There are several areas that you need to consider when operating at high altitudes. Most of my flying is done at altitudes around 5,000′ so I don’t really worry about the high altitude stuff, but if you are flying commercially you will probably be flying more capable airplanes and trying to minimize flight time. That means flying where oxygen is required and potentially above 18,000′ where flight rules are different. There are five major things to consider for high altitude operations: physiology, training, regulations, aircraft systems, and aircraft performance.
The Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge does a good job of covering this area.
Symptoms of Hypoxia
High-altitude flying can place a pilot in danger of becoming hypoxic. Oxygen starvation causes the brain and other vital organs to become impaired. The first symptoms of hypoxia can include euphoria and a carefree feeling. With increased oxygen starvation, the extremities become less responsive and flying becomes less coordinated. The symptoms of hypoxia vary with the individual, but common symptoms include:
• Cyanosis (blue fingernails and lips)
• Decreased response to stimuli and increased reaction time
• Impaired judgment
• Visual impairment
• Lightheaded or dizzy sensation
• Tingling in fingers and toes
As hypoxia worsens, the field of vision begins to narrow and instrument interpretation can become difficult. Even with all these symptoms, the effects of hypoxia can cause a pilot to have a false sense of security and be deceived into believing everything is normal.
Treatment of Hypoxia
Treatment for hypoxia includes flying at lower altitudes and/or using supplemental oxygen. All pilots are susceptible to the effects of oxygen starvation, regardless of physical endurance or acclimatization. When flying at high altitudes, it is paramount that oxygen be used to avoid the effects of hypoxia. The term “time of useful consciousness” describes the maximum time the pilot has to make rational, life-saving decisions and carry them out at a given altitude without supplemental oxygen. As altitude increases above 10,000 feet, the symptoms of hypoxia increase in severity, and the time of useful consciousness rapidly decreases. Since symptoms of hypoxia can be different for each individual, the ability to recognize hypoxia can be greatly improved by experiencing and witnessing the effects of it during an altitude chamber “flight.”
Altitude-Induced Decompression Sickness (DCS)
Decompression sickness (DCS) describes a condition characterized by a variety of symptoms resulting from exposure to low barometric pressures that cause inert gases (mainly nitrogen), normally dissolved in body fluids and tissues, to come out of physical solution and form bubbles. Nitrogen is an inert gas normally stored throughout the human body (tissues and fluids) in physical solution. When the body is exposed to decreased barometric pressures (as in flying an unpressurized aircraft to altitude or during a rapid decompression), the nitrogen dissolved in the body comes out of solution. If the nitrogen is forced to leave the solution too rapidly, bubbles form in different areas of the body causing a variety of signs and symptoms. The most common symptom is joint pain, which is known as “the bends.”
What to do when altitude-induced DCS occurs:
• Put on oxygen mask immediately and switch the regulator to 100 percent oxygen.
• Begin an emergency descent and land as soon as possible. Even if the symptoms disappear during descent, land and seek medical evaluation while continuing to breathe oxygen.
• If one of the symptoms is joint pain, keep the affected area still; do not try to work pain out by moving the joint around.
• Upon landing, seek medical assistance from an FAA medical officer, AME, military flight surgeon, or a hyperbaric medicine specialist. Be aware that a physician not specialized in aviation or hypobaric medicine may not be familiar with this type of medical problem.
• Definitive medical treatment may involve the use of a hyperbaric chamber operated by specially-trained personnel.
• Delayed signs and symptoms of altitude-induced DCS can occur after return to ground level regardless of presence during flight.
§61.31 Type rating requirements, additional training, and authorization requirements.
(g) Additional training required for operating pressurized aircraft capable of operating at high altitudes. (1) Except as provided in paragraph (g)(3) of this section, no person may act as pilot in command of a pressurized aircraft (an aircraft that has a service ceiling or maximum operating altitude, whichever is lower, above 25,000 feet MSL), unless that person has received and logged ground training from an authorized instructor and obtained an endorsement in the person’s logbook or training record from an authorized instructor who certifies the person has satisfactorily accomplished the ground training. The ground training must include at least the following subjects:
(i) High-altitude aerodynamics and meteorology;
(iii) Effects, symptoms, and causes of hypoxia and any other high-altitude sickness;
(iv) Duration of consciousness without supplemental oxygen;
(v) Effects of prolonged usage of supplemental oxygen;
(vi) Causes and effects of gas expansion and gas bubble formation;
(vii) Preventive measures for eliminating gas expansion, gas bubble formation, and high-altitude sickness;
(viii) Physical phenomena and incidents of decompression; and
(ix) Any other physiological aspects of high-altitude flight.
