Back to Squawk list
  • 21

Oxygen Tragedies

Anyone who's seen a demonstration of an altitude chamber has seen the hilarious attempts pilots deprived of sufficient oxygen make when trying to perform simple tasks, like writing their name, and the surprising lack of awareness they have of the level of impairment they are suffering. Unfortunately, in real life, hypoxia is dead serious. There are only a handful of hypoxia-related accidents that take place every few years, but the other week we were witness to a couple that are examples of… ( More...

Sort type: [Top] [Newest]

Jeff Pinder 3
Went through it myself. I was one of two "grown men" playing "Patty-Cake" and as it progressed, we both missed the hands and smacked each other in the face/helmet or missed altogether. Next challenge was to place certain shapes into their prospective places in a child's board game, 2 out of 10.
sparkie624 4
I have been through an Altitude chamber to prove the effects, and yes, it really shows you what can happen... I think all Pilots should be REQUIRED to go through this and then you will really see and know the effects, not just what someone tells you.

If anyone here gets an opportunity to do this, it is well worth your time.
LeonAir 2
"Unable to control altitude, unable to control airspeed, unable to control heading but everything is a-ok!"

The words of a Kalitta Air Lear pilot after a slow rise in the cabin.
The FO was a younger, in-shape guy. He was out cold and sadly suffered brain damage from the incident.

Hypoxia is very serious and very scary.
WhiteKnight77 1
When I went through the pressure chamber at El Toro MCAS back in the 80s as a helicopter crew chief trainee, I was a fairly fit 23 year old, but I was somewhat surprised at how it went for me. I did the write my name task as well as subtract 3 from 1000 and so on (I can tell you that it is not 9997 which is what I got) and had to write out the answers. While I can remember what happened, it did give me an idea of what can happen at altitude.

I think that anyone who routinely flies above 12,000 should have to participate in such training. As a crew chief, I didn't expect to fly above 12,000 AGL ever (and even on a cross country to Alameda NAS, I don't think we even got that high).

The recent events of the past couple of weeks with pilots having issues that appear to be oxygen deprivation, it shows that it can happen to anyone at any time. Sadly, the one pilot who asked for clearance to a lower altitude could not get it fast enough. My heart goes out to their family.
Dale Kline 1
Been there, done that - way back in my USNaval Air days. We went through the altitude chamber as Flight Crew on WV2 "Willy Victor" before I reported for duty on Midway Island. I was one of the "lucky" ones who was chosen NOT to wear a mask for everyone else to watch what happens. They did not warn us about the effect of low pressure on internal organs - if you catch my drift. Things got a little stinky in the chamber during the exercise. Coordination goes all to hell after a very short time at 15,000 feet without an oxygen mask...
Had to do the Alt chamber every 3 years it was always a blast
Scott Walker 1
Here is an interesting experiment. On a dark, clear night do the following 1)Get an oxygen equipped aircraft and a safety pilot. 2) Get only the safety pilot breathing oxygen and ascend to 10,000 feet MSL in the dark.3) Look at the ground and take note of the number of lights you can see (pay attention, this is important). 4) Start breathing oxygen yourself. Repeat step 3. The different number of lights you see is an indication of how your body is reacting to not having as much oxygen as it likes. Even at a level that will not appear to have an effect, shortage of oxygen does have an effect, as evidenced by the fact your eyes don't see as many lights without oxygen as with. Oxygen is cheap- use it. Don't give me crap about acclimation either, I live and run and ride road bikes at 8500 ft I Colorado and I still am very careful of Hypoxia, this test was very revealing when I did it.
Mike Davis 0
There is no question that oxygen deprivation at commercial airliner altitudes at FL380 is lethal. But I would guess that there is a lot of physical health involved in some of these lower altitude (below FL180 as a random number) failures. Remember that a few climbers have reached the summit of Mt. Everest at 29,000 ft. without oxygen. I climbed several times above 15,000 just last year (I'm 70) and have stayed overnight at altitudes around 12,000 ft. with no ill effects. So it makes me a bit skeptical to believe that some (not all) of the altitude involved in these tragedies is responsible for their deaths. How about narcolepsy, heart failure, or just plain fatigue combines with boredom?
bbabis 6
While I am skeptical of all things wiki, I will concede that some super human efforts have been accomplished in regards to human physiology. A grave error is made though in thinking that these feats equate in any way to normal human activity. Climbers acclimate at higher altitudes which helps them challenge partial pressure environments. Don't expect any pilot acclimated within a couple thousand feet of sea level who quickly finds them self at 15,000 or 25,000 feet to suffer no ill affects. Don't believe that term "no ill effects either." Remember, one of the greatest dangers and first symptoms of hypoxia is euphoria. Everything is just fine, in fact I might be able to go even higher! The other possible causes of accidents you mention are all valid and certainly share in statistics but at the same time can all be triggered by hypoxia.
John Meehan 3
Mike, i think you are the exception rather than the rule. I used to travel to Bogota and Quito in my previous job and definitely felt the effects of hypoxia even at those altitudes. I actually got altitude sickness once following a week of high altitude exposure when my body slowly got depleted of O2.

I still remember my own personal experience in the altitude chamber at Fort Rucker 32 years ago when i went thru Army flight school. It was truly amazing to see what happens to the person across from you when they take the mask off. I still remember reading my answers to brain teasers they had us complete while off the mask. I remember taking the mask off, answering a few questions, and then waking up with emergency air blasting down my throat. Probably took less than two minutes to go out cold at 23,000.

Hypoxia is deadly, moreso because it is so hard to detect. If I were going to fly at altitudes about 13,000 MSL, I would definitely wear a monitor and a mask.
Mike Davis 2
I'm not an exception, John, other than the fact that I try to stay in decent physical condition. I live at 1,000 ft. elevation in Missouri and travel to Colorado nearly every year for two weeks, staying at 8,500 ft. elevation, hiking every other day to altitudes varying from 10,000 ft. to 14,000 ft. (Long's Peak, Meeker, etc.). I've also hiked over a 15,100 ft. pass in the Andes, and over 15,000 ft. in Nepal with a group of other hikers, none of which had any altitude issues. I don't do any extraordinary conditioning (just walking at my age).

I'm not saying that 18,000 plus isn't a problem, especially for persons who have not acclimated or who are not in good physical condition. I'm just skeptical that 18,000 ft. is "deadly" or hypoxic when tens of thousands of people do what I do every year, and thousands have climbed much higher. If anything, I suspect that the rapid change has more effect at altitudes below FL180.
Philip Prine 1
I would say you probably are not the exception. Most folks can handle elevations like that withiut much difficulty. There are pleanty of exceptions in the other direction though. I remember several NFL players, who could not handle the elevation when they were supposed to play in Denver. It's pretty common for a few tourists from a group to drop out in Lima Peru, my wife and I stayed in a converted monestary where they offered to pump oxygen into the room over night. We passed but they said it was a common request.
Phillip Clark 2
I believe a persons size has something to do with this, I have been over 16000ft without oxygen and with no problems, however my 50 year old daughter who is in excellent physical condition is 5'4' 105lbs and shows oxygen deprivation above 10000ft and we live in Reno at 4500 ft elevation.


Don't have an account? Register now (free) for customized features, flight alerts, and more!
This website uses cookies. By using and further navigating this website, you accept this.
Did you know that FlightAware flight tracking is supported by advertising?
You can help us keep FlightAware free by allowing ads from We work hard to keep our advertising relevant and unobtrusive to create a great experience. It's quick and easy to whitelist ads on FlightAware or please consider our premium accounts.