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Smoking: Hazardous to Your Aviation Health

By Paul Engstrom, IFA Member and Aviation Writer

'Quit smoking? Sure, it's easy,' you say. 'I've quit a thousand times!'

Problem is, as a pilot you won't get a thousand chances to recover safely from the dangerous mental and physical effects of thin air at altitude'effects greatly exacerbated by tobacco use.

Indeed, you may only get one chance, especially if the threat is hypoxia, or life-threatening oxygen deprivation.

We've all heard the bad news about smoking'how it increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and heart attack, stroke, asthma, high blood pressure, pulmonary disease, osteoporosis, dementia, pneumonia and other ills.

Aside from that grim picture, tobacco can also interfere with your flying acumen. That's because it:

  • Starves the cells of oxygen. Oxygen energizes your brain, muscles and other tissues, and enables you to make quick, sound judgments and to respond physically in an appropriate way to what's happening around you.
  • Impairs your all-important vision.The human eye is very sensitive to declining oxygen supply, like the reduction carbon monoxide causes. Moreover, nicotine lowers the sensitivity of eyes, reducing night vision by about 20 percent.
  • Boosts body heat by 10 to 15 percent above normal, which, in turn, increases the demand for oxygen. However, oxygen is in shorter supply because of the carbon monoxide.
  • Raises the likelihood of an onboard fire if you smoke while flying.

In a magazine article about six years ago, pilot John W. Stevens of Newport, Vt., recounted a harrowing, tobacco-related brush with death. While flying with his instructor, he flicked a burning cigarette butt out the side vent'and at the same time noticed, to his horror, a trail of fuel vapor streaming from the left-wing tank. The tank cap hadn't been replaced after refueling. Stevens held his breath, waiting for an explosion that didn't occur.

The carbon monoxide in tobacco has an attraction for the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in red blood cells that is 200 times greater than that of oxygen, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Medical Handbook for Pilots. In effect, it 'crowds out' much of the oxygen those cells must carry to the body so it can function up to par.

Tests reveal that a pilot's tolerance for altitude is cut by 5,000 to 6,000 feet because of the carbon monoxide in tobacco. Thus, smokers are much more susceptible to hypoxia than nonsmokers are.

Patty Wagstaff, a stunt pilot who performs at air shows, reports that her reactions at high altitudes improved when she quit smoking.

Tobacco is now recognized as such a serious health hazard that many strategies are available to help pilots and others kick the habit. Treatments range from nicotine patches or gum to counseling and medications, including prescription pills and nasal sprays, although the FAA doesn't allow the use of all such medications while flying.

The bottom line: Not smoking makes you better prepared for the unexpected aloft and almost certainly will extend your life on the ground.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopol, Calif.

The information contained herein is meant for informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or others on your behalf take based on the information given in this article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may have.