Caroline Brozovich’s fingers and lips have turned blue-grey, her movements are sluggish, and her eyes half-shut, as though she’s peering through a fog. The oxygen around her is now as thin as the air at 30,000 feet, the cruising altitude for jet aircraft. If Brozovich were piloting an airliner, she and her passengers would be minutes away from unconsciousness – and death.
But Brozovich is a flight student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and her instructor has just handed her an oxygen mask.
They are inside the university’s new High Altitude Laboratory, a high-tech facility for teaching aspiring pilots how to recognize the symptoms of oxygen loss at high altitudes. According to university officials, Embry-Riddle is the first university in the United States to acquire the lab for high-altitude hypoxia awareness training. The lab can accommodate 8-10 people per training session and will include a flight training device at a later date.
Custom-designed by Colorado Altitude Training, the laboratory was built for use in Embry-Riddle’s Flight Physiology course, to teach the causes and symptoms of hypoxia, a shortage of oxygen in the brain and blood. An insidious threat to pilots, altitude-induced hypoxia is often caused by loss of cabin pressurization.
“Hypoxia affects people differently, and the rate of onset varies for each person,” says Glenn Harmon, an aerospace physiologist and assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle. “Symptoms can include tunnel vision, nausea, euphoria, dizziness, tingling, fatigue, and loss of coordination. This High Altitude Laboratory is an ideal place for pilots to learn to recognize their own symptoms.”
Embry-Riddle chose to adopt the normobaric technology, which reduces oxygen content and is safer and less costly, rather than the military’s hypobaric chamber technology, which reduces air pressure.
As air machines extract oxygen from the enclosure creating a hypoxic environment inside, students perform cognitive, motor, and flight tasks under the supervision of a qualified instructor. As soon as they experience the warning signs of hypoxia, students don oxygen masks like those required in airline cockpits before their decision making becomes clouded or they become incapacitated.
The university expects to train up to 500 flight students per year in the High Altitude Laboratory.
Plans are being made to offer hypoxia awareness training in the lab to flight schools and corporate aviation operators. This would allow more pilots to benefit from the personal experience and knowledge as well as possible insurance advantages. A typical training package might consist of classroom instruction on spatial disorientation and high altitude physiology, followed by sessions in the university’s High Altitude Lab and GAT Spatial Disorientation Trainer.
For more information: EmbryRiddle.edu.