Does anybody know what it feels like to lose cabin pressure mid-flight and experience the effects of a lack of oxygen? Luckily, most of us do not, and we think we don’t need to worry about it because we don’t fly high enough. Or, some of us believe that if we keep one of those pulse oximeters in our flight bag as a precaution, we can grab it quickly to check our oxygen levels, just in case we start to feel a little woozy at higher altitudes. But unless you’ve experienced oxygen deficiency firsthand, how would you even recognize the symptoms, and would you know the steps you need to take to save your life?
Mid-flight is not the time to learn about hypoxia, the medical term for oxygen deficiency. It doesn’t give you much warning, and if you don’t detect it early enough, it can be a real killer. Some pilots believe that living at a higher altitude offers significant protection from hypoxia symptoms. That is only partially true. You need special training, education, and carefully monitored experience to learn and recognize the onset of hypoxia. That is where the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Education Division gets involved.
Pilots can learn firsthand, safely, and on the ground what it’s like to experience hypoxia in a state-of-the-art altitude training device and feel the effects of in-flight spatial disorientation in the Gyro, the General Aviation Spatial Disorientation Demonstrator. There are also courses in post-crash survival, including an option for simulated water landings.
Sounds like fun, right! More importantly, you’ll learn to recognize your personal minimums during unexpected in-flight events and be better prepared. We’ll introduce you to all the training, programs, and resources. But first, let’s learn more about the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Education Division and their dedicated work to promote pilot knowledge and enhance aviation safety.
Safety Lands When Education Expands
The Aerospace Medical Education Division is a vital component of the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, also known as CAMI, the medical certification, research, education, and occupational health wing of the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine. Located in the FAA’s Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, CAMI features a staff of highly trained researchers, physicians, medical specialists, engineers, educators, and technicians. They study the factors influencing human performance in the aerospace environment, discover ways to understand them, and communicate what they’ve learned to the aviation community.
CAMI’s Aerospace Medical Education Division (AMED) works to promote pilot knowledge and safety. “AMED offers educational programs and the safest and most technologically advanced hands-on training available in the United States today for pilots and aircrew to recognize and manage the physical and mental stresses of flight,” says AMED Manager Dr. David Hardy. “We distribute aeromedical information to the civil aviation community through aeromedical safety brochures, publications, lectures, video series, and practical demonstrations,” says Dr. Hardy.
In 2021, AMED educated and trained 572 commercial and 52 general aviation pilots and crew. They taught numerous courses to pilots, crew, and air traffic controllers at the Department of Transportation’s Transportation Safety Institute, home of the National Aircraft Accident Investigation School.
AMED launched the new Pilot Minute video series, hosted by FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup, which provides timely and relevant information to pilots on the medical certification process. Production continues on the award-winning, monthly AME Minute, a distance learning video series that helps educate aviation medical examiner (AME) designees through short videos posted on social media. Recipient of the United States Distance Learning Association’s Innovation Award, the AME Minute addresses aerospace medical certification questions and fills in knowledge gaps in the AME community.
They also publish the quarterly Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin for AMEs and anyone interested in aviation safety and aerospace medicine. Each edition features an exclusive editorial written by Dr. Northrup, including current case studies, articles by leading experts in aerospace medicine, and information on seminars and online educational opportunities.
In addition to training pilots and crew, AMED also conducts AME training for doctors and students worldwide, members of the U.S. military, and personnel throughout the federal government. In 2021, they re-tooled the AME remediation and correction actions/terminations program and overhauled the Medical Certification Standards and Procedures prerequisite training program.
Dr. Hardy notes that “just this past year alone, AMED trained 752 AMEs in AME refresher seminars and courses, with 79 new AMEs trained at their AME Basic Seminars, 262 trained in medical certification standards and procedures, and 223 educated in clinical aerospace physiology review.” AMED’s medical reference library loaned 2,164 items, performed 72 literature searches, and answered 937 reference questions from researchers, physicians, AMEs, the aviation industry, the international community, and the general public.
AMED is also a leader in aerospace medical research examining emerging human safety risk issues brought on by factors such as the aging pilot population. They keep the aviation community current on the latest advances in pharmacology, therapeutic tools, and surgical procedures. In addition, AMED is constantly working to improve aircraft materials, equipment, cabin configurations, life support systems, and evacuation assistive devices, all of which could enhance survival from an aircraft accident.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many pilots aren’t aware of all the aeromedical information they can access through AMED and the extensive training courses and programs available. The vast majority of these are accessible online, and best of all — they’re free!
Courses, Sources, and Training Resources
You can find a wealth of virtual courses, videos, and instructional and learning activities at faa.gov/pilots/training/airman_education. Here’s just a few examples of what you can find online.
🥼 Human Factors Videos: Learn the effects of stress on pilot performance and take a lesson in crew resource management. Go to bit.ly/FAAHFVideos.
🥼 Pilot Minute Video Series: Hosted by FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup, you’ll learn more on the medical certification process, available on YouTube at bit.ly/PilotMinute. You can also find medically-related articles in each issue of this magazine, written by Dr. Northrup and FAA medical officers.
