Controllers Credited With Hypoxia Save


The FAA is crediting the quick thinking of two Boston Center controllers with preventing a pilot from being disabled by hypoxia. Rosilla Owen and Scott Elms were working the Stewart Sector west of Boston when New York handed off a Cessna 310 on a photo mission at 13,500 feet. Owen said she noticed the pilot wasn’t as responsive as most pilots are in that congested airspace and asked if he was OK. She asked him if he was on oxygen, and he replied that he was but his performance didn’t match the level of experience he had as a pilot.

She directed him to descend to 9,000 feet and within minutes his radio transmissions were “getting clearer and sharper every time,” Owen said. The pilot subsequently found a kink in his oxygen line. “That confirmed what we knew was going on,” said Owen. “If he’s up there for another three to 10 minutes, we might be dealing with something different,” said Elms. The duo was congratulated by their boss in Boston and also on the frequency that day. “Good catch out there. I appreciate you guys,” said another pilot who had been monitoring the exchange.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. The instructor that taught me to fly twins many years ago, died of a hypoxia event. He had I think 20,000 hours or so and was very experienced and a great instructor. He was flying a Cirrus for an owner from York, Nebraska to Indpls.,Ind. 25,000 ft. As reports went, during the flight he called ATC and asked for lower in a somewhat slurred speech. Was told to standby. After a few minutes elapsed on call back, there was no response. The plane flew on auto pilot over Indpls, until it ran out of gas around West Virginia.

    I wish that more controllers were trained for this scenario. GA plane, high altitude, groggy voice, asking for lower or not. The window of opportunity for a save is so very limited when it presents itself. I don’t fault the controllers, because they in most cases haven’t been trained for this scenario to recognize what is happening and how limited the time frame is to get it resolved. I know there is other traffic and sectors to coordinate to be able to get a plane unexpectedly to a lower altitude, but when it is suspected that a pilot is loosing consciousness from hypoxia, action has to be immediate, even if it involves declaring an emergency on behalf of the pilot.

    My hats off to the Boston controllers that recognized this and got the pilot lower, although 13,500 isn’t nearly as deadly as 25,000. Possibly some controllers are being trained for this now, I’m not privy to current ATC training.