Health and Physiological Factors Affecting Pilot Performance (Part One) – Hypoxia

A number of health factors and physiological effects can be linked to flying. Some are minor, while others are important enough to require special attention to ensure safety of flight. In some cases, physiological factors can lead to inflight emergencies. Some important medical factors that a pilot should be aware of include hypoxia, hyperventilation, middle ear and sinus problems, spatial disorientation, motion sickness, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, stress and fatigue, dehydration, and heatstroke. Other subjects include the effects of alcohol and drugs, anxiety, and excess nitrogen in the blood after scuba diving.



Hypoxia means “reduced oxygen” or “not enough oxygen.” Although any tissue will die if deprived of oxygen long enough, the greatest concern regarding hypoxia during flight is lack of oxygen to the brain, since it is particularly vulnerable to oxygen deprivation. Any reduction in mental function while flying can result in life-threatening errors. Hypoxia can be caused by several factors, including an insufficient supply of oxygen, inadequate transportation of oxygen, or the inability of the body tissues to use oxygen. The forms of hypoxia are based on their causes:

  • Hypoxic hypoxia
  • Hypemic hypoxia
  • Stagnant hypoxia
  • Histotoxic hypoxia

Hypoxic Hypoxia

Hypoxic hypoxia is a result of insufficient oxygen available to the body as a whole. A blocked airway and drowning are obvious examples of how the lungs can be deprived of oxygen, but the reduction in partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude is an appropriate example for pilots. Although the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is constant, its partial pressure decreases proportionately as atmospheric pressure decreases. As an aircraft ascends during flight, the percentage of each gas in the atmosphere remains the same, but there are fewer molecules available at the pressure required for them to pass between the membranes in the respiratory system. This decrease in number of oxygen molecules at sufficient pressure can lead to hypoxic hypoxia.

Dangers of Transporting Dry Ice

Sublimation is a process in which a substance transitions from a solid to a gaseous state without passing through an intermediate liquid state. Dry ice sublimates into large quantities of CO2 gas, which can rapidly displace oxygen-containing air and potentially cause hypoxia via carbon dioxide intoxication. Case studies have shown that both illness and death can be caused by occupational and/or unintentional exposure when transporting dry ice in small, confined spaces such as a flightdeck or airplane. Exposure to high concentration of CO2 gas may lead to increased respiration, tachycardia, cardiac arrhythmia, and unconsciousness. Exposure to concentration of CO2 gas in excess of 10 percent may cause convulsions, coma, and/or death.

The tendency of dry ice to rapidly sublimate also means that without proper ventilation, it can rapidly pressurize. For this reason, dry ice should never be placed inside a sealed transport container (i.e., leak-proof secondary container) and must be placed within an outer shipping container or storage container that allows adequate ventilation to release the CO2 gas and avoid pressurization. Sealing dry ice within a leak-proof container may result in explosion of the container potentially leading to serious physical injury or death.


Hypemic Hypoxia

Hypemic hypoxia occurs when the blood is not able to take up and transport a sufficient amount of oxygen to the cells in the body. Hypemic means “not enough blood.” This type of hypoxia is a result of oxygen deficiency in the blood, rather than a lack of inhaled oxygen, and can be caused by a variety of factors. It may be due to reduced blood volume (from severe bleeding), or it may result from certain blood diseases, such as anemia. More often, hypemic hypoxia occurs because hemoglobin, the actual blood molecule that transports oxygen, is chemically unable to bind oxygen molecules. The most common form of hypemic hypoxia is CO poisoning. This is explained in greater detail later in this chapter. Hypemic hypoxia can also be caused by the loss of blood due to blood donation. Blood volume can require several weeks to return to normal following a donation. Although the effects of the blood loss are slight at ground level, there are risks when flying during this time.

Stagnant Hypoxia

Stagnant means “not flowing,” and stagnant hypoxia or ischemia results when the oxygen-rich blood in the lungs is not moving, for one reason or another, to the tissues that need it. An arm or leg “going to sleep” because the blood flow has accidentally been shut off is one form of stagnant hypoxia. This kind of hypoxia can also result from shock, the heart failing to pump blood effectively, or a constricted artery. During flight, stagnant hypoxia can occur with excessive acceleration of gravity (Gs). Cold temperatures can also reduce circulation and decrease the blood supplied to extremities.

Histotoxic Hypoxia

The inability of the cells to effectively use oxygen is defined as histotoxic hypoxia. “Histo” refers to tissues or cells, and “toxic” means poisonous. In this case, enough oxygen is being transported to the cells that need it, but they are unable to make use of it. This impairment of cellular respiration can be caused by alcohol and other drugs, such as narcotics and poisons. Research has shown that drinking one ounce of alcohol can equate to an additional 2,000 feet of physiological altitude.


Symptoms of Hypoxia

High-altitude flying can place a pilot in danger of becoming hypoxic. Oxygen starvation causes the brain and other vital organs to become impaired. The first symptoms of hypoxia can include euphoria and a carefree feeling. With increased oxygen starvation, the extremities become less responsive and flying becomes less coordinated. The symptoms of hypoxia vary with the individual, but common symptoms include:

  • Cyanosis (blue fingernails and lips)
  • Headache
  • Decreased response to stimuli and increased reaction time
  • Impaired judgment
  • Euphoria
  • Visual impairment
  • Drowsiness
  • Lightheaded or dizzy sensation
  • Tingling in fingers and toes
  • Numbness

As hypoxia worsens, the field of vision begins to narrow and instrument interpretation can become difficult. Even with all these symptoms, the effects of hypoxia can cause a pilot to have a false sense of security and be deceived into believing everything is normal.

Treatment of Hypoxia

Treatment for hypoxia includes flying at lower altitudes and/ or using supplemental oxygen. All pilots are susceptible to the effects of oxygen starvation, regardless of physical endurance or acclimatization. When flying at high altitudes, it is paramount that oxygen be used to avoid the effects of hypoxia. The term “time of useful consciousness” describes the maximum time the pilot has to make rational, life-saving decisions and carry them out at a given altitude without supplemental oxygen. As altitude increases above 10,000 feet, the symptoms of hypoxia increase in severity, and the time of useful consciousness rapidly decreases. [Figure 17-1] Since symptoms of hypoxia can be different for each individual, the ability to recognize hypoxia can be greatly improved by experiencing and witnessing the effects of it during an altitude chamber “flight.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides this opportunity through aviation physiology training, which is conducted at the FAA CAMI in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and at many military facilities across the United States. For information about the FAA’s one-day physiological training course with altitude chamber and vertigo demonstrations, visit the FAA website at

Figure 17-1. Time of useful consciousness.

Figure 17-1. Time of useful consciousness.