Physical limitations

Update: Aviatrix is not a quitter — see below.

Update #2: I think the comments are better than my posting, so you might want to skip ahead and read them first (especially the third one).

Update #3: She got back behind the yoke and did great.

After learning the basics of handling an airplane and working in the system, flying is largely about two things: weather, and personal physical limitations. Weather (which I’ve discussed in other postings) is something that you can learn by studying, but personal physical limitations are things that you stumble upon, sometimes fatally, but always unexpectedly.

Finding limitations

Some limitations are obvious — we all know that we cannot live more than a few days without water, that we cannot jump off tall buildings and fly to the ground, and that we will not survive a collision standing in front of a speeding train. Other limitations are trickier, because they are not the same for every person, or change for different times and circumstances. After four hours at 10,000 feet without supplemental oxygen, is your flying impaired? Never? Always? Sometimes? It’s a crap shoot. Put two pilots side by side, and one might be able to solve differential equations in her head, while the other can no longer remember his girlfriend’s last name. Maybe tomorrow it will be the other way around. Ditto for spatial disorientation, fatigue, and the other physical limitations that sometimes sneak up and kill pilots. How long can you hand-fly in IMC and moderate turbulence? Once I did eight hours with no problem; another time, I was physically trembling after four, and had to ground myself and call in help to get a Hope Air patient back home. Good flying is learning to fly safely and well as the pilot you are, not trying to force yourself to become the pilot you wish you were.

Aviatrix and the smoke

All of this is leading up to the latest posting from my favorite blogger, a Canadian commercial pilot who goes by the pseudonym Aviatrix. In her posting Effects of Smoke, she describes the end of a long series of events that led to her decision to resign her job and quit flying altogether being fired from her job and deciding to take time to consider her future in aviation. Flying low, through dense forest-fire smoke (she reported less than a mile visibility) without supplemental oxygen, her sense of judgement became impaired and she had trouble flying the plane, to the point that her first officer had to take over control to make a safe landing.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news, obviously, is that she lived to blog about her experience. The bad news is that she blames herself and has lost some of her confidence to fly. She never even considers the smoke itself (hypoxia or CO poisoning) as a cause, probably because her first officer seemed unaffected by it, and even now she does not want to admit any physical weakness in the face of the male-dominated world of northern flying. The thing is, personal limitations are kind-of random. For example, consider another male-dominated world, firefighting, where the participants are much more physically fit than the average pilot. Here’s an excerpt from an article about firefighting hazards:

Over 50% of fire-related fatalities are the result of exposure to smoke rather than burns. One of the major contributing factors to mortality and morbidity in fires is hypoxia because of oxygen depletion in the affected atmosphere, leading to loss of physical performance, confusion and inability to escape.

Compare that to Aviatrix’s posting. Sound familiar? Huge, muscular, testosterone-soaked male firefighters exposed to smoke sometimes become as helpless as babies, and their buddies have to pull them out. It’s not a girl thing.

Next steps?

As far as I can tell, without knowing Aviatrix personally, she’s a highly-skilled and experienced pilot who ran hard into a physical limitation for dealing with hypoxia. Does that mean she’s now unsafe to fly? Of course not. If anything, it means that she can become an even better pilot, because she’ll know herself more thoroughly than she did before. She’ll know the early signs of hypoxia from bitter experience, and will (perhaps) grab a small portable oxygen bottle from her flight bag or, if up high and not in smoke, choose a lower altitude before things deteriorate. She’ll cancel a flight that she might have decided to fly before, and will be more confident about her decision. And her passengers will have a much better chance of a safe landing than they would with most of the bold, young male northern pilots who yet to discover how non-negotiable their own personal physical limitations will be.

I think I’m safe in wishing Aviatrix luck from all of her readers. I, for one, would not hesitate to get onto a plane where she was PIC — odds are, she’ll be the safest pilot at any base — and I hope to read more of her flying stories soon.

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6 Responses to Physical limitations

  1. Kevin says:

    Wow. I checked this blog first but didn’t see an update since the Gaspe entry. Then I read Avatrix’s latest posting and I’m somewhat in shock. I never would have seen this coming.
    I’ve been reading her blog for a while and it is highly enjoyable – she’s a great writer. Hopefully she just needs a little time and she’ll be able to get back into aviation as a pilot and not just someone working in the aviation industry. She seems to be very talented and it would be an incredible shame if she never flew again. I’m sure she doesn’t even realize it but she is probably a role model for a great many people. I figured I’d post this here as it was through this blog that I found hers and it would seem she has disabled comments on the newest entry.

