Plane Answers: How safe are oxygen generators and my dream airplane.

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!

Luke asks:

I happened to catch a show the other night about the oxygen generators used in planes. I know that this source of oxygen creates massive amounts of heat when in use. What are the precautions that are taken to insure that a generator will not accidentally activate during a routine flight and perhaps cause a fire? Plane Answers is awesome. Love Planes, but hate to fly.

Thanks for your time…

Thanks Luke.

I passed this question along to my friend Ed, in maintenance. He offers some pretty good insight into just how those oxygen generators work.

Here’s his take:

Well, first off the oxygen generators are installed above your seat in the overhead bin, and the mask doors are held in place electrically.

Now there are two ways they can be deployed; one way is through a decrease in cabin pressure, and the second method is to use a switch in the flight deck.

When the masks are deployed you pull on the mask and this action starts the flow of oxygen.

As you pull the mask there’s a lanyard or cable attached to a firing pin – when the cable is pulled out of its locked position the pin fires a primer, much like on a round of ammunition and this starts the chemical reaction with calcium carbonate which, when burned, produces oxygen.

Firing off the canister causes the temperature to reach around 500 degrees Fahrenheit, but the passengers are protected by the case around the canister. Of course by the time the canister has burned out the pilot will have brought the plane below 10,000 feet where there is no need for supplemental oxygen. As a side note, the canisters will burn about 30 minutes give or take a minute or two.

Thanks Ed! Great insight.

David asks:

Hi Kent,

Lovely post on the Paris Air Show, and it got me thinking. As a pilot in general, is there an airplane or class of airplane that you dream of flying?

And lastly, as a commercial pilot is there an airplane that you dream of flying regularly or are you pretty happy flying narrow-body Boeings?

Thanks David,

Without a doubt, the airplane I’ve been most excited about for more than a decade has been an experimental airplane called the Aircam. This experimental, kit-built airplane was originally designed for National Geographic to study the Ndoki rainforest over the Congo.

The Aircam’s spectacular view and short field performance along with its two engines, fuel systems and electrical systems make for the perfect airplane for me.

In fact, it’s my retirement dream:

As for which airliner I’d most like to fly, I must admit the Boeing 787 looks very appealing to me. With just the right amount of technology, such as a built in class three EFB (electronic flight bag) and HUD (head up display) as well as a completely new aircraft design that will have a more comfortable cabin with more humidity, who wouldn’t want to trade in their older Boeing to fly the Dreamliner?

I may even pass up a 737 captain position just to get the chance to fly the 787 as a co-pilot when my airline finally takes delivery of them.


But I’d trade in the new and fresh smelling 787 for a chance to have flown Concorde regularly. (It’s such a special airplane that you’re not allowed to call it ‘the’ Concorde, but just Concorde). I had the opportunity to ride in the jumpseat of a British Airways Concorde while on a ferry flight from New York to Cincinnati and it left an impression, for sure. I told the pilots they weren’t flying an airplane, but that they flew a rocket.

But nothing really compares to the feeling a person can have while flying an Aircam. And on the day I retire, I look forward to upgrading to the Aircam, no matter what I’ll be flying prior to that.

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 Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.