Flight Safety: Breaking the Chain of Events

Shawn Arena

Throughout my years in aviation, I’ve encountered a variety of situations in which by making the right decision, I avoided potential and real danger. And in the name of flight safety, I’d like to share another one of those stores here. This is a story that involves a chain of events that literally caused the hair on my arms tingle with trepidation, for I was witnessing in real life what Human Factors experts have called the “Swiss Cheese Effect.”

Dr. James Reason’s “Swiss Cheese” Model

For those readers who may not be familiar with Dr. James Reason’s “Swiss Cheese Model”, here is a brief primer. Dr. James T. Reason, from the University of Manchester, is considered the preeminent pioneer in the study of risk management and safety culture. In the mid-1990’s Dr. Reason published a document highlighting what he referred to as the “Swiss Cheese Model.” See the following graphic:

Graphic of the Swiss Cheese Model of Causation

As one can see, there are several segments that represent layers or ‘links in a chain” of events that if aligned just right, can cause an incident or accident (i.e. the “Swiss Cheese Effect”). If however, the sequence of events is recognized, it re-aligns or breaks the chain and an accident is avoided. This is the background of this flight experience.

The Chain of Events in Real Life

In early 2002, I was managing a general aviation airport, owned by the City of Phoenix, AZ, named Phoenix-Goodyear Airport (GYR). During that time, local airport managers held a quarterly airport manager’s meeting at a selected Arizona airport to share day-to-day airport administration and issues of the time, so as to learn from each other. On the day of the meeting, I decided to rent a Cessna 172 from Glendale Municipal Airport (GEU), about 15 minutes driving time from my airport in Goodyear. Mark, Glendale’s airport manager at the time, agreed to come along rather than make the 122 mile, 2 hour drive to Show Low Regional Airport (SOW) where the meeting was being held. By flying, we could make the meeting at SOW, in northeast AZ, in less than an hour.

This is when the ‘chain of events’ and potential flight safety risks began. Event #1: The aircraft I had reserved was inadvertently rented out to someone else, so I had to take another that I had not flown before. “No big deal,” I thought to myself, I’d flown several 172’s from this flight school before with no problem. As I was conducting the interior preflight inspection, I noted that the engine would not start after a few efforts. “Oh, well,” I thought. Maybe it was just cold and hadn’t flown in a while.

Event #2: After I finally got the engine running to my satisfaction, I noted that the Number 1 COMM radio reception was very intermittent, but I continued to the run-up area to conduct the pre-takeoff checklist. As I started to listen to the Automatic Terminal Information System (ATIS) broadcast at GEU (i.e. a pre-recorded message telling pilots cloud heights, visibility, active runway and time), I recalled the weather report for SOW (Event #3) was a 30 knot crosswind upon landing, with gusts up to 45 knots. And this was at a 2200 foot runway located in mountainous terrain. Immediately after hearing the local ATIS, the radio knob literally broke off and fell to the floor.

Fortunately for me, it only took these three events to stop the chain. I radioed GEU ground control for taxi back to the ramp. I felt that not only had the “Swiss cheese holes” begin to align, but a slight but very apparent case of “get-there-itis” also began to creep in. Mark was, to say the least, very unhappy that we had to scrub the flight. I apologized but told him: “ I don’t care, I’d rather be in a position on the ground wishing we were airborne, versus being airborne and wishing we were on the ground.”

Yes, at first I was bummed too, BUT a strong dose of reality came across me saying enough is enough. I called Dennis, the Airport Manager at SOW, apologized for not making the meeting and we would catch up at the next meeting.

Flight Safety Lessons Learned

By no means am I postulating that no one would have continued a similar flight, but what I want to convey to my fellow airmen is that I reached my personal limits and was not willing to risk further events. As the saying goes: “Learn to fly another day.” The gravity of the chain of events really sunk in when I called Dennis the next day, and learned the winds actually increased about the time we would have arrived. Thank goodness I had chosen to remain on terra firma. Here is hoping others will pay similar attention to flight safety and avoid the “Swiss Cheese” from aligning for them!

