Hypoxia training available beyond altitude chambers

By: Mona Brown

October 1, 2010

In recent months FAA Administrator Babbitt has promoted specific tailored hypoxia training, along with high-altitude handling, for commercial and private pilots who want to fly at high altitude. Indeed, FAA Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14CFR) establishes mandatory requirements for high-altitude training using military altitude chambers at 15 U.S. locations, but few chambers are available for candidates in other countries and theoretical presentation is often the limit of studies. However, Biomedtech Australia at Moorabbin, Melbourne, has developed a range of hypoxicators under the trademarks of “go2altitude” and “Altipower” that can provide an acceptable alternative to training in the chamber.

In the last 30 years several accidents have highlighted the importance of hypoxia training. On Sept. 25, 1979, an instructor and student on type conversion were killed in the crash of Beech King Air 200 G-BGHR. Investigators blamed the accident on oxygen system failure. Two decades later, on Oct. 25, 1999, Learjet 35 N47BA crashed, killing the crew and four passengers, including golfer Payne Stewart. The accident was attributed to the airplane’s failure to pressurize. The Sept. 4, 2000, crash of Beech Super King Air 200 VH-SKC killed the pilot and seven passengers. Investigators attributed the accident to a pressurization failure. Finally, a Boeing 737 (5B-DBY) crashed Aug. 14, 2005, killing the crew and 115 passengers. Failure to pressurize was listed as the cause.

The Greek AAIASB report into the 737 accident includes a recommendation that “EASA/JAA should require practical hypoxia training as a mandatory part of flight crew and cabin crew training. This training should include the use of recently developed hypoxia training tools that reduce the amount of oxygen a trainee receives while wearing a mask and performing tasks.” The Biomedtech system was demonstrated to airline personnel at a CAA seminar as an option for hypoxia training.

Researchers were already studying hypoxia before World War I, but it was not until the mid-1930s that the Mayo Clinic investigated the effect of varying the oxygen proportion of air supplied to a pilot’s mask. Unfortunately, it was impossible to measure gas proportions accurately, and the results were inconclusive.

After the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City it became obvious that athletes who trained at high altitude had a significant advantage over those who had trained at lower levels, and Simon Bassovitch of Biomedtech Australia at Moorabbin, Melbourne, started to research the feasibility of providing a portable simulated high-altitude training environment for athletes.

The result was called “hy­­poxicators” and by 1992 Bassovitch specialized in the supply of these systems, which varied the ratio of oxygen to nitrogen to achieve a particular altitude. These hypoxicators–used by athletes worldwide–can help pilots recognize hypoxia without the use of an altitude chamber. Using membrane technology to vary the required oxygen/nitrogen mix, Biomedtech has eliminated the need for cumbersome gas cylinders. The examinee has to hold a breathing mask to his face, experiencing all symptoms of oxygen starvation while being asked to carry out various exercises. All test results are recorded automatically and copies are presented to the candidate in written or DVD form.

Since there is no requirement to have an altitude chamber, trainees need not meet the medical standards required to experience explosive decompression, providing greater flexility of operation.

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