Fly Well

On cloud nine

February 1, 2011

How to reach cloud nine? Fly frequently, safely, basking in the glow of recognition of the higher life form you truly are—pilot. The phrase “cloud nine” is of questionable origin, but because I enjoy Bill Bryson’s writing, I’m going with his explanation: In 1806 an English pharmacist named Luke Howard developed the cloud classification that is still used today. An 1896 atlas referenced cloud #9 as cumulonimbus, the fluffiest to see—although as we know, not to fly through!

Prior to ascent, route planning is followed by diligent meteorological review and thorough aircraft checks. Repetition may not “transform a lie into truth,” as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, but it may prevent us from messing up perfectly good airplanes. So let’s repeat: Preflight of all carbon-based life forms boarding the aircraft is critical, too.

Acronyms such as IM SAFE are useful and worth reviewing. Ask yourself these questions:

I: Illness. Am I sick or becoming unwell?

M: Medications. Am I taking anything that could either interfere with safe flight or upset the FAA should one of its representatives visit?

S: Stress. Is anything worrying me? When facing aeronautical challenges that normally wouldn’t faze you, stress can impair judgment, leading to unpleasant consequences.

A: Alcohol. Have I consumed adult beverages recently? Eight hours is oft quoted, but booze effects outlast the time during which alcohol can be detected with blood tests. Dehydration, headache, impaired sleep, and other symptoms suggest a longer interval makes sense.

F: Fatigue. Have I slept enough? Fatigue contributes to many aviation accidents. Few of us would write a critical document or drive long distances when tired—why fly if weary?

E: Eating. Are you well nourished and hydrated? Have you eaten the right foods? Another topic for future coverage, but focusing on one issue here—don’t eat anything liable to create (how to say this politely?) non-fuel-tank gas. Avoid beans, roughage, or carbonated beverages. Take the right food and drink on board.

I love taking neophytes flying, hopefully inspiring some to join our ranks. To ensure passengers enjoy positive experiences, pick good flying weather, brief thoroughly, and avoid silly stunts—vomit all over pristine cabins leads to one fewer future pilot and an unpleasant cleaning job. I talk to my passengers the day before to confirm their desire to fly, explain the plan, and include them in the preparatory process, simultaneously educating and inspiring confidence.

I also inquire about health issues to uncover anything that might compromise their enjoyment or safety, such as heart or lung problems, a tendency to vertigo, or risk of venous thrombosis. Will they be able to enjoy the wild blue yonder, or will supplemental oxygen be needed? Consider that a history of smoking impairs altitude tolerance. Do they use medications? If so, ensure a supply is on board. I also proffer the same preflight food advice. Encourage passengers to use the facilities before takeoff—most of us do not have bathrooms aloft.

Dr. Ian Fries, well-known physician and aviator, provided his own excellent mnemonic: BEST OF PLANS.

B: Belts—confirm seatbelt knowledge.

E: Exits—location, method, and timing of operation.

S: Speaking—when passengers can and cannot talk.

T: Touching—what not to touch. Keep your minds out of the gutter!

O: Oxygen—when and how to use, and avoid smoking; it kills in more ways than you thought.

F: Have I forgotten anything?

P: Plans—flight plan and willingness to terminate the flight for uncomfortable passengers.

Children’s brains deserve special protection, so please think about hypoxia. This doesn’t apply to teenagers, for as we know, they are much smarter than us. Also check that youngsters really want to go flying. They may not express their fears as confidently as adults; have a private word with them.

Ensure pets are have been fed and given an opportunity to relieve themselves. Arrange warm, comfortable seating with restraints, providing ear protection and oxygen if necessary. A waterproof seat cover is a good idea.

I started by mentioning clouds and referencing Bill Bryson; he described fog as “merely a cloud that lacks the will to fly.” Don’t let your passengers be foggy on what is involved in flight. Clarity of health knowledge is as important as clear weather.

Jonathan M. Sackier has practiced medicine in the United States for 20 years. E-mail the author at jonathan.sackier@aopa.org.

Jonathan Sackier