Flying Higher Than Usual? Consider the Hypoxia Threat

Even a minor dose can degrade your judgment and performance.

I once asked a pilot I know whether he considers using oxygen as a precautionary measure; say on a night approach after a long day's flying. "That's for [derogatory feline reference]," he said. I like to think he was joking, at least a little. The USAF requires pilots to use oxygen when flying above 5,000 feet agl; even in pressurized airplanes. Uncle Sam considers the risk too great to take chances with his pilots' capacity for distributing red blood cells. How about you?

Most pilots who regularly fly high in mountainous areas are likely pretty familiar with their own oxygen needs; but for you flatlanders planning that ski vacation of a lifetime, take a minute to consider buying or renting an O2 bottle. It has been conjectured that prolonged flights at as low as 6,000 or 8,000 feet could render your skills somewhat less than your best. So flying higher could tax your system even more. There are lots of stories from pilots who have testified that a few pulls on the mask before an ILS approach really cleared out their heads. Even to the extent that they were able to see colors much more clearly once they had imbibed from the green bottle.

As we get older, our blood becomes less capable of transporting the oxygen that our brain needs to be at its best. Smokers and those who have added extra pounds over the years are more at risk. Even for those in great shape, a slight head cold, added stress or a few missed hours of sleep could also reduce oxygen flow and detract from the accuracy and efficiency of that ultimate flight planning computer between your ears.

So if you've never used oxygen before, but you've got a flight ahead that could tax your systems beyond what you're used to, it might be worth considering oxygen this time around. Even for those flying pressurized airplanes, a long flight with cabin altitudes of 8,000 or 10,000 feet could make the difference when the finale involves a tricky approach. Consider all those accident reports where everyone wonders how such an expert, experienced pilot could possibly have performed so badly. It could have been that he was operating with too many brain cells tied behind his back due to lack of sufficient oxygen.