High Altitude Chamber Training

While Coast does not offer high altitude training, it is a great element to discuss while pursuing a career in aviation. This write up will discuss the basics of why high altitude training is important and what you would be learning. Topics covered during a standard course consist of Physics of the Atmosphere, Respiration/Circulation, Hypoxia/Hyperventilation, Trapped Gas Problems, Evolved Gas Disorders, Vision, and Human Factors. The altitude chamber flight profile for a standard course consists of a FAA Type I profile to 25,000′. After each person experiences his or her individual hypoxia symptoms at this altitude, descent is made to 18,000′ where they undergo a Loss of Night Vision Acuity demonstration.

Students taking an enhanced course might receive additional academics that include Spatial Disorientation, Spatial Disorientation (Detailed), Cabin Pressurization, Acceleration, and Noise and Vibration. Enhanced course students receive all the features of the Standard FAA Type I flight profile, with the addition of being given an opportunity to experience an insidious onset of their hypoxia symptoms during a slow ascent from 10K’ to 18K’. At the end of this flight, each student would receive a rapid decompression. This decompression is a very valuable and necessary experience for personnel that are currently flying pressurized aircraft, or will be in the future.

Without proper training in an altitude chamber it is impossible to determine how you will react to an in-flight situation that includes hypoxic conditions. The only place you can experience decompression, and your own unique hypoxia symptoms, is in the safe and controlled environment of an altitude chamber. No matter how many books you read that describe hypoxia symptoms, you will not be prepared or safe until you actually experience it yourself. Your TUC (Time of Useful Consciousness) following a loss of pressurization at altitudes above 35,000 feet, can be as short as 5 seconds before you pass out!!!

Altitude chamber training equips you with the knowledge and practical experience to be able to recognize and prevent unfortunate events. While this training is not easy to find because of the expensive equipment required, the University of Phoenix is one of the few that offers this valuable program.

Hypoxia: A Serious Threat to Aviation Safety

Hypoxia is the condition that occurs when the body does not obtain substantial oxygen. Lack of oxygen is one of the most dangerous conditions at high altitudes, especially when coupled with inadequate pressure and/or temperatures. When a pilot inhales air at high altitudes, there is not enough pressure to force sufficient amounts of oxygen to the lungs, causing the function of various organs, including the brain, to be impaired.

Hypoxia is difficult to detect and, unfortunately, the nature of hypoxia makes the pilot the poorest judge of when it occurs. The first symptoms of oxygen deficiency resemble mild intoxication from alcohol. Most humans are completely unaware of this state of affairs and ‘believe’ they are fully conscious, when in actual fact they are in a comatose state.

The following suggestions can prevent hypoxia from getting a foot in your door:

  1. Carry oxygen and use it before you start to become hypoxic. Measure your oxygen needs by the altimeter. Use oxygen on every flight above 12,500 feet.
  2. If you do not count on a supplemental oxygen source, do not fly above 12,500 feet. If bad weather is in your course, avoid it by going around instead of climbing to higher altitudes.
  3. Pilots who are older, overweight, or smoke heavily should limit themselves to a ceiling of 10,000 feet flying levels unless supplemental oxygen is available.
  4. Use oxygen on long flights at or above 10,000 feet.
  5. Use oxygen on night flights at or above 5,000 feet.
  6. When using oxygen breathe normally. Extremely deep oxygen breathing can also cause loss of consciousness.

Besides the aforementioned recommendations, if you want to be a modern precautionary pilot you can carry a simple electronic instrument called pulse oximeter which clips on your fingertip, measures the oxygen saturation of the blood and instantly displays it on a tiny digital screen. It works as a “hypoxia tester” and could become your inseparable ally.