Most general aviation pilots spend the majority of their flight time below 10,000’. This has led many to become complacent to the risks of hypoxia.
Hypoxia is a killer, robbing our blood of much-needed oxygen — and the resulting effects can be deadly.
In recent years, the GA community has increased its vigilance in maintaining a healthy cockpit.
At this year’s SUN ’n FUN, there were several vendors selling the latest in cockpit carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. These monitors can help in early identification of the dangerous presence of CO in the cockpit.
And at the FAA Building, pilots could actually feel the effects of hypoxia.
Brad Tucker and Don Denuth, both hailing from the FAA’s facilities in Oklahoma City, manned a high altitude chamber that gave some 120 pilots the chance to experience their personal reactions to low oxygen exposure.
The chamber, showcased at the FAA building in the middle of the SUN ’n FUN campus at Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport in Florida, simulates the environment at 27,000’. At this altitude, most GA pilots experience several hypoxia symptoms within four minutes, according to agency officials.
Each pilot reacts differently when experiencing an hypoxic environment. The common symptoms are tingling, numbness, air hunger, fatigue, headache, dizziness, hot or cold flashes, and nausea.
Pilots may experience just some of these symptoms before falling unconscious. This is the most severe effect of hypoxia and it can be deadly.
According to FAA officials, each of hypoxia’s symptoms can be made more acute by prior stressors on the pilot. Diet, disease, medication, and stress can all negatively affect our susceptibility to hypoxia.
The remedy for hypoxia is more oxygen, quickly.
On-board oxygen, which can be quickly administered, is the best reaction to the onset of hypoxic symptoms.
Of course, descending to lower altitudes will help to alleviate the effects as well. But getting down quickly before more symptoms are experienced is key, FAA officials note.
Some aircraft manufacturers are integrating autopilots to respond to hypoxic events by descending to lower altitudes without input from the pilot. Daher-Socata, for instance, has included this in its TBM line of aircraft.
One aid in detecting the onset of hypoxia is the fingertip pulse oximeter. These are now available for as little as $12 from online sources. Having two or more of these oximeters in the cockpit to monitor pilot and passengers is a reasonable step in vigilance against hypoxia.
Pilots at this year’s SUN ’n FUN seemed very interested in learning more about hypoxia, according to Denuth, who noted attendance was up at this year’s show.
He added the FAA has a permanent altitude chamber in Oklahoma City that is available to the public.
FAA officials emphasize that pilots must be aware of the proposed flight environment and have a plan to mitigate any onset of hypoxia.
“Each year, two or three GA fatalities are attributed to hypoxia,” Denuth said.
In addition to the physical demonstration in the FAA Building, the FAA exhibit had handouts, CDs, and flyers to help raise awareness among GA pilots of the dangers — and remedy — for hypoxia.