It seemed like forever, but I finally got down low enough to get some oxygen into the carburetor and my lungs. I landed, and as I got out I found my legs were shaky from the hypoxia.
Although it may seem hard to believe, I was not a big risk-taker back then. I was all about safety when it came to flying. I went to every FAA pilot safety seminar I could find, aced the written exam and read every flying magazine I could afford to buy.
So how did I end up going way beyond a safe altitude when it was something I never would have planned to do on the ground?
Hypoxia is insidious. By the time I was moving through 12,000 to 15,000 feet, it had already begun to take hold, altering my judgment and making me careless about the risks of flying that high. When I was ascending above 15,000 feet, I was not even thinking about the need for supplemental oxygen. All I was thinking about was how high this little thing could go.
The flight took place shortly before the FAA adopted an oxygen rule, so the only FAR I busted was the last 300 feet climbing into what was then referred to as Positive Control Airspace (now Class A). Up until I reached 18,000 feet, I was perfectly legal, albeit foolish.
Now the rules are clear, and they make sense. For the pilot, you need supplemental oxygen when you are between 12,500 and 14,000 feet for more than 30 minutes and above 14,000 feet at all times. Passengers must get oxygen at 15,000 feet. This is a good rule. It would have kept me from climbing through 14,000 feet, maybe even 12,500, since I had no oxygen supplies on board. And with oxygen in my veins at a lower altitude, I would never have intentionally violated an FAR.
Sometimes, we pilots have to climb to get over mountains or buildups or Class B airspace. If this happens to you, and you are into that 12,500- to 14,000-foot gray area without oxygen, remember my flight to 18,000 feet before you stay there very long. For older pilots, smokers or people with poorer circulation, even 25 or 30 minutes may be too long. Stay below 12,500 and survive.
A few weeks after the flight, my photos came back from the drugstore. I looked carefully at the photo of the panel. It clearly showed 18,300 feet on the altimeter, the normal climb speed still being maintained and the rate of climb still at 100 fpm. And there was something else I hadn’t noticed when I was up there. The photo showed my left hand on the control wheel — and my thumb, which was blue.