CHAPTER ONE The Chamber
MCKINNEY inhaled deeply the smell of nylon canvas and metal and plastic from the flight equipment room. For three weeks he had been sitting through dreary classes, about as far as it seemed to him that he could get from anything having to do with flying. Now he was finally being fitted for a helmet and oxygen mask. The helmet wasn’t too small or large like the ones he had been told to wear in the past. This time it fit perfectly. A sailor measured the distance from his nose to chin for the size of the oxygen mask that would clamp snugly to his face. For the first time in his training, Charles G. McKinney II, ensign United States Navy, felt like a pilot.
McKinney walked to the room next door. Its whitewashed, cinder block walls reached two stories high. In the middle sat the chamber, a white steel box the size of a railroad car with green-tinted
glass windows around it and a control panel at one end with dials and switches that would activate giant pumps to suck out the air from its insides. Before walking in, McKinney twisted off the college class ring from his finger and laid it on a red wood tray. He didn’t want the ring’s stone popping out when technicians lowered the air pressure inside.
Once in a while, a flight student would freak out before entering the chamber, overcome by the thought of being sealed shut in a sterile coffin gasping for air. McKinney found it almost exciting. The movie The Right Stuff, where astronauts become guinea pigs in tests just like this, passed through his mind. Finally he was doing something, not just reading about what it was like to fly.
It could take more than two years of training to become a fully qualified Navy pilot. But before ever setting foot near a plane, a student had to endure six weeks of what was called Aviation Pre-Flight Indoctrination. Forget the enemy for the moment. Flying itself was an unnatural act for humans. At high altitudes the world in which a combat pilot worked was alien and unforgiving. Over an ocean—the principal domain for Navy pilots—it was even more hostile. Only the most physically and mentally fit survived in this deadly environment. Preflight indoctrination taught the student the basics of the aircraft, its engine, the winds that buffeted it from the outside, the complex rules of the road that governed aircraft flight. The six weeks also began to teach the student the dangers of flight, how he must react when things went wrong in the sky and over the water—or, as McKinney was soon to discover, when there was little oxygen around him.
The indoctrination began at Pensacola, Florida, the military and cultural home of Naval aviation. In 1862, a mosquito-infested, sandy flat overgrown with pine trees and magnolias and crawling with alligators had been set aside by Congress along Florida’s panhandle for the naval base. When a handful of oddball officers experimenting with contraptions called “flying machines” later convinced the Navy that it needed an Aeronautic Service, hidebound admirals in 1914 plunked the new branch at the dilapidated Pensacola yard—about as far away from Washington as they thought they could send the silly notion.
But the idea of flying planes off ships slowly caught on. By the end of World War I, the Pensacola Naval Air Station was one of the
largest in the world. By World War II, the station mass-produced 22,000 pilots a year. The Naval aviation mafia became as powerful as the fiefdoms that sailed the service’s ships and submarines. Today, the number of aviation students who are graduated is far smaller; only about 1,100 undergo the highly coveted training each year and the instruction is conducted at naval air stations scattered around the United States. But the indoctrination into flying—and a way of life like no other in the civilian world—still begins at the Pensacola Naval Air Station with its lush green lawns, drooping palm trees, the gentle Pensacola Bay off the coast, steamy hot summers, and training aircraft constantly buzzing overhead.
The Navy wanted McKinney about as much as he coveted the training slot. He was black. After decades of first racism, then racial indifference, the Navy was now desperate to recruit more African-Americans into its embarrassingly white aviation ranks. Up until World War II, African-Americans were barred from flight training; the service thought they could not see as well at night as whites. Even after the military was integrated, African-Americans steered clear of Naval aviation, which was considered an elitist preserve of white males.
If he made it through the training, McKinney would become not only one of the Navy’s few black pilots, but also one of its youngest. Born in Newport News, Virginia, he was something of a child prodigy. By the time her son reached three years old, Sylvia McKinney knew he was unusually bright. If he had been born in the ghetto the gift would likely have been ignored or wasted. But Charles was lucky. Sylvia was a reading teacher with a master’s degree. His father, Charles, was a Naval officer in the civil engineering corps.