🥼 AME Minute Videos: They’re not just for doctors. Anyone can watch their monthly micro-learning topics online. To find the videos, go to faa.gov/tv and click the Training tab. Click here to subscribe (bit.ly/AMEMinute) and get notified of future videos. You can also view the archive of all AME Minute videos at bit.ly/AMEMinuteArchive.
🥼 Medical Certification: You’ll find everything you need to know about how to obtain a medical certificate, including answers to frequently asked questions, where to find an AME, and the all-important FAA MedXPress Form 8500–8 at faa.gov/pilots/medical. Check out this handy guide to the MedExPress process: bit.ly/MedXpressPDF (PDF download).
🥼 Aeromedical Safety Brochures: These brochures take an in-depth look at specific pilot safety topics like sleep apnea, pilot vision, and carbon monoxide. Go to bit.ly/AeromedSafetyBrochures.
Making Waves in Pilot Education
CAMI has broken ground on a unique training opportunity for general aviation (GA) pilots. It’s called the Wind and Wave Evacuation & Survival (WiWAVES) research and training facility. Inside the 45,000 square foot building, GA pilots will get the chance to experience a realistic environment that simulates a water survival scenario. A large ditching tank will produce rough sea conditions, including strong winds of up to 26 knots, producing 10-foot-high open sea waves. These waves primarily move up and down rather than simulating those that crash onto the shore, creating a more realistic survival environment.
Pilots can practice water survival techniques and learn procedures for emergency egress and rescue and the use of flotation devices. The WiWAVES facility will also simulate a wide range of aircraft door sizes, including the fuselage of a passenger aircraft, and accommodate various escape slides and rafts. Large horizontal pointing fans will replicate wind gusts and rotor wash from helicopter blades. There are also plans to include a water rescue training tower to simulate helicopter rescue scenarios.
Construction of the new facility began in September 2021 at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, and it plans to be fully operational by 2024.
While you’re waiting for WiWAVES to splash onto the scene, check out AMED’s pilot and Aircrew Survival Videos online, where you can learn basic methods and techniques to increase your survival chances after an aircraft emergency landing, ditching, or crash. Go to bit.ly/FAASurvivalVideos.
Don’t miss the free online courses available on FAASafety.gov to learn what to do if you encounter an aircraft accident scene. Although these courses are primarily designed for first responders, they provide helpful information for anyone that comes across an aircraft accident. Pilots are highly encouraged to take these courses. In many instances, pilots are the first to help passengers, and they’re often first on the scene, particularly at small uncontrolled airports. Course participants can earn credits towards a Basic set of WINGS in the FAA’s WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program, the recurrent training program for GA pilots. Visit FAASafety.gov, create your free account, and search “aircraft accident training.”
You’ll also find online training videos for first responders or any potential rescuer at small aircraft or helicopter accidents at faa.gov/aircraft/gen_av/first_responders.
The Higher You Fly
Due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, in-person training at CAMI on simulator devices like the Gyro is on hold. However, you can still take a “flight” in CAMI’s altitude training device to experience hypoxia firsthand.
AMED is planning nine possible road trips this year with their Portable Reduced Oxygen Training Enclosure, or PROTE, a traveling altitude training device. PROTE is an 80 square foot mixed gas hypoxia demonstrator with enough room to hold five participants and simulates altitude by reducing the oxygen percentage of the air. PROTE uses a mixed gas atmosphere of approximately 6.5% oxygen to simulate the hypoxia effects of 25,000 feet of altitude — without changing pressure.
PROTE is available to all pilots who are at least 18 years of age and hold a valid medical certificate (FAA Class 1, 2, 3, or BasicMed). Training sessions take 20–30 minutes, including five minutes for each subject to gradually become hypoxic in the device’s lower oxygen environment. During that time, pilots and air traffic controllers perform simple tasks to learn their personal minimums and recognize the onset of symptoms. PROTE staff carefully monitor the participants and quickly identify the mental confusion, impaired judgment, and vision problems that hypoxia brings, providing oxygen to anyone in need.
“The PROTE is an instructive tool to educate and inform pilots about the dangers of hypoxia. It trains pilots to identify their personal symptoms and their duration of useful consciousness at an altitude of 25,000 feet,” says Dr. Bruce Wright, AMED’s airmen education team lead. “Hypoxia training is important for air traffic controllers as well, to help them recognize whether a pilot may be suffering from a lack of oxygen,” says Dr. Wright.
Here’s a partial list of when and where you can take a ride in the PROTE device this year:
- March 17–19: International Women in Aviation Conference, Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, Nashville, Tenn.
- April 5–10: Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, Lakeland, Fla.
- July 25–31: EAA AirVenture, Oshkosh, Wis.
Several other locations are planned but not confirmed due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
PROTE is in high demand, so stop by at these events early to get on the list. If you can’t make it to any of these locations, you can do a quick internet search for commercial providers or reach out to your local FAA Safety Team member to find WINGS events that might be sponsoring a PROTE demonstration near you.
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.