Some call for better pilot hypoxia training

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Hypoxia training in an altitude simulator. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 News) Hypoxia training in an altitude simulator. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 News)

Hypoxia is essentially the starvation of oxygen in the body. It can lead to feelings of euphoria and eventually disorientation and loss of consciousness.  

The National Transportation Safety Board says there have been several hypoxia-related crashes in the U.S. involving private aircraft. Hypoxia training is mostly done in the classroom and not in the real world. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration only requires pilots to learn about hypoxia.

One of the most effective means of teaching hypoxia is to actually experience it in a safe environment. This involves the use of a high-altitude chamber, where you can experience hypoxia while safely on the ground.

Military aviators are required to test their reactions within one of these chambers, but civilian pilots aren’t.

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In a high-altitude chamber at ASU, pilots are given the chance to experience the symptoms first-hand. The chamber can simulate a person being at upward of 90,000 feet or more. 

However, regular airline pilots only experience attitudes of 30,000 to 45,000 feet. So, in most cases, the pilots will go up to around 25,000 to 30,000 feet while wearing an oxygen mask and then take them off to see how they react.  

Trevor Cardey has been going to pilot training and has tried out the chamber on several occasions. 

“I get kinda tingly in my fingers and then it will spread up my arms, legs," Cardey said. "Then I’ll start to get tunnel vision and then I will generally just start to feel bad. I just don’t feel good at all.”  

Experiencing hypoxia isn’t the same for everybody. Some can have an immediate reaction and pass out, others might feel a bit drunk or happy.

Cardey has seen several different reactions from others using the chamber. 

“It only took about 10 to 15 seconds, from the time he was off oxygen to when he starts doing this convulsing motion, that was a little freaky,” Cardey said.

Hypoxia has led to several deadly crashes in the U.S., all privately owned aircrafts. The highest-profile took place on October 25, 1999. 

Golfer Payne Steward’s Learjet lost cabin pressure, which led to everyone onboard losing consciousness. The plane had left Florida and was bound for Texas, but ended up in a field in the Midwest. Everyone on board died.

Outside the U.S. a major incident involving hypoxia occurred in 2005 when a 737 Helios Flight 522 lost cabin pressure, which led the crew and passengers to pass out. The plane flew for a good distance and then crashed, killing all 121 on board.

While there hasn’t been a major commercial airline disaster in the U.S. involving hypoxia, some, like Capt. Ron Diedrichs, would argue that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. He has years of flying experience in the military and has been involved in more than 20 major airline crash investigations.

Diedrichs says one of the biggest issues to get pilots to use a high-altitude chamber is the cost. Some chambers can run as much as $4,000 per person or if you go with a large group it could be cut down to just $200.

This is why high-altitude chambers might be seen by some as simply not cost effective. 

“In order for the pilots to go through training, they have to pull them off service, from the flightline and I’ve got to pay them to come to this training as well as pay for their wages and the training,” Capt. Ron Diedrichs said.  

The FAA has its own mobile high-altitude chamber. It's taken to air shows and events to allow pilots the experience of hypoxia and to spread awareness of the dangers. 

However, hypoxia training could be better. Possibly requiring all airline pilots to take part in the training would be a good step forward. It might avert a disaster. 

“Until we have one that takes an airliner down in the United States, you’re politically not able to get the industry to start insisting on the training,” Diedrichs said.

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