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The Voice of Hypoxia Kalitta 66

By Gary Chambers

One of the hazards of high-altitude operation is hypoxia. In the following audio, you can hear firsthand the symptoms and feel the danger of this silent killer. During the radio exchange from the aircraft, several times the pilot conveyed that things were fine. The crew had little idea how impaired they actually were. Hypoxia can be like laughing gas...till you happily pass out. Kalitta 66 was above flight level 260 when the drama began.

The events unfolded on July 26, 2008, when controller Jay McCombs accepted the hand-off of KFS66 (call sign Kalitta 66), which appeared to have a stuck mike creating incomprehensible transmissions. Unbeknownst to those in Ohio’s Cleveland Center, however, was that the copilot’s arm was all the while moving violently and uncontrollably on the other end as the captain worked hard to hand fly the aircraft. 

Through the help of another pilot’s translation, Jay learned that the aircraft had declared an emergency. The plane was quickly changing altitude, and Jay immediately began to suggest closer airports, only to receive no reply that they wanted to continue to Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

Amid the chaos to translate the captain’s words, fellow controller Stephanie Bevins turned on the receiver so that she could hear the pilot with her own headset. After thinking through the possible symptoms, she concluded that he must be hypoxic, a serious condition involving lack of oxygen due to pressurization problems. She knew immediately that they must descend. 

Following Stephanie’s initiative, Jay began directing the aircraft to a lower altitude. Unable to answer questions, the pilot was only able to respond to direct commands. “Descend and maintain,” the controllers said repeatedly. 

Remarkably, the captain’s inability to turn on autopilot required him to hand fly the airplane, keeping him conscious and the plane airborne. The pilot’s words gradually became more understandable, and around 11,000 feet, he returned to normal and confirmed that he had, indeed, been suffering from hypoxia. 

Listen to the audio

View the photos by Gary Chambers on Airliners.net.

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