    Aviatrix if you read this blog best of luck to you – we’re all human and nobody expects you to be perfect. I look forward to the day when you’ll continue your educational and entertaining blog.

  2. Dave Starr says:

    I’d like to echo Kevin’s comments. I’ve very much enjoyed Axatrix’s writings and I have learned more than a few things about flaws in my own judgement as she openly shared her thoughts and judgement process. Among other things I have been impressed with her dedication to precision and “doing the right thing”, even when no one is looking.

    I must admit, though, I hadn’t thought it through as David did vis-a-vis the actual effects of the smoke itself. Excellent analysis there. SR-111 certainly comes to mind.

    Yes, I see she seemingly has the comments disabled, so David will have to bear the brunt as the first of my aviation-related bloggers to take note. What actually happened in a dispassionate view is, that she undertook a mission with perhaps inadequate rest, with certainly inadequate weather and operational support, and failed to recognize as soon as she should have that she was crossing safe VFR limits. However, she then recognized the fact, used her FO properly (isn’t that why we have FO’s in the top echelon of commercial aviation?), recovered safely and dutifully reported the incident to her boss.

    To render a judgement as to whether or not she did the right thing or the wrong thing in pulling the plug would be wrong for any of us, because, like many PIC decisions, it was hers to make and she made it.

    I do wish her the absolute best at whatever she chooses to do next (and I certainly hope her next move includes writing, because she truly has a gift there)… and I color those wishes with a hope that she not, at least forever, remove piloting from consideration. It’s impossible to tell for certainty from just a written word, but I believe her dedication and skill level are far above average and her ability to process and learn from mistakes, exceptional.

    God speed, Trixie, and save me the seat next to David’s, I’d ride with you any day.

  3. Sq says:

    I *do* know Aviatrix (I’d be leaving this comment on her blog if she hadn’t disabled comments), and I think you’re right about her blaming herself. Trix, if you’re reading this, I’ve seen you melt down before; you give yourself a roaring case of imposter syndrome. The only thing worse than being bad at what you do is being good, because you can never be perfect and you can never forgive yourself (a) for imperfection and (b) for the “undeserved” approval you get from your peers for your almost-but-not-quite-flawless work.

    I didn’t think of the hypoxia effect, and I’m not a pilot, but my reading of the incident didn’t make it look quite so disastrous. Obviously it’s pretty bad if you get fired, but in sum, what happened was you took off in bad conditions, tried to make the run anyway, couldn’t manage it, and successfully turned around and aborted the mission with no damage except for fuel and pride. That’s more of a success than a failure.

  4. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    When we’re talking about smoke far downwind from an actual fire, is there any particular reason to believe that hypoxia would be a concern? Particulate matter, sure. Lack of oxygen? Seems unlikely to me.

  5. Niss Feiner says:

    That is a very unfortunate and regretable incident. Physical limitations are uncontrollable as you have stated in your post, I can not understand how someone can justify “asking for a resignation” from one of your pilots because of how they reacted after submitting to a potentially hypoxic environment.

    Aviatrix, remember why you got into flying in the first place, the same reason we all got into it…..keep living the dream. You can not blame yourself for what happened. It did not seem to me like you simply forgot what you were doing, it seemed like you despite your best efforts had no control, if your ex-boss could not recognise that you were phsically incapable then nuts to him…..there must be a better place outthere and up there for you…..

    When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
    Leonardo da Vinci

    You dont belong on the ground….

  6. KiwiRob says:

    Aviatrix, hang in there, please. Like many pilots around the world, you’ve left me in no doubt that you’re a consumate professional. Sure, you’ve had a scare, but you’ve also clearly demonstrated that you care enough to have learnt from it. How many other pilots would have laughed it off as just a bad day in the office? You have become something of a role model to aviators, and its only because you’ve shown that you have such high standards. Truth be told, I read your blog not only because its bloody interesting, but more importantly, I learn from it. Get back on that horse.

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