Tom, a private pilot from California, writes: On a recent Southwest flight I decided, as I wasn’t the one flying the plane, that I’d enjoy a drink and I ordered a Jack and Coke. The flight attendant brought me a cup of ice, a warm can of soda, and a miniature. It tasted great, but by the time I took the last gulp, my head was spinning. What the heck happened to me? It’s only 50 ml of alcohol. I drink way more than that on the ground. Why was it different in the air?
The common wisdom is that the effect of alcohol on the body and brain dramatically increases with altitude. This is said to be due to the “fact” that decreased oxygen impairs the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, resulting in quicker, deeper intoxication.
But wait a second…aren’t airliners pressurized? Yes, they are. But typically only to the equivalent of 6,000′ to 8,000′ above sea level (depending on the cruising altitude and the make and model of the jetliner). So shortly after takeoff at Kennedy, your body is in a ski lodge in the mountains above Denver.
Speaking of ski lodges in the mountains above Denver, I once covered a medical conference in just such a location. A medical conference featuring a bunch of stiff-necked East Coast doctors. A bunch of docs who at a meet-and-greet cocktail party got surprisingly wild.
Everyone later blamed the altitude, and in fact, in the Mile High City, many bars have signs warning low land visitors about the effects of alcohol at altitude, at least for those citizens not acclimated to thin air.
But I’m going to have to be a party pooper. Apparently, there’s no scientific basis for the alleged relationship between alcohol and altitude, not that scientists haven’t looked for one.
In fact, the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute studied alcohol and altitude back in 1985. Using 17 men, a breathalyzer, a case of 100-proof vodka, and oxygen masks, the feds set out to get to the bottom of the question of alcohol and altitude.
The 17 volunteers were trained in something called a Multiple Task Performance Battery, then the bartenders…sorry, I meant to say the researchers…gave each subject 2.2 milliliters of vodka per kilo of body weight, mixed, of course, with juice of the volunteer’s choice.
How much booze is that? Well, I’m more or less 200 pounds nowadays, so had I been one of the volunteers, they would have given me a whopping six-and-a-half ounces of vodka.
And they say science isn’t fun.
In the study, the volunteers performed the task battery at oxygen levels equivalent to 1,300′ and 12,500′ AGL. They did the tasks both sober and boozed up. Oh, and some of them were given placebo drinks to make it a proper controlled experiment.
This study isn’t perfect. Oxygen percentage alone isn’t the only effect of altitude, but still, it was an interesting approach.
What did it prove? Largely that drinking 2.2 ml of 100-proof vodka per kilo of body weight gets you really drunk at any altitude.
Oh, wait. This is science. No one gets drunk. The volunteers showed “significantly impaired performance” at any altitude.
But what’s interesting is that the significantly impaired performance was the same at ground level and at altitude.
Being higher didn’t, you know, make people higher.
Other studies across the globe have had similar results.
So what’s going on? I’ve seen people seemingly become more quickly and more severely intoxicated at altitude. You felt it yourself. And the Internet is awash with similar stories.
The best guess from the experts is that alcohol provides the first round and altitude picks up the second. Increases in altitude of a mile or so above what you’re used to can trigger low-grade altitude “sickness,” resulting in a light-headed or dizzy feeling. Sounds like an alcohol buzz, doesn’t it?
Without a drink, you probably won’t notice the high altitude buzz, and without the altitude you probably won’t notice the alcohol buzz from just one drink.
But when you combine the two, it’s a high-flying time.