Sylvia took it upon herself to educate her son and to do so at a faster pace than the public school system’s. Shortly after his third birthday, he was enrolled in preschool. Every afternoon McKinney came home to color-coded word cards his mother flashed before him. By kindergarten, he was reading. Sylvia had access to countless standardized tests from her school and began carefully measuring his intelligence. In kindergarten, he scored 165 on the IQ test. By age five, McKinney was in second grade. Beginning in seventh grade, he took the SAT tests every year thereafter. In his classes, he
excelled in science and math, suffered through reading and writing. By age fifteen, he was a senior in high school.
Being a child prodigy could be fun. He felt proud in the classes where the students always turned to him for the right answers. Some teenage girls found it cute that he was so much younger.
But by high school, McKinney discovered that pain also came with being different. The constant moves every military family must make from one duty station to another could be difficult for children. McKinney dreaded each time he had to transfer to a new school—it always seemed to be in the middle of the academic year—and the teacher would make him stand in front of the class to introduce himself. On top of being the new kid—always with the wrong style of clothes—there was the added pressure of being younger and smarter than his classmates. He felt like a puppet in an amusement park. Some students called him Doogie Howser.
So McKinney withdrew into his own shell. He developed many acquaintances but no close friends. He liked it that way—always the outsider looking in, detached from the people around him. By his senior year, he tried to hide his age from people he met for the first time and pretended to be older. That was easy, he discovered. McKinney did look older and he acted more mature than his classmates.
Something else made him feel different. He had never experienced racism until the family moved to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune when he was nine years old. The six years before, his father had been assigned to Guam, where being black or white meant little to an Asian culture and children of service families grew up oblivious to the prejudices that would later divide them when they returned to the United States. Lejeune was located near Jacksonville, North Carolina—redneck country, where a black kid, no matter how gifted he was, could still be called “nigger.” At first, McKinney found it perplexing, almost impossible to comprehend. Then the slurs began to hurt.
He attended a high school in the middle of a cornfield and faced racism from all sides. Blacks, who shunned him as much as whites, considered him too well bred to be one of their brothers. The constant moves had homogenized any accent in his speech. The educational advantages his parents had afforded him now made him an Uncle Tom in the eyes of black students. He talked and acted like a white boy.
“You’re not from the ’hood,” his black classmates would taunt. “You don’t know us.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” McKinney would answer back. What he didn’t say was that he also didn’t care. People automatically assumed he shared a common heritage and background with African-Americans because of the color of his skin. But he had never felt that bond. He came from a yuppie black family whose mother and father were well educated. The niche blacks expected him to occupy was alien to him. He never felt as comfortable with the African-Americans as he did with other cultures. It had rules of behavior, standards of conduct expected of him—hip, jive, slow walk, Ebonics—with which he had no experience and didn’t care to have. He shared no sense of history with his black brothers. If he ever took the time to investigate, he thought he’d probably discover three or four generations of race mixing among his ancestors.
McKinney enrolled in Georgia Tech University at age sixteen and majored in civil engineering. The school was his second choice. A congressional appointment for the Naval Academy would have been no problem if he had been older, but the academy didn’t accept sixteen-year-olds. He was even too young to qualify for a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship at Georgia Tech. But for as long as he could remember, McKinney had wanted to be an astronaut. He would go crazy if he had a job where he had to sit behind a desk all his life. He wanted to fly. And in the beginning, not just any plane. He had his future carefully plotted. He would fly F/A-18 Hornets, the Navy’s premier attack fighter for the future. Fast but not too fast. Easy to handle, seasoned pilots had told him, the best ticket for being accepted into the NASA program. Space shuttle pilots had to have experience in tactical jets.
