Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Oxygen for Smart Pilots

During the majority of my airline flying career, oxygen was a no-brainer.  The O2 mask (which we checked dutifully before every flight, lest we have an explosive decompression which would soon render us unconscious without it) hung behind my head for 15 years in the MD80 I flew and was stowed in a box outboard of my left knee for my last 10 years in the Boeing 757/767. 
Now, enjoying retirement flying in my B55 Baron, I’ve missed the easy availability of a quick shot of “brightener” as I used to call those whiffs, particularly at night, when the instrument panel seemed a bit fuzzy (through the late hour and long durations at a 7000'+ cabin altitudes).  I’d breathe deeply on the oxygen and then, like magic, the panel would come back into focus, my brain would reengage and life seemed so much brighter.
Now, in my elder years, I recall how important those shots of oxygen were and decided if they helped me that much as a younger full-time professional pilot, just think of what that same oxygen would do for an older, occasional leisure pilot who’s got few of those airliner niceties like stretching room, walking areas, lavatories, etc.  Since I try to fly with the precision of my old airline life, why not give myself a helping hand by using oxygen to fortify my skills which are not nearly as sharp as they used to be?
As I thought long and hard about why more pilots don’t use oxygen (when it does such a great job at making you feel better, fly better and eliminates post-flight headaches) it occurred to me that my old mantra of “make it easy for someone to do what you want them to do” was just what I needed to do for myself. Make it easy to don the nasal cannula, get the oxygen flowing and then, last but not least, see the benefits quickly.
With these thoughts in mind, my primary mission during my first Oshkosh Airventure visit this past summer was to talk to the various nose-hose (as we used to call the O2 masks) vendors, seeking to find a 2-4 place oxygen system that would work well for me:  easy to install, easy to use in flight, easy to refill as needed.  I had begun my research several months before and now I was able to see the various systems and talk to the experts.  I ended up with a Precise Flight OXYpack2 - 2 Person Flow Meter Oxygen System With 15 CU. Ft. Cylinder  which interested me for its light weight, ability to be strapped to the back of the passenger seat and ease of donning and use without interfering with ongoing pilot activities like speaking and eating. 
I found that the mustache-style cannula, which allows the oxygen to be conserved and administered through the measured flow meter, was a snap to put on, even in flight with my headset in place.  I merely removed the cannula from the zip pocket on the outside of the oxygen bottle bag, stuffed it under my headset band and then slipped the cannula tubes into my nostrils, allowing the hose to drape over my headset earpieces, down the back of  my head and then over my right shoulder. 
The best part of my purchase was a small oximeter which could tell me instantly when I needed to start using the oxygen and how much it was helping me when I did.  Normal readings are above 95% while below 90% is considered critical (see some good info at http://www.easyoxygen.com.au/oxyge http://www.easyoxygen.com.au/oxygen-saturation-levels-and-what-do-they-mean/n-saturation-levels-and-what-do-they-mean/).

During my recent trip from KJAQ to KSBA at 7500 feet, I was amazed to find my O2 level was down to 90% after only :10-15 at this altitude.  I donned the nasal cannula, turned the bottle all the way on, adjusted the flowmeter to my altitude and settled comfortably to watch the scenery go by.  About :10 later I checked my O2 level and was pleased to see it back at 96%. I had flown similar routes in the daytime for many years and never realized how impaired I actually was while flying at 7,500’ which is technically not an FAA oxygen-mandated altitude.  Imagine what using oxygen will do for my night flights where it's recommended that oxygen be used above 5000 as it improves night vision, which us oldies-but-goodies can certainly do with more of.   My next night flight should be a real eye-opener…pun intended!
So, do yourself and your flying a favor…since none of us are getting any younger, enhance your flying with some easy assistance by using oxygen more often.

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