(2) Except as provided in paragraph (g)(3) of this section, no person may act as pilot in command of a pressurized aircraft unless that person has received and logged training from an authorized instructor in a pressurized aircraft, or in a full flight simulator or flight training device that is representative of a pressurized aircraft, and obtained an endorsement in the person’s logbook or training record from an authorized instructor who found the person proficient in the operation of a pressurized aircraft. The flight training must include at least the following subjects:
(i) Normal cruise flight operations while operating above 25,000 feet MSL;
(ii) Proper emergency procedures for simulated rapid decompression without actually depressurizing the aircraft; and
(iii) Emergency descent procedures.
You can read the details in the FARs and AIM but basically in order to operate in airspace above FL290 the airplane and the pilot need to be certified for RVSM operations.
Part 91 Appendix G to Part 91—Operations in Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) Airspace
Section 1. Definitions
Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) Airspace. Within RVSM airspace, air traffic control (ATC) separates aircraft by a minimum of 1,000 feet vertically between FL 290 and FL 410 inclusive. Air-traffic control notifies operators of RVSM airspace by providing route planning information.
AIM Section 6. Operational Policy/Procedures for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) in the Domestic U.S., Alaska, Offshore Airspace and the San Juan FIR
There are several FARs dealing with high-altitude operations and some of them overlap with items mentioned previously. You are probably familiar with the oxygen requirements above 12,500′ but may not know that there are additional requirements at higher altitudes for pressurized aircraft. From your private pilot training (and every Flight Review since then) you also know that a flight plan and IFR rating are required for flight in Class A airspace (airspace from 18,000′ MSL up to and including FL 600) and a transponder is required above 10,000′ MSL. After January 1, 2020 ADS-B is required in all the airspace where transponders are currently required. In Class A airspace only 1090 ES is allowed.
§91.135 Operations in Class A airspace.
Except as provided in paragraph (d) of this section, each person operating an aircraft in Class A airspace must conduct that operation under instrument flight rules (IFR) and in compliance with the following:
(a) Clearance. Operations may be conducted only under an ATC clearance received prior to entering the airspace.
(b) Communications. Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each aircraft operating in Class A airspace must be equipped with a two-way radio capable of communicating with ATC on a frequency assigned by ATC. Each pilot must maintain two-way radio communications with ATC while operating in Class A airspace.
(c) Equipment requirements. Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, no person may operate an aircraft within Class A airspace unless that aircraft is equipped with the applicable equipment specified in §91.215, and after January 1, 2020, §91.225.
(d) ATC authorizations. An operator may deviate from any provision of this section under the provisions of an ATC authorization issued by the ATC facility having jurisdiction of the airspace concerned. In the case of an inoperative transponder, ATC may immediately approve an operation within a Class A airspace area allowing flight to continue, if desired, to the airport of ultimate destination, including any intermediate stops, or to proceed to a place where suitable repairs can be made, or both. Requests for deviation from any provision of this section must be submitted in writing, at least 4 days before the proposed operation. ATC may authorize a deviation on a continuing basis or for an individual flight.
§91.211 Supplemental oxygen.
(a) General. No person may operate a civil aircraft of U.S. registry—
(1) At cabin pressure altitudes above 12,500 feet (MSL) up to and including 14,000 feet (MSL) unless the required minimum flight crew is provided with and uses supplemental oxygen for that part of the flight at those altitudes that is of more than 30 minutes duration;
(2) At cabin pressure altitudes above 14,000 feet (MSL) unless the required minimum flight crew is provided with and uses supplemental oxygen during the entire flight time at those altitudes; and
(3) At cabin pressure altitudes above 15,000 feet (MSL) unless each occupant of the aircraft is provided with supplemental oxygen.