McKinney thought his chances of becoming an astronaut were good—simply because he was willing to do anything to achieve the goal. The only roadblock in his way was a phrase that haunted every student pilot—“the needs of the Navy.” Practically all his classmates at Pensacola wanted to fly the glamour carrier jets, the F/A-18s or F-14s. But the Navy had more than a dozen different types of aircraft—jets, propeller-driven planes, helicopters—some of which never landed on an aircraft carrier. Students were assigned to them based on their performance and even more importantly on what the Navy needed at any given time to fill
cockpits. What a student wanted to fly was a secondary consideration. McKinney prayed that the Navy wouldn’t suddenly need a lot of helicopter pilots when he finished flight school. He had heard of an astronaut who had begun his Naval career as a helicopter pilot, then had managed to transfer to jets in order to qualify for the shuttle program. But such moves were rare. Navy pilots were usually stuck for the rest of their flying careers with the planes they were assigned from flight school. Anything less than tactical jets would derail his dream of being an astronaut.
Men and women became officers in the Navy usually in one of three ways: through the Naval Academy, Naval ROTC in college, or Officer Candidate School. Since McKinney had been too young for the academy or ROTC, he entered OCS as soon as he graduated from Georgia Tech, which took four and a half years in order to complete its more demanding engineering degree. OCS, which for flight candidates was held at Pensacola, was designed to be a culture shock for youngsters whose only discipline in the past came from mom and dad. Males’ heads were shaved. Females kept their hair cropped short. OCS candidates wore baggy green fatigue pants, T-shirts, Nike running shoes, silver helmets that rattled on their heads, and a thousand-mile stare from little sleep and constant movement.
McKinney was the type of person who always blew things up in his own mind, always a worrier. By the time he reported Sunday morning for the first day of OCS, he was petrified of what was about to happen to him.
The first week—“Poopie Week” was its nickname—fulfilled his worst nightmare. It began with officers just graduated from OCS and awaiting assignment who were supposed to indoctrinate the rookies into the regimentation of military life. The young ensigns did so with a vengeance—payback for the hazing they had just endured. Never had McKinney been yelled at so much and for so long. When he wasn’t at attention, he was pushing up the ground or running or swimming. The hazing from the ensigns, it turned out, was just the warm-up for Thursday morning at five o’clock, when Marine Corps sergeants barged into his barracks banging garbage can lids to wake up the recruits.
By then, however, McKinney realized he wouldn’t die from the training. The Marine drill instructors were surly and intense, but
fair. McKinney’s sergeant had a rich heritage. His father and grandfather had been DIs and he considered the job a calling.
McKinney had always thought of himself as a disciplined fellow. Now he marveled at how slovenly he had been as a civilian. Beds had to be made square. Uniforms had to be immaculate. Marches and salutes crisp. The DIs were maniacal about detail and precision. There was a reason. A pilot had to be a nitpicker. Sloppiness in the cockpit could kill him. McKinney began to enjoy the grueling training. By the time he graduated from OCS, he couldn’t wear civilian clothes without making sure there were no loose strings from his shirt. OCS had taught him true mental and physical discipline. It had taught him to think under pressure, to assimilate large amounts of information quickly, to keep his wits when surrounded by chaos.
• • •
The air inside the chamber smelled stale. Its walls were painted white and from its ceiling hung bright fluorescent bulbs and oxygen tubes for instructors who would monitor the students. There was something very antiseptic to it—and quiet. Neither sound nor air could escape its hermetically sealed steel walls. McKinney felt no claustrophobia, as some students did when they walked into the chamber and the large door hatch sealed shut behind them. He liked small spaces. As a child he would always pick a corner of his bed to curl up as if in a cocoon.
