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
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
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
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