(b) Pressurized cabin aircraft. (1) No person may operate a civil aircraft of U.S. registry with a pressurized cabin—
(i) At flight altitudes above flight level 250 unless at least a 10-minute supply of supplemental oxygen, in addition to any oxygen required to satisfy paragraph (a) of this section, is available for each occupant of the aircraft for use in the event that a descent is necessitated by loss of cabin pressurization; and
(ii) At flight altitudes above flight level 350 unless one pilot at the controls of the airplane is wearing and using an oxygen mask that is secured and sealed and that either supplies oxygen at all times or automatically supplies oxygen whenever the cabin pressure altitude of the airplane exceeds 14,000 feet (MSL), except that the one pilot need not wear and use an oxygen mask while at or below flight level 410 if there are two pilots at the controls and each pilot has a quick-donning type of oxygen mask that can be placed on the face with one hand from the ready position within 5 seconds, supplying oxygen and properly secured and sealed.
(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (b)(1)(ii) of this section, if for any reason at any time it is necessary for one pilot to leave the controls of the aircraft when operating at flight altitudes above flight level 350, the remaining pilot at the controls shall put on and use an oxygen mask until the other pilot has returned to that crewmember’s station.
§91.215 ATC transponder and altitude reporting equipment and use.
(i) In all airspace of the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia at and above 10,000 feet MSL, excluding the airspace at and below 2,500 feet above the surface;
§91.225 Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out equipment and use.
(a) After January 1, 2020, and unless otherwise authorized by ATC, no person may operate an aircraft in Class A airspace unless the aircraft has equipment installed that—
(1) Meets the performance requirements in TSO-C166b, Extended Squitter Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Traffic Information Service-Broadcast (TIS-B) Equipment Operating on the Radio Frequency of 1090 Megahertz (MHz); and
RVSM was discussed in the training section.
DME is required above FL240 although that requirement is probably not applicable on most Part 91 aircraft since GPS can be used instead.
§91.205 Powered civil aircraft with standard category U.S. airworthiness certificates: Instrument and equipment requirements.
(e) Flight at and above 24,000 feet MSL (FL 240). If VOR navigation equipment is required under paragraph (d)(2) of this section, no person may operate a U.S.-registered civil aircraft within the 50 states and the District of Columbia at or above FL 240 unless that aircraft is equipped with approved DME or a suitable RNAV system. When the DME or RNAV system required by this paragraph fails at and above FL 240, the pilot in command of the aircraft must notify ATC immediately, and then may continue operations at and above FL 240 to the next airport of intended landing where repairs or replacement of the equipment can be made.
Normally aspirated engines lose power as you climb because the air is thinner. To solve this problem engineers have come up with several ways to pressurize the air so that the engine gets the same amount of oxygen as it would at sea level. The most common ways for GA aircraft are tubocharging and turbo-normalization where exhaust gases drive a turbine that compresses the air. Military planes in WWI used supercharging where the engine drives a pump to compress the air.
Chapter 11 of the Airplane Flying Handbook explains the details fairly well.
The turbocharged engine allows the pilot to maintain sufficient cruise power at high altitudes where there is less drag, which means faster true airspeeds and increased range with fuel economy. At the same time, the powerplant has flexibility and can be flown at a low altitude without the increased fuel consumption of a turbine engine. When attached to the standard powerplant, the turbocharger does not take any horsepower from the engine to operate; it is relatively simple mechanically, and some models can pressurize the cabin as well.
The turbocharger is an exhaust-driven device that raises the pressure and density of the induction air delivered to the engine. It consists of two separate components: a compressor and a turbine connected by a common shaft. The compressor supplies pressurized air to the engine for high-altitude operation. The compressor and its housing are between the ambient air intake and the induction air manifold. The turbine and its housing are part of the exhaust system and utilize the flow of exhaust gases to drive the compressor. [Figure 11-9]
The turbine has the capability of producing manifold pressure in excess of the maximum allowable for the particular engine. In order not to exceed the maximum allowable manifold pressure, a bypass or waste gate is used so that some of the exhaust is diverted overboard before it passes through the turbine.
