May 2010 Issue

Extreme-Altitude Hazards

Flying above 25,000 feet poses a much different set of challenges than at lower levels. You need a different oxygen system, and an emergency-descent plan.

Most of my flying career was spent with an oxygen mask either five seconds away, or with it on and breathing 100-percent oxygen. After many sessions of lectures, altitude chambers and flight missions, oxygen education became a kind of gray thing. While the essentials stayed in the back of my mind, the details faded. That is, until my best friend died at the hands of the hypoxia monster. I learned and re-learned a lot during those next few weeks. One of the things I learned (or re-learned) is just how hostile is the high-altitude environment when we’re not prepared for it. Often, unfortunately, even if we are prepared, it can still rear up and bite us. Of course, the big problem with high-altitude flight operations is it can be a long way down to a safer level, where the air is denser. As we’ll discover, an inability to breathe without some kind of assistance is just one of the problems.

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