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Featured Image by Marshall Segal

Know the Signs and Symptoms of Hypoxia and Avoid Becoming a Victim

Margie O’Connor

Whether just learning to fly or a seasoned aviator, hypoxia does NOT discriminate. It doesn’t care if you have 15 hours of flight time and you’re still aspiring to get your Private Pilot’s License or if you’re a seasoned aviator with 12,000+ hours flying for a major airline.  Hypoxia lurks just around the corner, threatening to end your flight (and life) should you fail to recognize the symptoms and respond accordingly.

What Causes Hypoxia?

When the atmosphere we fly in restricts or prevents the efficient transfer of oxygen to our lungs, we are susceptible to hypoxia. Often potentially fatal, the symptoms of hypoxia can slowly creep in so subtlely, even the most discerning pilot may not recognize the onset.

Oxygen (O2) fills roughly 21% of the atmosphere and this percentage doesn’t really change with altitude (the number of O2 molecules decreases with altitude). What does change significantly as you fly higher is the partial pressure of that O2. At Sea Level (SL), your body operates comfortably with a partial pressure of 760mm Hg or 29.92 in Hg. But as begin your ascent, this decreases rapidly with the greatest pressure differential occurring from SL to 5,000 feet. As the partial pressure decreases, the oxygen molecules lose their ability to attach to your hemoglobin (the responsible party for moving O2 through your body). Do you see where this is going? If you guessed an inability to breathe, you are correct. And of course, when we can’t breathe, we eventually lose consciousness and well, you know the end of that flight.

But doesn’t hypoxia always occur at high altitudes? Unfortunately, no. The different types of hypoxia are not only dependent on circumstances (high altitudes being one of them) but also the condition of the pilot. Yes, that’s right, once again, hypoxia does not care if you are a VIP (Very Important Pilot). You may be more susceptible solely because of your particular body chemistry!

Oxygen masks being deployed in an airliner

Photo by Miikka H

You may also think hypoxia only happens in the world of commercial flight. After all, they routinely fly at high altitudes whereas your General Aviation (GA) counterpart tends to stay closer to the terra firma. This too is a potentially dangerous assumption. General aviation has had its share of accidents directly attributable to hypoxia. An accident from 2001 involving a pilot, who climbed to 21,600’ in his non-pressurized airplane without supplemental oxygen, is just one tragic example of a hypoxia-induced crash.

And of course, most are familiar with the loss of pressurization and subsequent crash of the aircraft carrying famous golfer Payne Stewart in 1999. Hypoxia led to the unconsciousness of all on board and their tragic ending. Hypoxia was alive and well in the fatal crash of Helios Flight 522 in 2005 when the crew failed to recognize the lack of pressurization. All 121 persons on board perished as the B737 succumbed to fuel starvation and crashed into the side of a hill.

How do you avoid falling prey to hypoxia? Awareness and recognition of the symptoms of hypoxia are key to avoiding, or, at least being able to respond correctly to the situation.

Stages and Symptoms of Hypoxia

ICDC (which is like ACDC, the band from the 80s) is the acronym I use to remember the stages of hypoxia. The main takeaway here is to be cognizant of your altitude (take a peek at your altimeter) and try to monitor how you feel as you fly. Symptoms indicated below in italics are by no means all-inclusive.

The Indifferent stage starts at the surface and goes to an altitude of 10,000 feet. Degraded night vision is the first indicator of hypoxia, occurring at this level. Why is this, you ask? Well for starters, the eye demands more oxygen than any other organ in the body (yes, really!). And this combined with the lack of color visual acuity because your cones have gone to bed, can create somewhat of a blind situation.

As oxygen saturation continues to decrease between 10,000 and 15,000 feet, you enter the Compensatory stage of hypoxia. Impaired judgment and coordination may occur along with drowsiness, not attributable to boredom. Prolonged exposure at this level may go unnoticed if the crew is busy with other tasks.

Once you pass 15,000 feet and up to 20,000 feet, coordination, speech and flight skills rapidly deteriorate. This is the Disturbance stage. Fatigue, dizziness, and headache surface as your body can no longer compensate for the reduction in oxygen. You may feel a sense of euphoria. Although this sounds like a pleasurable state of being, if you feel euphoric (i.e., like you have suddenly become the happiest and best pilot around and nothing can stop you), you may want to check your pulse oximeter (if you have one) and immediately descend to a lower altitude (if available) because you’re approaching the point of no return.