Its full name was the hyperbaric chamber. Its purpose was to acquaint students with one of the most insidiously dangerous conditions a pilot faced at high altitudes: hypoxia, when not enough oxygen reached the tissues of the body. Hypoxia occurred for different reasons. When a pilot pulled Gs in a plane (gravitational pressure from sudden acceleration), the blood in his body sank to his bottom or legs instead of where it was needed in his brain, and he blacked out. A G suit the pilot wore on the lower half of his body inflated like a balloon, squeezing his hips and legs to force the blood back to his brain. Pilots also performed a “hook” maneuver, tightening their stomach muscles and quickly expelling air with a “hook” sound, like a weightlifter straining to pick up a heavy load. It also squeezed blood to their brains.
Another form of hypoxia occurred at high altitudes, where the
atmospheric pressure was not great enough to keep the blood saturated with oxygen. A human could maintain a healthy blood-oxygen saturation level (of at least eighty-seven percent) up to about 10,000 feet. Any higher, and his cabin must be pressurized or he must have an oxygen mask strapped to his face. If not, less oxygen got to the blood, resulting in hypoxia.
Before becoming unconscious, a pilot might experience any one of a number of symptoms at the onset of hypoxia: a hunger for air, an apprehensive feeling, fatigue, nausea, headaches, dizziness, giddiness, hot and cold flashes, blurred vision, tunnel vision, numbness, tingling. He might hyperventilate, feel euphoric, become confused, uncoordinated, or belligerent. His lips and fingertips might turn blue.
The problem was that no two pilots experienced the same symptoms. What’s more, hypoxia would quickly sneak up on a pilot. He could easily black out before he had a chance to treat himself for the condition. At 25,000 feet, for example, a pilot could lose consciousness in three to five minutes in the thin atmosphere.
A slow leak in an aircraft cockpit or cabin might reduce air pressure, causing an aviator to become hypoxic. Cocky pilots often thought they were supermen and would not admit it. If they were lucky an air traffic controller would notice their slurred speech and order them to strap on their masks. One of the biggest causes of hypoxia was hotdogging in the cockpit. It happened, despite constant lectures and warnings from superiors. In 1989, two F-14 aviators flying at a high altitude over Arizona lost consciousness and plummeted to their deaths. They had removed their helmets and oxygen masks and donned cloth garrison caps so buddies in a nearby plane could photograph them saluting.
Students were run through the hyperbaric chamber to learn the particular symptoms each would develop at the onset of hypoxia so they could correct the problem before blacking out. The instructors also hoped it would throw a healthy scare into the would-be aviators not to play around in their aircraft.
McKinney plopped into one of the plastic bucket seats in the chamber. It held seventeen students at a time. To his left was a black control panel with colored knobs and switches that regulated the air flow into his oxygen mask and enabled him to communicate with technicians outside the chamber. The students faced each
other in two rows. At one end inside the chamber sat an instructor wearing a flight helmet with its oxygen mask attached to a gray hose dangling from the ceiling. Two other instructors also wearing helmets and oxygen masks paced up and down the aisle between the students watching for problems.
The exercise was carefully regulated to prevent accidents, but there were risks. Pregnant women or students with ear or teeth problems were not allowed in the chamber. The sudden exposure to lower pressure could be hazardous to sinuses and cavities. Pilots also were not allowed to be blood donors and discouraged from smoking; both compounded the hypoxic condition at high altitudes. Students were closely monitored for an hour after visiting the chamber for signs of any complications, such as the bends, which resulted from nitrogen bubbles forming in joints or bones when the chamber decompressed. Often, they also woke up the next morning unable to hear their alarm clocks because of “post-flight ear block,” caused by oxygen saturating the inner ear.
The instructors, with oxygen masks already strapped to their faces, began pantomiming orders. McKinney plugged in the jack from his communications cord to the console so he could receive directions from technicians outside. A microphone was implanted in his oxygen mask along with tiny receivers in the earpieces of his helmet. Next he attached the gray oxygen tube from his mask to the air outlet, then cinched the mask straps to the sides of his helmet so the mask fit snugly, creating a tight seal over his cheeks. He flipped the air regulator switch into the positive position. The airflow indicator blinked red, then white as he began to breathe.
