Experiencing Spatial Disorientation and Hypoxia

When it comes to flying, every pilot knows that anything can go wrong during flight that can lead to a serious accident, incident or even death. Two of the leading factors that can cause a serious problem for pilots include spatial disorientation and hypoxia.

Terms and situations

Spatial disorientation- unawareness in the inability of a person to correctly determine his/her body position in space. Spatial disorientation usually occurs when a pilot is flying through clouds or is unaware of their location in relationship to the ground. For example, let’s say you are flying through thick clouds and you are in a 50-degree right hand turn. Once you roll out to your desired heading you may feel like you are still in a right hand turn when yet your instruments say you are in a straight and level flight. That right turn feeling is spatial disorientation.

Hypoxia- efficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues. Hypoxia is extremely dangerous and deadly to pilots, almost as deadly as carbon monoxide. There are four types of hypoxia which are hypoxemic, anemic, stagnant, and histotoxic. Hypoxia typically occurs when an aircraft goes above 10,000 feet and does not have the proper oxygen equipment (or the equipment is not checked before flight) needed to keep oxygen flowing throughout the entire cabin during flight.

My experience

One of the great things about attending the University of Oklahoma is that we are only 25 miles from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and every semester we try to do some form of an activity or training that they provide. This semester we decided to sign up to do both the spatial disorientation training as well as the high-altitude chamber to experience hypoxia symptoms. So, early Tuesday morning we got up early that morning for a long and exciting day. When we got to the building a group of trainers welcomed us and described to us all the different activities we were going to experience that day; but before we began the training activities, we first learned about what exactly causes both spatial disorientation and hypoxia, as well as looking at FAA accident reports that involved either spatial disorientation or hypoxia as the leading cause for the event.

After learning more about these two leading causes for pilot accidents, we then began the training activities, first dealing with spatial disorientation. Of course, the one that I’m sure all of you have done, is where you are strapped to a chair, close your eyes, put your head down and have someone spin you for about a minute. After you stop spinning you lift your head and open your eyes while trying to focus on a certain point like a person or a picture on the wall. While you try to focus on that object you notice that you feel like everything is still spinning, or that you are leaning towards one side. After a few seconds, everything is back to normal.

The next activity that we did for spatial disorientation was almost the exact same things as the spinning chair, except this time we were put into a flight simulator while flying an aircraft. When we got into the simulator, the trainers took out all our lights, except for the lights on for the instrument panels to make it feel like we were flying through thick clouds at night. After a short time, the trainers would slowly begin to spin the simulator while also asking you to turn to specific heading. The biggest thing that I noticed was that as the simulator began to spin, I felt like I was only in a minor bank turn, until I looked down at my instruments and noticed that I was in a 60-degree bank turn while also losing altitude since I was in a nose down configuration. What made it worst was when they stopped the spinning and you would feel like you’re in a hard bank turn, when yet your instruments were reading that you were in straight and level flight. It was by far the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever felt.

High Altitude Chamber

After a quick lunch break, we got to go into the high-altitude chamber and experience our hypoxic symptoms. When it comes to Hypoxia there are multiple symptoms which include headache, hot/cold feelings, air hunger, slurred speech, and much more and each person experiences hypoxia differently. Once we were all settled in, we began our accent up to 25,000 feet. Once the chamber was pressurized to match our altitude we then were given a worksheet where during a 5-minute time span one side of the chamber would work with on the worksheet with their mask off, while the other side would absorb our neighbor while wearing the oxygen mask. After the 5 minutes were up, we would then switch side. Between me and my partner, I went fist when it came to working on the worksheet without my mask. For the first minute, I felt fine and was doing well on the worksheet, but by the second minute, that’s when I started feeling my hypoxic symptoms. I felt hot around my face, and I could feel a minor headache starting to come on. After 3-4 minutes that’s when I noticed that my heart rate was slowing don rapidly and I became very air hungry, and taking much longer and deeper breaths. I lasted the full 5 minutes, which I was sort of proud of, but I was extremely happy to get my oxygen mask on.

Then my partner went and I noticed that he also had the same experience that I did, but he also had different symptoms. The biggest difference I saw in him was that at about the 3-minute point, his smile got big, and he also told me that his skin felt like he had little bubbles popping out, along with feeling very warm around the face. As I said before everyone experiences hypoxia differently.

My advice

In conclusion, this was an amazing experience getting to experience both spatial disorientation and find out what my hypoxic symptoms are. I encourage all of you that if the opportunity if offered to go to a high-altitude chamber, that you do it so that you can figure out what your hypoxic symptoms are as well. If you are in the military or are thinking about joining it, you are required to do a high-altitude chamber course; but, I also encourage all of you who are training to become corporate, and commercial pilots to do this training course because hypoxia can happen to any pilot, and it’s important to know what causes it as well as identifying your own symptoms since hypoxia is just as deadly as carbon monoxide. I also encourage you to take a spatial disorientation training. Again, this can happen to any pilot and it’s important to know how it feels to be in an uncomfortable situation. In addition, this course also helps you to rely on your instruments since that is how you overcome spatial disorientation.

Well guys I hope you’ve all learned some valuable lessons when it comes to flying and again I highly recommend taking any one of these two forms of training. Don’t forget to also check out https://blog.globalair.com/ for other great blogs from aviation experts across the country. As always guys remember “Adventure is out there”.

Also, here is a link to the video that my partner filmed of me in the high-altitude chamber. It’s a little long but you will definitely see my hypoxic symptoms and yes you laugh at me https://www.facebook.com/cameron.morgan.71619


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