runs the school’s altitude chamber, where students learn how to deal with decompression and hypoxia, a condition that occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen, such as when an airplane loses cabin pressure.

“You want to deal with it before the hypoxia impairs you,” said Jensen, who in 2012 ran more than 200 altitude chamber classes with a total of about 850 students. “The goal of our altitude chamber training here is to teach students to recognize the symptoms of hypoxia — and they’re different for each person — and to deal with them immediately.”

Decompression in an aircraft at altitude — and the resulting hypoxia for anyone aboard — can be fatal, as was likely the case the Lear 35 that crashed in South Dakota with famed golfer Payne Steward, friends, and crew aboard. As experts such as Jensen attest, hypoxia can quickly lead to confusion and blackout, but not if the crew has been trained to recognize what’s going on and takes appropriate action immediately.

The altitude chamber — a unique asset at the university — is used for both aviator training and research, including Fortune 500 corporate pilots. It’s capable of simulating altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet and is used to teach flight crews the physiological effects of high altitude flight in a safe training environment. Subjects presented in the Aerospace Physiology courses include hypoxia, hyperventilation, cabin decompression issues, visual and spatial disorientation and several other related topics.

Altitude chamber training works. Ask Dan Fluke.

Dan Fluke

Dan Fluke

Fluke, an airline pilot and 2009 graduate of UND Aeospace, always knew he wanted to fly. He also knew he wanted the best training available and all the safety courses available. Which is why he enrolled at UND and, as part of his training, took Dr. Jensen’s altitude chamber course.

Recently, while flying a Canadair CRJ commuter jet with 40 passengers aboard, Fluke noticed a familiar and ominous sensation — a numbing feeling, a kind of tingling, that he recognized only because of his UND altitude chamber training and also had trained in UND’s CRJ simulator.

“I knew what it was right away,” said Fluke, who also runs a business in Florida, writing and publishing aeronautical training guides. “That sensation is what triggered me to look at the indicates, which told me that the aircraft, in fact, was depressurizing. It all rung a lot of bells for me, back to my training at UND. I went for my (oxygen) mask. We had to make a quick decision to make a descent to the closest airport.”

“Basically what you get is a sensation, happening at your core and progressing outward toward you arms,” said Fluke. “You know to go for the mask first rather than fumble with the instrumentation or worry about other things. You want to get ahead of the situation.”

Jensen, himself a UND alum and an Air Force veteran, earned a master’s in aerospace medicine from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in 1993. Today, he serves as UND Aerospace director of aeromedical research and as its flight surgeon.

Jensen’s research areas include human flight performance, decision-making in emergency settings and oxygen delivery systems. He also teaches courses in human factors in aviation and aerospace physiology.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – for which the aerospace program at UND has become a world leader – is another research area in which Jensen has begun to collaborate with others on campus.

Jensen also serves in the same capacity for the North Dakota Air National Guard. This means he determines whether a pilot is fit to fly. As a pilot, a doctor and a diabetic, Jensen knows all too well that pilots don’t like to be grounded, even if there’s a good medical reason they should be.

The UND altitude chamber is run by a team that includes Jensen, Joe Schalk — who has 47 years of chamber experience — and Steve Martin, both Air Force attitude chamber training veterans. Additionally, Janelle Johnson, a finance associate for the UND Aerospace Foundation, works part-time as part of the altitude chamber crew.

Fluke notes that among his most valued experiences at UND were those critical minutes of instruction with a flight surgeon and crew in a big steel box in Odegard Hall.

“I called Doc a couple of days after the decompression incident in the CRJ and thanked him,” Fluke said “The first signal if felt in that airplane was what I’d felt in Dr. Jensen’s class.”

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Story by the University of North Dakota’s Juan Miguel Pedraza

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