The mask felt constricting. Every time he took a breath it sucked his cheeks like a plunger. He’d have to get used to this mechanical act of breathing. He flipped the switch so 100 percent oxygen flowed into his mask. It tasted cool and rich. His lungs felt invigorated.
He hit the test button that force-fed the oxygen from the tube to simulate what he might experience at high-altitude flight. His mask ballooned. It was a rush, as if someone had stuck a blow dryer into his mouth, ramming air into his lungs. He couldn’t inhale it fast enough. Every time he tried to exhale it seemed that more oxygen was forced down his throat. Pilots learned a pause-breathing technique—inhale for three to five seconds, exhale for three to five seconds,
pause three to five seconds—in order to avoid hyperventilating from taking in pressurized oxygen.
The pleasant voice of Susan Redding, a hospital corpsman operating the chamber’s controls from the outside, piped into his earpiece. She sounded like an airline stewardess, reciting instructions to passengers.
“Okay, everybody, take a deep breath,” Redding said cheerily over the radio. “No matter what you’ve heard, we’re not going to hurt you today. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
Redding began pumping air out of the chamber. On shelves above the students, black boxes with red digital readouts began clicking off the altitude being simulated inside. The students looked up at the boxes as if they were time bombs: 5,000 feet . . . 5,500 feet . . . 6,000 . . . 6,500 . . . 7,000. McKinney’s ears began popping like crazy.
“Remember, chew and swallow on the ascent,” Redding said over the radio. “If you have any problems give us a level-off sign with your hand and we’ll stop.”
No one raised a hand.
Hanging limply above the instructor seated at the rear of the chamber were two white rubber hospital gloves tied tight at their openings. One was filled with water, the other with air.
“Okay, we’ve just passed 10,000 feet,” Redding said, as if she were announcing the floors in an elevator.
Both rubber gloves began to balloon slightly.
The students’ stomachs began to feel the effects of Boyle’s law: the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure placed upon it. The trapped gases inside the body expanded the higher a pilot flew in his plane. McKinney began to feel the two burritos and ham-and-cheese sandwich he had for lunch rumble in his belly.
“Remember, in order to vent your gases you’ve got two God-given ports,” Redding said in a singsong. “No aiming. We don’t want any fistfights in the chamber.”
The students began burping and farting. Before flights, pilots avoided foods that would make them gassy, such as beans, cabbage, or carbonated drinks.
The digital boxes over the students registered 25,000 feet. Redding stopped pumping air out of the chamber and ordered the students to remove their oxygen masks.
McKinney unhooked the left sleeve on his mask so that it dangled from his helmet. He was surprised. He thought he would be gasping at this altitude. But he could still breathe. The air tasted thinner. It also felt dry in his mouth, almost bubbly on his tongue. It seemed that he couldn’t produce enough saliva to keep his throat from becoming parched. The chamber also smelled like the inside of a toilet.
“Now turn, face your partner, and begin the Pensacola patty-cake,” Redding ordered.
McKinney turned left to Scott Pierce, a young Marine second lieutenant from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who had also attended Georgia Tech.1
Like children, they began clapping their hands, patting them against each other, then touching the tops of their helmets. The instructors had the students play patty-cake to burn off energy and hasten the onset of hypoxia. It was also an easy way for the students to detect when they became uncoordinated and confused from lack of oxygen.
On the other row, Eric Turner, another Marine second lieutenant, from Oakland, California, was handed a yellow sheet of paper and pencil. Redding told him to start with the number 1,000 and begin subtracting six each time. Turner wrote 994, then 898, then 892, then 886 . . .
One minute off oxygen. Some students had silly grins on their faces, partly because hypoxia had begun to set in, but also because they felt ridiculous playing patty-cake. McKinney remained serious. He rarely laughed or joked in class. Friends would kid him about being so expressionless. That was because he was more focused than his classmates, he thought. This wasn’t a game to him. It was serious business. He had learned to become a good listener in college. He found that professors noticed the students who paid attention and were more apt to help them in class. Always being serious was a character trait McKinney learned from his father, who was a strict disciplinarian. McKinney was not a hell-raiser or partier. He always ended up the designated driver because he never drank. He preferred to sit back at social gatherings, watch others make fools
of themselves, learn from their weaknesses. He always wanted to be in control. He just wanted to climb into his plane and fly. An F/A-18 Hornet. By himself. Never having to rely on others.