The position of the waste gate regulates the output of the turbine and therefore, the compressed air available to the engine. When the waste gate is closed, all of the exhaust gases pass through and drive the turbine. As the waste gate opens, some of the exhaust gases are routed around the turbine through the exhaust bypass and overboard through the exhaust pipe.
The waste gate actuator is a spring-loaded piston operated by engine oil pressure. The actuator, which adjusts the waste gate position, is connected to the waste gate by a mechanical linkage.
The control center of the turbocharger system is the pressure controller. This device simplifies turbocharging to one control: the throttle. Once the desired manifold pressure is set, virtually no throttle adjustment is required with changes in altitude. The controller senses compressor discharge requirements for various altitudes and controls the oil pressure to the waste gate actuator, which adjusts the waste gate accordingly. Thus the turbocharger maintains only the manifold pressure called for by the throttle setting.
Ground Boosting Versus Altitude Turbocharging
Altitude turbocharging (sometimes called “normalizing”) is accomplished by using a turbocharger that maintains maximum allowable sea level manifold pressure (normally 29–30 “Hg) up to a certain altitude. This altitude is specified by the airplane manufacturer and is referred to as the airplane’s critical altitude. Above the critical altitude, the manifold pressure decreases as additional altitude is gained. Ground boosting, on the other hand, is an application of turbocharging where more than the standard 29 inches of manifold pressure is used in flight. In various airplanes using ground boosting, takeoff manifold pressures may go as high as 45 “Hg.
Aircraft designed for high-altitude flying have additional systems that the pilot needs to become familiar with as well.
In an aircraft, the systems, including the supplemental oxygen systems, air conditioning systems, heaters, and pressurization systems, which make it possible for an occupant to function at high altitude.
High-performance airplanes are usually certified for flight into known icing conditions. These aircraft are equipped to handle limited amounts of ice.
Anti-icing/deicing equipment is frequently installed on multiengine airplanes [and turbo-props] and consists of a combination of different systems. These may be classified as either anti- icing or deicing, depending upon function. The presence of anti-icing and deicing equipment, even though it may appear elaborate and complete, does not necessarily mean that the airplane is approved for flight in icing conditions. The AFM/POH, placards, and even the manufacturer should be consulted for specific determination of approvals and limitations. Anti-icing equipment is provided to prevent ice from forming on certain protected surfaces. Anti-icing equipment includes heated pitot tubes, heated or non- icing static ports and fuel vents, propeller blades with electrothermal boots or alcohol slingers, windshields with alcohol spray or electrical resistance heating, windshield defoggers, and heated stall warning lift detectors. On many turboprop engines, the “lip” surrounding the air intake is heated either electrically or with bleed air. In the absence of AFM/POH guidance to the contrary, anti-icing equipment should be actuated prior to flight into known or suspected icing conditions.
Deicing equipment is generally limited to pneumatic boots on wing and tail leading edges. Deicing equipment is installed to remove ice that has already formed on protected surfaces. Upon pilot actuation, the boots inflate with air from the pneumatic pumps to break off accumulated ice. After a few seconds of inflation, they are deflated back to their normal position with the assistance of a vacuum. The pilot monitors the buildup of ice and cycles the boots as directed in the AFM/ POH. An ice light on the left engine nacelle allows the pilot to monitor wing ice accumulation at night.
I already covered reduced engine performance in the previous section, but there are some other ways in which flying in thinner air affects aircraft performance.
As explained in The Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge does a good job of covering this area V speeds vary with altitude. Refer to the AFM for your aircraft for specific values.
VY—the speed at which the aircraft obtains the maximum increase in altitude per unit of time. This best ROC speed normally decreases slightly with altitude.
VX—the speed at which the aircraft obtains the highest altitude in a given horizontal distance. This best AOC speed normally increases slightly with altitude.
High-speed airplanes designed for subsonic flight are limited to some Mach number below the speed of sound to avoid the formation of shock waves that begin to develop as the airplane nears Mach 1.0. These shock waves (and the adverse effects associated with them) can occur when the airplane speed is substantially below Mach 1.0. The Mach speed at which some portion of the airflow over the wing first equals Mach 1.0 is termed the critical Mach number (Mcr). This is also the speed at which a shock wave first appears on the airplane.
