So my super duper senior year of college (i.e., 6th year overall) I took a class which included a high altitude/high performance endorsement. Part of that class involved going down to Columbus AFB in Columbus, MS and spending an afternoon in their hyperbaric chamber.
We left Champaign, IL early in the morning on a Sunday and got to Mississippi late that evening. We checked into the hotel, and despite the fact that we were told we had to be in the lobby at 6:30am to be on the van in order to make our 7am class at the Air Force base, we immediately did what any large group of guys in their early 20’s will do, which is find the nearest store that sells beer.
We drank. A lot. I remember getting into bed around the same time as most of us finally did, which gave us enough time for about 3 hours of sleep and a 5 minute shower in the morning.
We spent the entire morning session in an Air Force classroom with an Airman showing us powerpoints about hypoxia and the physiological consequences of the lack of oxygen in a pilot’s lungs. We were all freshly certified flight instructors and hungover as all get out so we were a weird mix of “yeah, bro, we know this” and “how do we keep our eyes open?”
We hit up the Subway on base for lunch and started feeling like real people again finally. By the time we stepped into the hyperbaric chamber around 1pm we were all essentially back at full strength.
We spent the first 30 minutes watching a video and breathing pure oxygen in order to avoid the bends, which is something I thought only existed on Baywatch. We did a couple of lower altitude simulations before the big show where we simulated a rapid ascent to 25,000ft. We were all wearing fighter pilot style helmets with oxygen masks attached. We had clipboards on our laps with a single sheet of paper which consisted of various numerical and word based math problems as well as a large numbered right margin where we can keep track of any hypoxic symptoms we notice. The rule we’ve been briefed on is once we get to three separate and distinct symptoms, we should put our oxygen masks back on, lest we pass out and forget everything we’ve been working to learn. Mind you, being how everyone experiences different individual symptoms of hypoxia, the goal of this training was to learn our specific symptoms so we’d be able to identify them should we ever find ourselves someday unfortunate enough to be lacking oxygen in a real airplane.
I began answering my math problems one by one. They were all addition and subtraction involving large numbers. Things like 1785-724. I got through all of them quite easily and it wasn’t until much later that I realized I got all of them wrong, most by a long shot. I wrote down in the right margin: “1) Euphoria, 2) Shortness of breath, 3) Tingliness in fingers…”
I should have never written down the tingliness. My third symptom was the signal to reconnect my precious oxygen supply, however I was 24 years old, ostensibly invincible, and no one was going to tell me how I should be experiencing this exercise in oxygen deprivation.
The moment of stark realization that finally broke through my hubris and convinced me to put my mask back on was being absolutely dumbfounded by this word problem: “How many eggs are in one and one half dozen.”
In hindsight the answer is obviously 18. However at the time I can only recall thinking, “What in the fuck is a “one half dozen?!”
So I put my mask on, got reacquainted with breathing, and slowly found my way back to full awareness. I was one of the last ones to do so. One guy went too far and was blacked out before he hit the metal floor. Two airmen rushed to his side, reconnected his mask, flipped the switch to 100% emergency oxygen, and we all watched terrified as his own consciousness begin to slowly refill him like a balloon.
The thing they never tell you about the downside of gas expansion is that your farts are quite literally pulled out of your body. When it was all over they told us we were safe to take off our masks, however “safe” was a relative word, and our first clue should have been that all of the enlisted Air Force personnel in the chamber kept theirs on. That was because the inside of that room smelled like…well, it smelled like the forcibly evacuated farts of 12 hungover dudes. It was, to this day, one of the more horrific smells I’ve ever been faced with.
During the debrief they stressed the importance of not drinking that night. Something about how we had worked all of nitrogen out of blood, and blah blah. All I know is we had several cases of beer left in the hotel and our instructor wasn’t about to let us take it in the university sponsored van home and we clearly couldn’t let it got to waste.
We. Got. So. Shitfaced. Like 3 beers a piece that night and we were puking in the streets of Columbus, Mississippi. Turns out the Air Force docs were onto something. The 10 hour drive home the next day was excruciatingly long.