If you read my blog post My Love/Hate Relationship With Oxygen Masks, you know I have some great experiences in flight where the ever-present oxygen mask saved the day. If you're on LinkedIn you may have seen my recent video "Lights Out At Kadena", where having an oxygen mask was instrumental in my safely completing an Air Force mission.
I had another Air Force mission where the absence of an oxygen mask had the potential to end very badly. I was flying an O-2A aircraft (military version of the Cessna 337) on a local training mission out of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. During the flight, the standby magnetic compass, sometimes called the "whiskey compass", started leaking.
The liquid inside the whiskey compass is highly corrosive and the fumes can cause permanent neurological effects. And the O-2A does NOT have an oxygen mask! Fortunately, before the fumes could cause a problem, I came up with a solution: I retrieved an air sickness "barf bag" from my flight suit pocket and wrapped it around the leaking compass. Problem solved, but at the time I sure missed having an oxygen mask to protect me from the fumes.
But not all of my oxygen mask stories are pleasant. It was late 2004, and I was flying a B777 from Seoul, Korea to Narita, Japan. Halfway across the Yellow Sea, my flying partner Nick Hinch had to leave the flight deck to use the lavatory. We called a Flight Attendant up to the flight deck and, in keeping with FAA regulations, I donned my oxygen mask while I was the only pilot in a control seat. After my Nick returned, I stowed my oxygen mask, but I felt like something was wrong. My face itched, and I felt like I had been breathing dust. I carefully looked at my oxygen mask, and it was filthy with dust. Apparently, it hadn't been used in some time (I'll give all the previous crews the benefit of the doubt and ASSUME that no one ever left the flight deck on their flights!). I felt grubby the rest of the flight.
Let me digress. I had been in training to participate in the" Pump and Run" event in the 2005 Arnold Classic, a fitness contest in which contestants first bench press their body weight as many times as they can, up to a maximum of 30 reps, and then run a 5K. Every rep on the bench press subtracts 30 seconds from their 5K time, up to a max of 15 minute reduction in time. I had been running religiously, and was on track to run a 21-minute race.
And I had an edge. Competitors over age 60 only had to bench press 70 percent of their body weight. And because I would be over age 60 when the 2005 Arnold Classic was held, I would only have to press 115 pounds, not my 160-pound body weight. I can press that for 30 reps any day of the week.
So, I was on track to have a 5K score of about 6 minutes, good enough to be second or third place. But when I returned to the hotel in Narita and went out for my daily run, where I'd been consistently cutting a few seconds off my time every time, I was out of breath and couldn't even finish my run!
When I got home I got on my treadmill and had the same experience - I couldn't run at my normal pace, and I couldn't finish my normal distance. In fact, when I tried pushing myself I started getting chest pains. I went to my primary care physician, and he put me through some tests, and then sent me to see a Pulmonologist, who did more tests.
"You've got asthma," the doc said, "You got it from the dust in the oxygen mask." I was dumbfounded. "You can't CATCH asthma," I protested. "
Tell that to all the people who caught it from the Haman Fire (the largest wildfire in Colorado history)."
"How long will I have it," I asked.
"Just the rest of your life."
So, obviously I didn't compete in the Arnold Classic, and to this day I can't really run any significant distance. And I still have asthma.
So, that's my love/hate oxygen mask story. I probably should have filed for Workman's Comp, but that ship sailed more than 15 years ago.