There is no particular problem associated with the acceleration of the airflow up to Mach Crit, the point where Mach 1.0 is encountered; however, a shock wave is formed at the point where the airflow suddenly returns to subsonic flow. This shock wave becomes more severe and moves aft on the wing as speed of the wing is increased and eventually flow separation occurs behind the well-developed shock wave.
If allowed to progress well beyond the MMO for the airplane, this separation of air behind the shock wave can result in severe buffeting and possible loss of control or “upset.”
Commercial Pilot ACS VIII. High Altitude Operations
Most of the items in this section are covered above, however there are a couple of things not covered that ar explained in The Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.
Task A. Supplemental Oxygen
c. Time of useful consciousness (TUC)
All pilots are susceptible to the effects of oxygen starvation, regardless of physical endurance or acclimatization. When flying at high altitudes, it is paramount that oxygen be used to avoid the effects of hypoxia. The term “time of useful consciousness” describes the maximum time the pilot has to make rational, life-saving decisions and carry them out at a given altitude without supplemental oxygen. As altitude increases above 10,000 feet, the symptoms of hypoxia increase in severity, and the time of useful consciousness rapidly decreases.
Demonstrating how to use the oxygen system or pressurization in the practical test only apply if you provide an airplane with oxygen or pressurization. However, you are still responsible for the knowing how they work.
a. Characteristics, limitations, and applicability of continuous flow, demand, and pressure-demand oxygen systems
Diluter-Demand Oxygen Systems
Diluter-demand oxygen systems supply oxygen only when the user inhales through the mask. An automix lever allows the regulators to automatically mix cabin air and oxygen or supply 100 percent oxygen, depending on the altitude. The demand mask provides a tight seal over the face to prevent dilution with outside air and can be used safely up to 40,000 feet. A pilot who has a beard or mustache should be sure it is trimmed in a manner that will not interfere with the sealing of the oxygen mask. The fit of the mask around the beard or mustache should be checked on the ground for proper sealing.
Pressure-Demand Oxygen Systems
Pressure-demand oxygen systems are similar to diluter demand oxygen equipment, except that oxygen is supplied to the mask under pressure at cabin altitudes above 34,000 feet. Pressure-demand regulators create airtight and oxygen-tight seals, but they also provide a positive pressure application of oxygen to the mask face piece that allows the user’s lungs to be pressurized with oxygen. This feature makes pressure demand regulators safe at altitudes above 40,000 feet. Some systems may have a pressure demand mask with the regulator attached directly to the mask, rather than mounted on the instrument panel or other area within the flight deck. The mask-mounted regulator eliminates the problem of a long hose that must be purged of air before 100 percent oxygen begins flowing into the mask.
Continuous-Flow Oxygen System
Continuous-flow oxygen systems are usually provided for passengers. The passenger mask typically has a reservoir bag that collects oxygen from the continuous-flow oxygen system during the time when the mask user is exhaling. The oxygen collected in the reservoir bag allows a higher aspiratory flow rate during the inhalation cycle, which reduces the amount of air dilution. Ambient air is added to the supplied oxygen during inhalation after the reservoir bag oxygen supply is depleted. The exhaled air is released to the cabin.
Electrical Pulse-Demand Oxygen System
Portable electrical pulse-demand oxygen systems deliver oxygen by detecting an individual’s inhalation effort and provide oxygen flow during the initial portion of inhalation. Pulse demand systems do not waste oxygen during the breathing cycle because oxygen is only delivered during inhalation. Compared to continuous-flow systems, the pulse- demand method of oxygen delivery can reduce the amount of oxygen needed by 50–85 percent. Most pulse-demand oxygen systems also incorporate an internal barometer that automatically compensates for changes in altitude by increasing the amount of oxygen delivered for each pulse as altitude is increased.
b. Differences between and identification of “aviator’s breathing oxygen” and other types of oxygen
High pressure oxygen containers should be marked with the psi tolerance (i.e., 1,800 psi) before filling the container to that pressure. The containers should be supplied with oxygen that meets or exceeds SAE AS8010 (as revised), Aviator’s Breathing Oxygen Purity Standard. To assure safety, periodic inspection and servicing of the oxygen system should be performed.
