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 limitations. Weather (which I’ve discussed in other postings) is something that you can learn by studying, but
personal limitations are things that you stumble upon, sometimes fatally, but always unexpectedly.
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 . 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 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.
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 their own
personal limitations .
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.