Carbon monoxide detectors for the cockpit come in several sizes, ranging from the simple to the complex and to suit all budgets. While carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning has always been an invisible danger for pilots, many general aviation aircraft still lack adequate CO detection capabilities. This odorless, colorless gas has the insidious ability to impair judgement and cause incapacitation without warning. Installing a carbon monoxide detector in your aircraft could save your life and those of your passengers.
How Carbon Monoxide Enters the Cockpit
CO gas can enter the cabin through a variety of defects, some of which may seem innocuous at first glance. Cracked exhaust manifolds, holes in the firewall, degraded mufflers, and loose fittings present opportunities for the odorless fumes to infiltrate.
Malfunctioning cabin heating systems are another major source of CO leakage into the cockpit. Exhaust from the combustion heater mixes with air flows if seals fail.
Even aircraft with the latest maintenance and inspections completed can suffer from “popped rivets” or flexing panels that open up gaps. Custom modifications like camera mounts also create the potential for CO intrusion if not engineered properly.
Invisible on the ramp, these issues come to life at full power on takeoff. The combination of airflow and pressure changes pulls dangerous exhaust through defects into the cabin. Pilots and passengers can gradually succumb to the effects, unable to recognize the hazard.
Recognizing Symptoms of CO Poisoning
Initial carbon monoxide exposure mimics common ailments, making it difficult to recognize the danger. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion, and fatigue.
As CO saturation increases from prolonged exposure, judgment becomes impaired and coordination suffers. High concentrations cause seizures, unconsciousness, and eventual death.
The most hazardous scenario occurs when one occupant loses consciousness, leaving no one able to take corrective action. The remaining passengers will eventually succumb without realizing the situation. The aircraft continues obliviously on course.
Children and pets have been known to exhibit the impact of CO poisoning well before adults. Pay close attention if they appear sick or lethargic during flight. Immediately check CO levels and divert if any concerns.
Carbon Monoxide Detectors: Options & Prices
A variety of CO detector options exist ranging from simple, inexpensive models to sophisticated integrated detectors. While basic units just provide alerts, more advanced ones report CO levels and automatically log data.
Entry-level CO detectors cost around $50-100. They provide audible and visual alerts when carbon monoxide concentrations reach 70 PPM, the threshold for symptoms. Simple battery replacement keeps them operational.
More advanced detectors in the $200 to $300 range monitor CO levels in real time. Some integrate with cockpit multifunction displays and air data computers. They provide continually updated numerical readouts via a digital interface.
Sophisticated safety systems actively sample CO levels from multiple locations in the cabin. Digital flight data recorder integration creates a permanent record of conditions. Some systems can even command electric windows to open.
Carbon Monoxide Detector
CO low-level alarm at 9ppm & 25ppm alarms WHO, EPA, ASHRAE, OSHA, NIOSH CO recommended exposure levels.
Alarms at >9ppm @ 60 secs, compared to home CO detectors that only alarm >70ppm @ 60-240 minutes. Bright RED LED and buzzer alarms.
Taking Action if CO is Detected
No matter what type of system issues the alert, immediate and aggressive action must be taken if carbon monoxide is detected in-flight. Here are the recommended steps:
First, immediately open outside air vents, lower the cabin heat, and adjust air flows to maximize fresh air intake. This purges some of the CO from the cockpit. Activating supplemental oxygen also helps offset effects.
Next, declare an emergency to air traffic control. Explain the CO issue and your intentions to divert to the nearest suitable airport. Keep the frequency open in case your condition deteriorates.
If one occupant appears impaired but not unconscious, utilize them as best able to assist with checklists and preparing for an expedited landing. Monitor their cognitive state closely.
Finally, land as soon as practicable to evacuate the aircraft and seek medical assessment and treatment. Do not delay or continue flight once CO symptoms manifest. Immediate diversion is critical.
Recovering From CO Exposure
Once safely on the ground, keep breathing deeply to intake fresh air. Remove victims from the aircraft and have them lay down in the recovery position if the symptoms are extreme. Administer oxygen if required. Seek professional medical assistance as symptoms warrant.
It may take hours or longer to fully metabolize and excrete carbon monoxide depending on exposure magnitude. Remain vigilant for delayed symptoms like headache, fatigue and mental cloudiness as the gas dissipates.
Do not immediately resume flying once recovered. Have maintenance personnel inspect the aircraft exhaustively to identify and repair the source of CO infiltration before flying the aircraft again.
Protect Yourself and Your Passengers
While diligent aircraft maintenance helps protect against CO leaks, installing a reliable carbon monoxide detector provides an extra level of security. These affordable systems are a wise investment that could prevent a tragedy.
Consider a digital model that data logs CO levels, allowing you to review trends and events. Share data with mechanics to aid troubleshooting issues. Confirm proper detector operation before each flight.
Provide a briefing to passengers on the symptoms of CO exposure. Empower them to speak up quickly if feeling unwell so that immediate action can be taken. Remaining vigilant together keeps everyone safe.
For extra vigilance on overnight stays in rented accommodation, consider a travel carbon monoxide detector as well as the one you keep in the cockpit.
With its stealthy, odorless nature, carbon monoxide represents an insidious hazard for pilots. But a little foresight and planning neutralizes the threat. Help safeguard your life and those you fly with by adding reliable CO detection to your avionics suite.