Crash and Breathe
Has this ever happened to you?
The interior of the plane began to fill with intense, heavy black smoke, which was extraordinarily painful to breathe and very toxic...It quickly became pitch black in the cabin from the heavy smoke, in spite of the bright light from the fire on the left side of the plane...I was feeling very faint and I later guessed I only had about 15 to 30 seconds of consciousness left. Every breath caused me to convulse and was extremely painful...."
Thus begins the article entitled "Get Out NOW!" by Patrick R. Veillette, Ph.D. in the April 2007 issue of Business and Commercial Aviation.
Hyperventilation Isn't Necessarily Bad
Hyperventilation—excessively rapid and deep breathing—is uniformly described as something to be avoided in aviation. It can be triggered by decreased partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes, or psychological factors such as panic. It can cause faintness, tingling of the extremities, and eventual loss of consciousness. (Which is bad, by the way. Consciousness is a good thing when you're flying.) But one consequence of hyperventilation is decreased carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood. And, in my theory, this can be a good thing.
When you hold your breath, you know that the urge to begin breathing again builds up quickly, eventually making it impossible to not draw in that lungful of air. You might reasonably consider this urge to be your body telling you that you need oxygen. Not so! It's actually your body telling you that you have too much carbon dioxide. Under normal circumstances, your blood is almost completely saturated with oxygen, if it weren't for the CO2 buildup, you could hold your breath and remain conscious longer. Which brings me to the consequence of my theory, which is a suggestion to hyperventilate before crashing.
An airplane crash, while it may be over in seconds, is often a drawn out affair. Something goes wrong in the aircraft, and you need to get on the ground quickly. Depending on what went wrong, "ground" and "airport" may not be synonymous. Airplane "crashes" are frequently survivable. If the aircraft is under any control at all, it is usually possible to "land" somewhere without instant destruction. What happens after that depends on skill and a lot of luck. You may walk away, you may die in the crash, and finally, there may or may not be a fire and smoke, from which you may or may not emerge among the living.
If you have managed, or so my theory goes, to hyperventilate by the right amount before the smoke and fire, you may have an extra edge when they're yelling "This way to the egress." Although there are many ways to improve ones chances, e.g., smoke hoods or small SCUBA systems a la James Bond, they all require preparation. Presumably, people who have been breathing earlier have what they need to hyperventilate with them at all times and need no accessories.
No RIKL Blog entry would be complete without mentioning the "no research" policy. I don't consider the table below to be such, since I was the experimental subject and all the numbers were gathered in the ordinary course of doing whatever it is that I do. I tried to determine the benefit of hyperventilation under real or mock conditions of not being able to breathe.
As you can see, hyperventilation confers a modest but significant benefit in permitting physical activity while being, for example, in a smoke-filled cabin. It could conceivably be the difference between being trapped or being able to jump off the wing, hopefully without damaging too many limbs.
Conceivably. It seems to be a sensible theory, and yet I saw nothing about it in the cited article. This being the proverbial "matter of life and death," I took advantage of the opportunity to correspond about my theory with people who are actually expert in the subject, which correspondence follows:
From: Dr. Quay Snyder
The suggestion seems intuitively to make sense. However, I believe the human physiology of this action would actually be counterproductive. Without being too technical, I offer the following explanation.
I hope this helps address the reader's concerns and well-intended suggestions.
Response from me
Response from Dr. Snyder
It didn't. I'm in New Jersey, and the section of State Hwy 23
on which the gym is located was flooded out due to the worst
single-day rainfall since the 1800's.
And that was the last Dr. Snyder heard from me until I sent him an email pointing to this blog item. The gym, fortunately was not washed away, and I have mentioned previously the irony of a big flood having prevented me from swimming!
Clearly my theory isn't as airtight as I had hoped. I bow to Dr. Snyder's expert opinion, and have therefore written this blogitem to tell you:
Be sure you don't do what you had almost certainly never thought of doing under circumstances that will almost certainly never occur.
NP: "Night Comes In" - Richard Thompson