A stealthy killer

Published 9:33 am Saturday, June 15, 2013

by James D. Howell

Our mission to Key West is over; we return to Naval Air Station New Orleans. It’s time to analyze the deployment operation at Key West and continue training to a higher level of fleet readiness. Our recall will be for a year and operational planning begins for future deployments, fitting in with regular fleet units. Our aircraft need to be updated, and crews need to be trained to a higher level of readiness with current procedures.

I spend time practicing my craft and delivering our aircraft to the Grumman facility at Bethpage, Long Island for larger fuel tank installation. We deliver each aircraft and return with an aircraft with the changes incorporated. Our mission will be a little challenged and changed; newer electronics are costly and will not be installed on the aging airframe. Our patrols will become longer, extending the capability for search to a much larger ocean area. It’s a fast way to increase visual search capacity, increasing fleet capability.

Above a certain altitude, oxygen levels decrease to a point where mental processes are impaired. It’s a well known physical phenomenon. World War II high altitude operations involved prolonged exposure to the hazard and equipment and procedures were developed to overcome the problem. Earlier flight operations normally ventured into the hazard for short periods of time and was not a great concern. Earlier operations also were not as aware of the danger and the number of aircraft involved were relatively few.

Aircraft development involved supercharged engines that could power aircraft large and small into the rarefied air for extended periods of time. Such altitudes made aircraft less vulnerable to ground based anti aircraft guns; providing crews with life giving oxygen added weight and personal discomfort for extended periods. War is not convenient.

Military pilots are required to wear oxygen masks for flights above ten thousand feet, unpressurized daytime, and five thousand feet at night. This rule is routinely ignored; the vast majority of our flights are well below ten thousand feet, and the occasional excursion is not of great concern. We also know that smoking raises the physiological altitude by about five thousand feet. Nobody uses the supplied oxygen mask based on their smoking habits. Everybody knows about it; nobody acts on the knowledge. Such callousness can be downright dangerous.

We’re delivering another aircraft to Grumman in Bethpage for modification. We leave New Orleans in mid morning, planning to refuel at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport and arrive in early evening before the airport closes at Bethpage. Grumman operates a private airport and does not stay open twenty four hours.

The refueling stop goes as planned; there’s a small restaurant at the airport and we like the hominess of it all. It’s a pleasant stop, all-in-all. We depart on our final leg to the northeast. Our flight takes us across western North Carolina, western Virginia, Washington D.C., and the heavily populated eastern seaboard. We’re at nine thousand feet altitude to take advantage of the longer legs of the newer high frequency navigation systems.

Approaching Virginia, haze begins to set in. it looks like normal summertime haze to us. We’ve both experienced the reduced visibility before and it’s of no major concern.

The new radio navigation systems also require fewer checkpoints along the route and we both occasionally light up cigarettes, enjoying the flight, anticipating a little time spent at an aircraft manufacturing plant. We double check our navigation, and make the required entries in our navigation logs, as each checkpoint passes below. The haze gets much thicker as we approach Washington and we cannot see the ground at all. Again, not that unusual, and it gets quieter in the cockpit. Approaching the New York area, we don our oxygen masks for a few breaths, as procedures direct, to clear our heads with a bit of extra oxygen.

Amazingly, the haze disappears, we can see lights to the horizon. When I attempt radio contact on the correct frequency, the air traffic controller asks where we’ve been. They’ve been trying to contact us for well over a hundred and fifty miles. We look at each other, and the full realization hits us. We’ve suffered hypoxia. All the symptoms were there, we just didn’t see or recognize them. The silent, stealthy killer is almost successful.

We complete the flight, visit the plant and return to New Orleans a lot wiser. The memory will stay with me for a lifetime. It is the first major indicator of what smoking does to my lungs and body. A few more indicators will be necessary before I stop.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com