High-altitude flying can place a pilot in danger of becoming hypoxic. Oxygen starvation causes the brain and other vital organs to become impaired. One noteworthy attribute of the onset of hypoxia is that the first symptoms are euphoria and a carefree feeling. With increased oxygen starvation, the extremities become less responsive and flying becomes less coordinated. The symptoms of hypoxia vary with the individual, but common symptoms include:
- Cyanosis (blue fingernails and lips)
- Decreased reaction time
- Impaired judgment
- Visual impairment
- Lightheaded or dizzy sensation
- Tingling in fingers and toes
As hypoxia worsens, the field of vision begins to narrow, and instrument interpretation can become difficult. Even with all these symptoms, the effects of hypoxia can cause a pilot to have a false sense of security and be deceived into believing everything is normal. The treatment for hypoxia includes flying at lower altitudes and/or using supplemental oxygen.
All pilots are susceptible to the effects of oxygen starvation, regardless of physical endurance or acclimatization. When flying at high altitudes, it is paramount that oxygen be used to avoid the effects of hypoxia. The term “time of useful consciousness” describes the maximum time the pilot has to make rational, life-saving decisions and carry them out at a given altitude without supplemental oxygen. As altitude increases above 10,000 feet, the symptoms of hypoxia increase in severity, and the time of useful consciousness rapidly decreases. [Figure 16-1]
Figure 16-1. Time of useful consciousness.
Since symptoms of hypoxia can be different for each individual, the ability to recognize hypoxia can be greatly improved by experiencing and witnessing the effects of it during an altitude chamber “flight.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides this opportunity through aviation physiology training, which is conducted at the FAA CAMI and at many military facilities across the United States. For information about the FAA’s one-day physiological training course with altitude chamber and vertigo demonstrations, visit the FAA web site: www.faa.gov/pilots/training/airman_education/aerospace_physiology/index.cfm.