Plane Answers: Breathe Normally?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Dr. Roland asks:

Hello Kent,

I’ve been flying for years and can’t get an answer to my question on the oxygen mask demo given by the flight attendants. Apparently, after you place the mask over your nose and mouth and breath normally–my favorite part–the plastic bag may not inflate. So why have this mask if it may or may not inflate!?

By now, we’ve all heard the flight attendants inform us that the bag on an oxygen mask may or may not inflate. But I really had to stop and think about why this is the case. In fact, since we use a completely different oxygen mask in the cockpit, it was time for a bit of research into the mechanics of a passenger mask.

It turns out that the oxygen flows continuously into your mask from chemically driven ‘oxygen generators’ as opposed to a tank of air. When you exhale, that oxygen would normally spill out the sides of the mask. So the bag is designed to collect the oxygen that isn’t being used while you exhale, which increases the total amount of oxygen available and corrects for irregularities in breathing. It does this with a one-way check valve that prevents the oxygen from leaving the bag and entering the mask while you’re exhaling.

David asks:

When I am flying commercially one thing I hate is the pain in my ears from the pressurization of the aircraft. I know it affects others too so I was wondering if pilots just don’t get it or if it stops happening once you are used to it, or do you just get so used to it that it stops bothering you?

I’ve had one painful encounter with a blocked sinus when I was fifteen, but I’ve never had an issue since I’ve used the valsalva maneuver.

For the climb out, there’s not much you should do except maybe yawn a bit and possibly chew some gum.

It’s mainly during the descent that you’ll need to head off any problems.

To do this, simply plug your nose and blow a bit once you sense that you’re starting down (usually 30 minutes out). Carefully hold your nose and blow gently to pop your ears at least until the airplane starts to slow. You’re home free once the airplane is below 10,000 feet, where the cabin altitude is now at sea level.

This technique should make a big difference for your next flight.

If you still have problems, bring some Afrin (an over the counter nasal decongestant) with you and use it about 45 minutes before descent or anytime you feel some pressure on the way down. I don’t normally like to use Afrin as it causes me to clog up more after a few hours, but it really helps in these temporary situations.

I haven’t run across many pilots with this issue, other than the occasional problem someone might have when flying with a cold. Perhaps it’s something that you get used to.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.