You know those questions on the written tests for any aviation rating about hypoxia? Ever wonder if they were exaggerating a might about it? I’m here to tell you it’s no joke, kiddies. The FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) brought its handy-dandy Portable Reduced Oxygen Training Enclosure (PROTE) to The Ninety-Nines 2014 conference here in New Orleans. And, naturally, yours truly was crazy enough to sign up for it!
In order to go into the PROTE chamber, you need two things. First, you must attend a two and a half hour mandatory classroom session that qualifies you for the ground training required by 14 CFR section 61.31(g) to operate pressurized aircraft above 25,000 feet. Second, you must have a current airman’s medical certificate. Something that requires a two and a half hour class and they want to make sure you’re in pretty good health before they rob you of precious oxygen? Where do I sign up?!?
Here’s the blurb from the FAA’s website about the PROTE: “The Portable Reduced Oxygen Training Enclosure is a portable altitude training system that simulates altitude by reducing the oxygen percentage of the air. Advances in technology have yielded a new generation of commercially available training devices capable of producing hypoxic environments at ground level (normobaric) by altering the fraction of ambient oxygen, thus avoiding some of the risk factors associated with altitude chamber training. The system’s operational control is a microprocessor that monitors two oxygen sensors, a carbon dioxide sensor, and an atmospheric pressure sensor. It uses this information to calculate the simulated altitude and, in turn, to control nitrogen concentrating air units, CO2 scrubbers, and vents (as needed) to maintain the enclosure at the desired simulated altitude setting. Although it is based at CAMI, the PROTE can be taken to locations wherever needed for your personal hypoxia experience.”
My own personal hypoxia experience? Why does that sound creepy to me?
The ground school portion was actually quite interesting and interspersed with videos or audio of hypoxic situations. The scariest one was an actual air traffic control recording of a Lear jet pilot who was so deep into hypoxia that he. could. only. talk. one. word. at. a. time. And even that was clearly a struggle. The controller recognized the symptoms of hypoxia of slurred speech and difficulty comprehending and cleared him for a lower altitude, and his speech and comprehension quickly improved. If you’re interested, here’s the link.
Another video that really made me question if this was a wise decision was of three military men undergoing reduced oxygen experimentation. One of them was asked to pick cards off a deck and say out loud which card each was (link). The simulated altitude level was 35,000, and after the first few cards, he kept repeating “Four of spades!” for every subsequent card, then had a hard time picking up a card, then was told to put his mask on or he will die and was past comprehension at that point and did not put his mask on. Someone had to do it for him. No, he didn’t die. But they were trying to see if he’d comprehend such a scary order.
Yet another scary video (do I really want to do this?!?) showed someone in rapid decompression simulation at 47,000 feet. At that altitude, you have about three to five seconds to get your mask on. The guy reached for the mask the second it came down but was still unable to put it on himself despite his immediate reaction.
Well, we’d be at a breezy 28,000 feet. So no worries. Right?
There are many things that can affect how quickly symptoms of hypoxia manifest themselves: fatigue, sickness, and medication seem to be the biggest ones. And since I was almost falling asleep while standing up waiting to go into the chamber, I figured I’d be lights out pretty quickly. Always competitive, though, I wanted desperately to be the last one to put my mask on. Or, at the very least, I wanted to beat one of the instructors, this guy Mike, from the flight school where I leaseback my airplane. He’s all muscle-y and young, so I thought beating him was a good enough, if unrealistic, goal.
We watched as other groups before us went in. Some donned their masks right away. Some slowly slipped away while trying to complete the written task sheet. Some seemed to last forever. In fact, those who live at higher altitudes did the best in the groups I watched that day. No surprise there. Also not boding well for my flatlander self.
Finally it was time for our group of three to go in. There is a small antechamber that you enter from the outside that serves as a midway point so that you’re not opening up the door of the room at 28,000 feet and letting all that oxygen in. We file in the antechamber as quickly as possible so as to minimize the time the door is open, and then we do the same once that door is shut and the door to the main chamber is open. We had assigned seats and were told to take the oxygen mask from the side of the chair and put it in our laps so that it’d be close when we needed it. The FAA guys warned us that we may even feel a symptom or two right when we walk in, tingling in the fingers often being the first symptom felt.
Me? Nope! Feelin’ fine! No tingling. I feel great. In fact, I’m thinking this is some sissy shit that’s been totally blown out of proportion. Maybe I’ll even go for a run in here. I’ll show these people how a distance runner copes with physical tests! We were given this sheet so that we could check off any symptoms at each minute interval, and then there were some cognitive tasks we could do if we wanted. I took one look at the math problems before we went in and had already decided to skip those since it would take me a minute to do them in normal conditions and I didn’t want my only memory of this experience to be futilely toiling away at multiplication.
There was a color wheel hanging on the wall that they told us to periodically look at since the colors would degrade as hypoxia set in. The FAA guy told us to first just sit and absorb everything. Think about how we’re feeling. Look at the color wheel. Do the red and orange look different?
Dude, this shit looks fine. Stop being so dramatic.
I guess I got comfy while I was there because the next thing I know, I have my oxygen mask on. Oh cool! I’m so glad I was able to get it on myself instead of being so stupid that he had to do it for me. I also noticed when he was in front of me that his face went from bright orange like he was an oompa loompa to normal color. But wait! Does Mike have his mask on already? Yes! Ha! But then I look over at another friend in there. She’s still doing the damn cognitive stuff and writing stuff down. We’re still friends, and I say this with nothing but love, but when I looked up and saw her still chillin’, my first thought was “Bitch.” And she just kept going. The FAA guy asked her to stick her arms out and show him a left turn, a right turn, a climb. They do this to see if your hands are shaking. Hers weren’t. Each new task she did, I was like “Bitch. Bitch. Bitch.” And she kept going. Meanwhile, I’m noticing how color is starting to get clearer. Funny how I hadn’t noticed it getting unclear before. Whatevs. Finally she slowly dons her own mask without help from the FAA dude. Man, that sure didn’t last very long!
We go outside the chamber, and they tell you to sit down so we can talk about what happened. FAA guy asks how long we thought we were in there. Felt like a couple minutes to me. He says just over five minutes. Hmm. Well I’ve never been good at timing things. And I knew time would fly since this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Then he asks Mike if he remembers what happened. Mike says his O2 level plummeted after we stood up and sat back down three times. Oh yeah. We did that. I had forgotten already. Mike said he was just about to pass out when the FAA guy put his mask on for him. Then the FAA guy kneels in front of me. “Do you remember that I had to put your mask on for you?” “Haha! No you didn’t! I got it on just fine!” I was laughing. He wasn’t. Lying bastard! We’ll see about that because I took video from the inside with my phone and had a friend take video from the outside.
I sneak over to a corner of the room to look at the video. I’m all chill and writing down my heart rate and O2 saturation level like they told us. Oh yeah then there’s that thing when he told us to stand up and sit back down three times. I sorta remember doing that. Then, well, I’ll let you see for yourselves (huge thanks to my best friend Stephen Occhipinti for putting this video together!).
What?!? I was seriously crestfallen! I don’t remember anything at all beyond standing up and sitting down. Nothing until my mask was on. I don’t remember him having to put Mike’s mask on. I wish I could have seen that. Maybe I did. Who knows. I don’t remember trying to convince him that I was fine. But it’s good to know I’m so confident even when I’m out of my mind. Confidence will get you everywhere! Like passed out.
One of the FAA guys said when they use the PROTE, it’s like dealing with drunk people all day. I can believe that!
This is your brain. This is your brain on reduced oxygen. Any questions?