c. Necessary precautions when using supplemental oxygen systems
Certain precautions should be observed whenever aircraft oxygen systems are to be serviced. Oxygen system servicing should be accomplished only when the aircraft is located outside of the hangars. Personal cleanliness and good housekeeping are imperative when working with oxygen. Oxygen under pressure creates spontaneous results when brought in contact with petroleum products. Service people should be certain to wash dirt, oil, and grease (including lip salves and hair oil) from their hands before working around oxygen equipment. It is also essential that clothing and tools are free of oil, grease, and dirt. Aircraft with permanently installed oxygen tanks usually require two persons to accomplish servicing of the system. One should be stationed at the service equipment control valves, and the other stationed where he or she can observe the aircraft system pressure gauges. Oxygen system servicing is not recommended during aircraft fueling operations or while other work is performed that could provide a source of ignition. Oxygen system servicing while passengers are on board the aircraft is not recommended.
O2 gear: Care and feeding from AOPA.
- Store portable oxygen tanks securely so they can’t fall over or become a projectile. This could damage the regulator and set the stage for cracks.
- Don’t keep portable oxygen tanks in hot, enclosed areas, such as the inside of an airplane on a hot day, or in the trunk of a car. Compressed gases can expand, causing dangerous pressure rises and the chance of a tank explosion.
- Keep oxygen equipment clean. Dirt particles can contaminate regulators and valves and create sparks at altitude, where the ambient air is dry.
- Store masks and cannulas in their containers, and out of the sun.
- Have your tank inspected every five years, as per FAA or manufacturer rules. This includes a hydrostatic test to check the tank’s strength and integrity, just like the tests administered to scuba tanks.
- Allow no smoking around oxygen equipment Oxygen burns robustly!.
- Use no petroleum-based lip balms, lipstick, sun block, or makeup when using oxygen. In the presence of oxygen, these products can burn.
- Make sure your mask and regulator connectors are of a compatible design. In order to have leak-free connections, all components must be compatible, and a mask connector that works with one regulator may not properly fit another.
- When having your tank filled, make sure it’s filled slowly.
Task B. Pressurization
Fundamental concepts of airplane pressurization system, to include failure modes.
Chapter 7 of The Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge covers this in detail. Several points of note are:
In a typical pressurization system, the cabin, flight compartment, and baggage compartments are incorporated into a sealed unit capable of containing air under a pressure higher than outside atmospheric pressure. On aircraft powered by turbine engines, bleed air from the engine compressor section is used to pressurize the cabin. Superchargers may be used on older model turbine-powered aircraft to pump air into the sealed fuselage. Piston-powered aircraft may use air supplied from each engine turbocharger through a sonic venturi (flow limiter). Air is released from the fuselage by a device called an outflow valve. By regulating the air exit, the outflow valve allows for a constant inflow of air to the pressurized area.
A cabin pressurization system typically maintains a cabin pressure altitude of approximately 8,000 feet at the maximum designed cruising altitude of an aircraft. This prevents rapid changes of cabin altitude that may be uncomfortable or cause injury to passengers and crew.
The cabin air pressure safety valve is a combination pressure relief, vacuum relief, and dump valve. The pressure relief valve prevents cabin pressure from exceeding a predetermined differential pressure above ambient pressure. The vacuum relief prevents ambient pressure from exceeding cabin pressure by allowing external air to enter the cabin when ambient pressure exceeds cabin pressure.
During an explosive decompression, there may be noise, and one may feel dazed for a moment. The cabin air fills with fog, dust, or flying debris. Fog occurs due to the rapid drop in temperature and the change of relative humidity. Normally, the ears clear automatically. Air rushes from the mouth and nose due to the escape of air from the lungs and may be noticed by some individuals.
Rapid decompression decreases the period of useful consciousness because oxygen in the lungs is exhaled rapidly, reducing pressure on the body. This decreases the partial pressure of oxygen in the blood and reduces the pilot’s effective performance time by one-third to one-fourth its normal time. For this reason, an oxygen mask should be worn when flying at very high altitudes (35,000 feet or higher). It is recommended that the crewmembers select the 100 percent oxygen setting on the oxygen regulator at high altitude if the aircraft is equipped with a demand or pressure demand oxygen system.