Back in 1996, Ash Vij was a student pilot on a solo flight, heading his Cessna 172 to the practice area. But something just didn’t feel right.
“I started feeling uncomfortable,” he remembers. “So I turned around and headed back to the airport.”After landing, he took the plane to the mechanic. “It was due for an oil change,” he recalls, “but I also mentioned that I thought I had smelled something funny.”
What the mechanic discovered on further inspection was that the 172’s exhaust had broken and carbon monoxide was pouring into the cabin.
“If I had been on a long cross country flight, I would have been a statistic,” Vij says.
An aircraft structures engineer by trade, Vij started researching the use of carbon monoxide detectors in airplanes. What he found was disheartening. “Nobody was making them,” he says.
Oh sure, airplanes had a little black dot in the cabin, designed to detect CO levels. “But that dot had been black for years, and no one really pays attention to it any way,” he says.
Two years of research led him to design and certify a carbon monoxide detector for GA. Unlike home-based detectors, which are chemically based, the airplane detectors have solid state sensors that set off alarms if CO levels measure above 50 parts per million. The alarm includes both an audio alert and a light. Pilots can even configure the alarm so that it goes off in their headsets.
After getting FAA certification, CO Guardian went on the market in 2001, but the GA community has been slow to wake up to the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“There is still resistance in the market,” Vij says. “It’s like seatbelts in cars — people want them, but until they became mandatory, they just didn’t go for them.”
Cost, of course, is an issue. The units go for around $500, says Vij, noting that FAA certification is what makes them so expensive. “I’d like to sell them for $200, but I can’t because I need a quality control manager and a production manager and all the other things the FAA requires.”
Boosting CO Guardian’s sales — and visibility — is the fact that three major GA players — Cessna, Diamond and Columbia — have added the units as standard equipment on their new planes.
What hasn’t helped is a 2004 recommendation from the NTSB that all GA airplanes have carbon monoxide detectors installed on them.
“People always think “it’s not going to happen to me, it’s going to happen to the other guy,’” Vij says.
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, tasteless toxic gas that is produced as a by-product of combustion.
When CO is inhaled, it combines with the body’s oxygen-carrying hemoglobin to form carboxy-hemoglobin, which does not carry oxygen. As CO toxicity increases in the bloodstream to 200 ppm, pilots will suffer a variety of symptoms from headaches to fatigue to nausea.
At 800 ppm, dizziness, nausea and convulsions begin. Without relief, death can occur within two to three hours.
Symptoms vary and are based on exposure levels and duration. One recurrent theme is the “flu-like” symptoms of headache, dizziness and nausea. This often leads people to delay in getting treatment, which can be fatal.
It is estimated that 200 people die each year from CO poisoning, while another 5,000 are made sick.
PEACE OF MIND
A carbon monoxide detector is “truly a life-saving device,” Vij says. “You only need it once for it to pay for itself,” he says. “It gives you peace of mind.”
But even as he exhibits the product at airshows and fly-ins across the country, Vij continues to run into resistance among pilots about spending that $500.
“It can be hard to justify until you need it,” he says. “But if you consider that some people pay $7,000 to $8,000 on an engine monitor to keep an eye on their engine, $500 isn’t a lot of money in the overall scheme.”
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