If you continue ascending without recognizing your symptoms and donning an oxygen mask, you will undoubtedly enter the Critical stage, roughly 3-5 minutes at Flight Level (FL) 200 and above. Your central nervous system begins to die, circulation fails and your heart spools down. Convulsions and unconsciousness are preceded closely by death.

Types of Hypoxia

Hypoxic hypoxia is probably more of a concern to you as a pilot than the other types but all can produce the same debilitating or fatal results. Hypobaric hypoxia (also called Altitude hypoxia) occurs when the partial pressure decreases so much your body can no longer diffuse oxygen and in a nutshell, your body loses the capacity to breathe. So why didn’t you experience symptoms of hypoxia on your recent commercial flight to Florida or some other sunshine-laden state? Because the aircraft was pressurized, which compensates for the lack of partial pressure.

Stagnant hypoxia occurs when circulation of the blood is somehow restricted. Heart conditions, excessive G forces or extremely cold temperatures, all may impede blood flow and decrease it to the point it can no longer deliver O2 to your cells and tissues.

Smoke? Step right up – you may be the perfect candidate for hypemic hypoxia (also called anemic hypoxia), a condition caused by the hemoglobin’s inability to grab onto oxygen molecules. Certain anemic conditions, such as blood loss or non-functioning red blood cells, reduce the hemoglobin’s ability to latch on to oxygen. Or if you do happen to partake in smoking, then you’ve increased your odds dramatically for hypemic hypoxia. Why? Because given the choice between an oxygen molecule and a carbon monoxide molecule, hemoglobin will pick the latter every time.

Suppose you decided to partake in some alcoholic beverages the night prior to flying (of course, you would have quit drinking at least 8 hours prior to comply with the FAR 91.17). After leveling off at an altitude of 4,500 feet, you begin to notice a change in your vision and possibly some discrepancies with your flying abilities. You may have just entered the world of histotoxic hypoxia. This form occurs when your cells fail to process oxygen because of a toxin in the receiving cells (in this case, the toxin being alcohol). Other substances, like narcotics, can also hinder your cells’ ability to absorb oxygen but if you fall into this category, you shouldn’t be flying in the first place.

So how long do you have before incapacitation? Well that all depends on your Time of Useful Consciousness (TUC), which essentially equates to how long you have before you enter the land of the unknown. In a nutshell, your body has a certain amount of time (TUC) to recognize the symptoms of hypoxia and react before your good judgment takes a dive.

Your Susceptibility to Hypoxia is Unique to YOU

The symptoms of hypoxia present themselves differently in each person. A Captain flying for a major airline may experience a reduction in night vision while her First Officer is turning blue. But even though the severity of the symptoms may differ, both pilots are operating with less than a full tank (of oxygen, that is), predisposing them to a continued degradation in piloting skills.

Mental and physical fatigue, alcohol consumption, smoking and being physically out of shape increase your susceptibility to hypoxia.

Your tolerance to hypoxia also depends on external factors. Are you already acclimated to higher altitudes because you routinely fly from an airport with an elevation of 5,000 feet? If so, you may be better able to combat the effects of hypoxia.

Rapid rates of ascent, cold ambient temperatures and the time you spend at the altitude can all decrease your tolerance.

Gaining an Appreciation for Hypoxia

Many will never experience flight at high altitudes in unpressurized conditions. But the geographic location of some flight training facilities, like Upper Limit Aviation, can actually help you acclimate to higher altitudes. If you’re lucky enough to actually fly in the mountains or experience actual hypoxia in a high-altitude chamber, then you’re probably one step closer to recognizing the symptoms, which may just save your life someday.

Awareness is key. Just as knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a pilot help you focus on mastering new skills, so will learning how you react to hypoxia and limiting the factors that exacerbate the condition.

If you find yourself suspecting hypoxia and you are able, descend immediately and declare an emergency. Breathing supplemental oxygen at the required altitudes may also mitigate your chances of developing hypoxia.