Still, he expected to laugh or giggle as less oxygen entered his body. But he didn’t. Pierce was already grinning from ear to ear. McKinney concentrated on the patty-cake as if his life depended on every slap.
“Okay, now that you’ve got the patty-cake down, let’s speed it up,” Redding said.
McKinney and Pierce began patting their hands quicker. Pierce was now blinking his eyes and laughing. They began missing beats and becoming confused with the rhythm. Pierce began patting softer. A slight smile crept across McKinney’s face. His shoulders began to feel tired, as if he had been carrying a heavy load.
Two and a half minutes off oxygen.
“Okay, everyone,” Redding interrupted. “What I’d like you to do is change your routine and hit your helmet twice.”
Pierce could barely remember to touch his helmet once. The two now began to miss each other’s hands. The other students became hopelessly mixed up with the routine. Some gave up.
An instructor tapped Pierce on his helmet and motioned him to stretch out his hands, palms down. He couldn’t stop his hands from twitching.
“That’s muscle tetany,” Redding explained to the other students. “That’s what happens when there’s a lack of oxygen.”
“Number six, how are you doing?” Redding asked, referring to Pierce, who was sitting in seat six. “Do you feel hypoxic at all?”
Pierce did not answer. He stared out at his hands with the same grin on his face.
“Number six, are you hypoxic?”
Pierce kept staring at his hands. Afterward, he would remember nothing about his last minute off oxygen.
“Number six!” Redding shouted into her microphone. “Number six, are you hypoxic?” An instructor inside the chamber moved closer to Pierce’s seat.
Pierce finally shook his head.
“No?” Redding asked, incredulous.
The instructor in front of Pierce laughed and shoved the oxygen
mask up to his face. He was having what pilots called a “helmet fire.” His brain seemed to be turned off.
844, 838, 832, 8 . . . Turner became more frustrated with the subtraction after every iteration.
“Number fourteen, are you good at math?” Redding broke in.
Turner wasn’t so sure at this point.
“I’ve got a problem for you,” she said. “If eggs cost twelve cents a dozen, how many eggs will you buy for a dollar?”
It was a trick question. Turner agonized over his answer.
“A little over eight dozen,” he guessed.
“We’ll talk about it in the classroom,” Redding said, chuckling.
“Now I want all of you to treat yourself for hypoxia,” Redding finally said.
The students fumbled with their masks.
McKinney felt the thick, cool oxygen filling his lungs again. Air was now pumped back into the chamber. The numbers flashing on the black altimeter boxes above began decreasing rapidly. McKinney’s ears clogged once more as the chamber’s air pressure now increased. To equalize the lower pressure of trapped gases in his middle ear with the higher pressure outside, he tilted his head back 10 degrees, pinched his nose closed, then blew into his nose. It was called the Valsalva technique, which pilots used constantly when their jets dove to lower altitudes.
The air pressure in the chamber returned to what it was outside. The hatch door opened and McKinney stepped out of the steel box. He was worried. The other students had experienced a variety of hypoxic symptoms being in the thin atmosphere. But he could detect hardly any in himself, save for the sore shoulders and feeling worn out. His mind was lucid and disciplined after four minutes off oxygen, or so it seemed to him.
That could be dangerous, he realized. Hypoxia might sneak up without him even knowing. He would be alone in that F/A-18. That’s what he wanted.
But there would be no partner to detect this condition and warn him. He would have to watch out for himself, as he always had. 1
. The Marine Corps, which is part of the Department of the Navy, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which the Transportation Department oversees, send their flight students through the Navy program to become aviators for their respective services.