While air travel has proven itself to be safer than driving a car, there are still some critical factors to take into consideration when hopping on a flight. Generally, eager flyers do not take many of the potential airborne dangers very seriously, but pilots always have them in mind. If you think about it, people are being hoisted thousands of feet in the air within a vacuum-sealed vessel. Clearly, there are some major dangers to consider.
In general, there are preferred flight conditions, but that would reduce optimal air travel days significantly. As such, pilots must know how to fly in a wide range of climates and be prepared for any unprecedented circumstances. For example, you may assume that cold, clear weather may mean better airplane performance and beautiful winter landscapes, but it can have some unexpected consequences for rookie pilots.
One of the main areas that is affected by cold weather is the airplane’s heating system. Most light airplane heaters utilize a shroud around the exhaust to warm ambient air. However, a leak in the exhaust system results in carbon monoxide (CO), a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and potentially dangerous gas, seeping into the cabin. This is dangerous because CO can trick your blood into bonding with it instead of oxygen, starving your body of what it requires.
With enough exposure to CO, passengers and aircrew will begin experiencing symptoms of hypoxia-anemic hypoxia, specifically. Low levels of exposure will simply lead to a headache, whereas exposure to high concentrations of CO can lead to impaired decision-making, or even incapacitation. Most importantly, your brain may not even detect that anything is wrong; thus, if there is not a way to monitor CO in an aircraft, you may never know it is there.
To avoid CO exposure, an effective preflight inspection that includes paying particular attention to the condition of the exhaust system is necessary. Look for any cracks, holes, or hot spots that may indicate a leak. As most of this is hidden under the engine cowl, an experienced mechanic must carry out a thorough inspection of all exhaust parts during every annual checkup or at regular oil change intervals.
Nonetheless, the best way to ensure CO is promptly detected is to use a carbon monoxide detector on every flight. That being said, you must buy a quality device and make it a part of your regular checklist. Today, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) strongly recommends that all aircraft have some form of CO detector on board. In general, all CO detectors measure concentration in parts per million (ppm) and alert pilots with lights, audio alarms, and vibration.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines 35 ppm as its lower limit, but please note that this is based on a time weighted average (TWA), taken over 8 hours. Meanwhile, OSHA utilizes 200 ppm as a 5-minute sample ceiling, and 1500 ppm as an instantaneous limit. Nevertheless, pilots should always remain cautious of CO levels at either end of the spectrum.
A concentration of 200 ppm means that the heat should be turned off, fresh air vents should be opened, and pilots should consider landing. A concentration of 35 ppm, on the other hand, can indicate poor airflow or even that the landing gear is down, which may lead to confusion, fatigue, and poor decision making, if it persists for an hour. For this reason, CO detectors that alert at 35 or 50 ppm are better options.
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