Take the plunge (or rather the ascent) in an actual altitude chamber!

For free (yes, that’s right), you can visit and “fly” in an altitude chamber to gain a better understanding of hypoxia, the symptoms of hypoxia, rapid decompression and high altitude flying. The FAA has a chamber in Oklahoma City at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center.

Flying a pressurized aircraft and monitoring your O2 level may also help. Or if you were planning to buy an airplane anyway, consider one (like the Piper PA-46 M350) with a built in system that not only measures your level of oxygen saturation (yes, a pulse oximeter and carbon monoxide detectors are built into the panel) but also initiates a descent when a lack of pressurization occurs and pilots fail to respond.

Whatever option you choose, avoiding conditions favorable for hypoxia may lead to many more flights. And after all, isn’t that the ultimate goal?

Happy Flying!

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National Transportation Safety Board. (2001). 2001 GA Accident Aircraft Data Used in Annual Review. Retrieved from http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/data/Pages/aviation_stats.aspx

Reinhart, R.O. (2008). Basic Flight Physiology. New York, New York: McGraw Hill.

Mixing Airplanes and Helicopters: Safe VFR Airport Operations in Class G

Wilson Gilliam, Jr.

A small, white helicopter floats across the sky, practicing different types of approaches to the Class G airport in Virginia. The student pilot pulls the red trigger switch on the cyclic, still timid with inexperience.

November 2045 Romeo turning right base, 28, Hampton Roads Airport.

The pilot of an incoming twin engine airplane, hearing the first radio call and unfamiliar with the area, maneuvers into a right-hand traffic pattern for the same runway a few moments later. The pilot is late to a meeting and still has to grab a rental car.

November 8077 Papa entering a right downwind, Runway 28, Hampton Roads.

UNICOM quickly pipes up over the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency).

November 8077 Papa, this is Hampton Roads UNICOM. We have a right-hand traffic pattern for helicopters only. Fixed-wing aircraft are to use a standard traffic pattern.

These types of radio exchanges are sometimes followed by a few choice words that are broadcast to the public thanks to tense hands and inadvertently open mics. Airplanes and helicopters are both ingenious marvels of the modern world, but inherently possess different flying characteristics. These variations must be planned for, especially at airports without an operating control tower, in order to maximize safety and efficiency.

A small single engine airplane by a hangar - Mixing Airplanes and Helicopters: Safe Airport Operations

I have flown both airplanes and helicopters commercially for twenty-five years. I’ve seen my fair share of helicopter versus airplane arguments, near collisions and foot races across the ramp to prove the point in person (you should plan on being out of the aircraft by the time the other pilot gets there). Can’t we all just get along? Yes, we can.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided pilots with general rules pertaining to operations within Class G (uncontrolled) airspace. The FAA has a strong commitment to safety and is a regulatory agency. So, let’s use their position on the matter as a starting point for this discussion about airplanes and helicopters sharing the skies at uncontrolled airports.

The FAA’s 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 91 (General Operating and Flight Rules) states:

  • 91.126 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace.
    • (a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.
    • (b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace—
  • (1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and
  • (2) Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.

Note that 14 CFR 91.126 (2) does not specifically indicate “how” the helicopter should avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic. This provides helicopter pilots with some flexibility while remaining compliant.

Tips for Airplanes and Helicopters Sharing the Skies

Here are a few tips for helicopter pilots at Class G airports, with 91.126(2) in mind. Remember that communication and avoidance are key elements in successful coexistence with fixed-wing aircraft.

  • Familiarize yourself with the Airport Facility Directory (AFD) prior to making your trip.

Note any instructions regarding helicopter operations, non-standard fixed-wing traffic instructions, taxiway diagrams, FBO location(s) and any nearby obstacles.

  • Listen to AWOS, ASOS or other advisory service.

Note the wind direction and any special instructions regarding landing information for helicopters. If the wind is different than forecast, don’t be afraid to change FBOs (or other landing areas) if the decision safely creates less interference with other airport users.

  • Request an airport advisory approximately ten miles away.

Hampton Roads traffic, November 2045 Romeo, small white helicopter, 700’ 10 miles north, airport advisory, please.

