Jill Tallman

Into thin air

July 24, 2008 by Jill W. Tallman, Associate Editor

Tingling hands. Dizziness. Blurred vision. Those are my hypoxia symptoms. Do you know what yours are? There are a couple ways to find out. You could fly a non-pressurized airplane above 14,500 feet without supplemental oxygen and see what happens, but I know you wouldn’t do that. Here’s a better idea: Take the FAA’s physiological training class and experience hypoxia in a controlled setting.  

Yesterday I joined 14 students in the altitude training chamber at the Eighty-ninth Physiological Training Flight at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. Wearing helmets and oxygen masks that covered everything but our eyes, we were there to see how our bodies would react to oxygen deprivation. The altitude chamber simulates flight to 25,000 feet, at which point you’re instructed to remove your mask and try to complete a series of tests, such as writing your name, solving a maze, and computing multiplication problems. (Heck, mazes and math are a challenge for me when I’m not oxygen-starved. Watch the YouTube video below or click on this link to see how these trainees perform.) I put myself back on oxygen fairly soon (it’s called “gangloading” in Air Force parlance), but some in our group stuck it out the three minutes of useful consciousness to see how they’d fare. One student seemed fairly coherent–until he was asked to count backwards from 100 by 7. He came up with the first one, 93, on his own. Then he gave incorrect answers for the next four numbers. (He did protest that he isn’t good at math, but he wasn’t allowed to count backwards by 5 or 1, as he suggested.) 

We’re schooled in basic aerospace physiology when we learn to fly, but how many of us give it much thought beyond the IM SAFE assessment? Give yourself a birthday present and take the FAA training. It costs $50 and is offered at 14 locations. You can read a detailed account of what goes on in Jeff Pardo’s article, “Going Up: The Elevator to the 2,500th Floor,” in the May 2001 issue of AOPA Flight Training. But when it comes to understanding how your body reacts to physiological stressors, there’s no substitute for the real thing.




Leave a Reply