IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE AIRPLANE.
Although learning to fly doesn’t require a semester of pre-med studies, attention must be paid to physiological factors that could affect pilots and their passengers. These topics are addressed during the practical test as “aeromedical factors.” They are described in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and the Aeronautical Information Manual (www.faa.gov). Your designated pilot examiner (DPE) is required to test your knowledge of the effects of alcohol, drugs, over-the-counter medications, and the effects of excess nitrogen following scuba diving—as well as three additional factors from a list of eight items.
Not surprisingly, hypoxia (insufficient oxygen) and its effects are at the top of that list. The causes, symptoms, and the appropriate corrective actions will form the essential highlights of the oral exam questions.
A common topic of discussion deals with hyperventilation, because it occurs more often among pilots and their passengers than is generally recognized.
The typical wrong answer that DPEs hear for its cause: too much oxygen.
Another common and potentially more harmful problem is a middle ear or sinus blockage. These usually are associated with upper respiratory or nasal congestion, which inhibits the normal exchange, or equalization, of air pressure when changing altitudes—descents being the more problematic. Decongestant sprays or drops do not provide adequate protection, and oral decongestants may impair pilot performance.
An in-depth presentation on spatial disorientation and various illusions is covered because of the extreme hazards they present. Our inner-ear sensory, sight, sound, nerves, and muscles combined with our sense of perceived gravity create a horribly unreliable attitude indicator when we lose our visual horizon. It is critical to understand these sensations to avoid falling prey to vertigo.
Motion sickness is a favorite topic of discussion. Recognize its symptoms and know corrective actions. Also, be aware that drugs such as Dramamine can cause side effects that pilots need to avoid.
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs more often during wintertime operations. While most applicants know about this dangerous byproduct of internal combustion, it sometimes is not understood just how life-threatening an in-flight exposure can be. Open outside air vents and windows, and close the heater vent, but don’t stop there—get the airplane on the ground.
Next are stress and fatigue. Both have short-term, acute forms, as well as longterm, chronic (dangerous) forms. Dealing with the acute forms is important, and easier. However, chronic stress or fatigue renders a pilot unable to safely cope and must be avoided.
Additional ailments include dehydration and heat stroke. The simple cure is to drink plenty of water frequently, before you feel thirsty. By the time most people feel thirsty, they are already 1.5 quarts low of fluids.
Alcohol has an entire list of negative effects. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can produce the same reaction as alcohol, so use extreme care before taking these while flying.
Decompression sickness can occur while flying after an insufficient recovery period following scuba diving activities. Know that both time and altitude restrictions apply, and once symptoms are present, immediate corrective action becomes essential: 100 percent oxygen; descend and land as soon as possible; seek immediate medical attention.
Eye functions and night vision complete the list of essential aeromedical factors. During the course of your flight training, it might be tempting to skip several important factors as you focus on what seems to be the more important skills: flying the airplane. Yes, your ability to safely fly the airplane is job one. But any pilot specializing in only that will not go very far. From the examiner’s perspective, it is readily apparent when applicants “wing” their way through the oral exam questions, hoping to slide by on their cursory knowledge of physiology from their elementary or high school days. It isn’t pretty. But it is very avoidable.