Adjust altitude to preclude interference with airplane traffic pattern altitudes. Note any possible traffic conflicts and turn your landing light on. Be sure to use the terms “copter” or “helicopter” during all radio transmissions to avoid confusion over aircraft type. If you have questions about acceptable landing areas, ask UNICOM (if available).

  • Your approach path must avoid landing airplanes.

Hampton Roads traffic, copter 45 Romeo, one mile north, will make approach to taxiway Charlie, remaining north of runway 28.

A helicopter in flight - Mixing Airplanes and Helicopters: Safe Airport Operations

The slower approach speeds of helicopters make them especially vulnerable to being overrun. Utilize an approach path well clear of airplane traffic and plan on landing in an area that minimizes rotor wash to parked or taxiing fixed-wing. Be very specific during traffic updates regarding your approach path relative to the active runway. Acknowledge nearby traffic to help alleviate collision concerns. Don’t forget to look out for other helicopters, too.

I have found it usually best to plan the helicopter approach directly to my final destination at the airport. This permits efficiency for paying customers, while minimizing the impact of my operations across the airfield.

Remember that helicopter pilots are taxpayers, too. As long as helicopters are not impeding the flow of airplane traffic established in the pattern for the “purposes of landing,” helicopters have a right to use the normally smooth, wide runway surface. Sometimes, this is preferred when practicing run on landings or full touchdown autorotations from altitude. Fixed-wing airplanes waiting on the taxiway for take-off do not have the right of way over a helicopter on final approach or on the runway. FAR 91.113(g) clearly indicates that:

  • g) Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface…

Airplane pilots waiting for departure should comply with 91.113(g) and not incorrectly invoke 91.126(2) to try and force helicopters off of the active runway. Helicopter pilots should clear the active runway as soon as safely possible.

  • If it’s necessary to cross a runway after completing the approach, utilize sound runway incursion avoidance techniques.

Remain clear of any hold short lines for the runway while making a radio call prior to crossing. Avoid radio transmissions while crossing since this does not allow for possible warnings via radio prior to runway encroachment. Position your helicopter so that rotor wash does not create turbulence on the runway (note wind and traffic conditions). If there is a passenger or second pilot, confirm tail rotor clearance during pedal turns and that the runway is clear prior to crossing.

  • Use care during hover taxiing.

Hovering helicopters can make ground bound airplanes dance in the wind, pelting them with loose debris. Believe me; this does not foster warm and fuzzy feelings between swing-wing and fixed-wing.

Be careful not to taxi behind large airplanes performing engine run ups (or any condition requiring thrust). These situations can create possible loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) or hitting cyclic control stops.

  • Use caution if operating near self-serve fuel pumps.

Helicopters landing and taking off near fuel facilities have substantial potential for creating conflict. Be aware of your rotor wash. If in doubt, land nearby, throttle down and wait for a safe opportunity to use that credit card. Pilots of smaller helicopters may be able to land a short distance away and push the aircraft to the pump with ground handling wheels. That’s a better option than making airplane drivers so upset that you can’t even sit at the restaurant lunch table. If it does happen by accident, buy your fellow pilot lunch. A nice lunch. Steak if they have it. Remember, as in life – your reputation follows you around.

  • If operating at the airport on a routine basis, sit down with the facility manager and develop a plan.

Helicopter on a runway, with an airplane - Mixing Airplanes and Helicopters: Safe Airport Operations

Meeting with the airport manager about routine helicopter operations is some of the best advice I can offer. Creating well-developed helicopter operating procedures for the airport will enhance overall safety and enjoyment. Discuss traffic patterns, reasonable landing sites based on wind and traffic conditions and recommend that other helicopter operators abide by the same guidelines. Encourage airport management to distribute helicopter recommendations via updates to the AWOS/ASOS recording, AFD commentary and written dissemination among airport based rotorcraft operators. Helicopter flight schools should consider including the resulting operational plan as part of their standard operating procedures (SOPs) provided to employees, students and renters.

Remember, it’s a big sky with room for both airplanes and helicopters, but a small airport. Safety and communication are the keys to the facilities.

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14 CFR FAR Part 91

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