A while ago, myself and good friend (and instructor at the time), Mike K, decided to take a road-trip to experience the faa’s flight physiology program. The faa offers this program for free to all pilots or those with an faa medical certificate at their home base in Oklahoma, or, for a nominal fee (we paid $50) at an authorized training center. We decided to make a road trip to Andrew’s Air Force Base in Maryland to check it out.
Now why would a helicopter pilot want to experience high altitude training you ask? Well, for one thing, this is a controlled environment that actually lets you experience the first stages of hypoxia, which can occur at any altitude if you have some means of restricting oxygen. Everyone’s symptoms are different, and this is a way for you to feel what the onset is like to you. Also, the program covers some really cool demonstrations of spatial disorientation that very clearly drive home why us instrument rated helicopter pilots should always trust our instruments. Oh, and finally, who wouldn’t want to strap on a fighter helmet and feel like a top-gun for a short while, right?
The chamber flight was conducted in a pressurized chamber with oxygen stations for each pilot. We were brought to various altitudes and asked to do tasks with our masks off. I’ll spare the details but suffice it to say that some rather unexpected and funny things happened when the masks came off for a bit. We all had different symptoms…some of us were unresponsive, others were just plain giddy.
Our crew and commander were awesome…kept it really fun if you can’t tell. We also got to do a rapid decompression, and some night-vision training and a night chamber flight at 5000 feet. That was a real eye opener, because we got to see first hand just how poor your color vision is at night.
In the spatial disorientation portion of the day, I learned not to trust my ear canals, and Mike (no, he is not sleeping) saw that moving your head around rapidly in the cockpit can produce alarming results (that’s him throwing himself into the wall after the spinning stopped!)
Of course, we couldn’t go to Andrews without visiting the crew of one of the Maryland State Police Helicopters and their dauphin…stationed right there on the field.
Overall, this was an amazing trip, and I would highly recommend to anyone the value of this training day.
-Mike R (photos MR and MK)