Cockpit Smoke Hoods
Girls in the HoodWe were particular about the units we sampled -- only certified hoods with CO and toxic gas filtering made the cut. The three hoods we tested were the COGO ($119 from Safer America), the Parat-C (manufactured by German giant Draeger and sold for $198 by Safer America) and the Safe Escape Smoke Hood ($69.95 from Aeromedix). We built a 6-foot-high, 2-foot-square framework of 1/2-inch PVC pipe, covered by 4-mil plastic sheeting. Three signaling smoke flares by Orion Safety Products created prodigious amounts of thick orange smoke, which contained 22 percent potassium chlorate (an eye irritant); the burning flare also produced carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. We ignited one flare per hood and donned the hood as the flare was lit, simulating the suddenness with which an inflight fire can occur. There was no heat to the smoke, but it was plenty irritating. To measure the effectiveness of each mask's filtering capability, we took a baseline arterial blood oxygen saturation reading (SPO2) with a Nonin Onyx pulse oximeter. However, the pulse ox does not detect CO poisoning. CO binds to the hemoglobin in the blood, turning the cells as red as if they were oxygenated ... but they're not. Our baseline reading was 98 percent and the pulse ox determined whether the hoods delivered filtered oxygenated air as advertised. After stepping into the smoky booth, the plan was to stay there until the smoke dissipated, about two minutes. It mostly worked that way. Tying long hair back will create a good seal with the hoods. We wore glasses during the test to determine whether they would be an obstacle to donning the mask quickly.
Parat-CThe Parat-C came tethered to the inside of a bright-yellow, plastic, zippered container, including directions that were large and easy to follow, but the detailed instruction sheet inside took some study. The hood worked like a champ. There was no sense of claustrophobia and the filtering kicked in immediately. The hood is made of a self-extinguishing PVC material, and the visor contains an anti-misting agent. Glasses and long hair fit comfortably in the hood and there was no impediment to donning it, which took only 10 seconds. We were able to comfortably stand in the smoke chamber until the smoke dissipated and the pulse ox reading during this test was 97 percent. The Parat-C provides 15 minutes of protection from a variety of gases and smoke, including CO at 2500 PPM. It also filters toxins such as hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen chloride and acrolein, formed by the breakdown of some pollutants, such as gasoline.
Safe EscapeThe Safe Escape hood came next. Made of a flame-resistant, aluminum-foil cloth, it's designed to withstand up to 1400 degrees F. It comes in a compact, orange, plastic, zippered pouch that features detailed instructions in tiny print on one side and a graphical guide on the other. It's worth it to familiarize yourself with the instructions before you need them -- every second counts in a smoky cockpit. The beefy zipper was easy to grasp and open quickly, an important feature, in our view. It was extraordinarily easy to put on and only required the removal of two red plugs from the filters inside and outside the mask. The clear face mask was generously sized and the interior mouthpiece connected to the filter was easy to use. This mask took a little longer to put on -- about 15 seconds -- due to monkeying around with the straps. While the mask worked just fine in clear air, we found it was necessary to pull the orange neck straps very snugly to keep the noxious gases out. After less than a minute in the smoke chamber, the straps that we thought were tightly snugged let some smoke in and we got a lungful. It was not pleasant, causing throat irritation for hours. The pulse oximeter showed 94-percent saturation while in the smoke chamber and 96 percent after getting into the fresh air. Without operator error, the mask worked well, but it's crucial to tighten the neck straps completely to supplement the elastic neck band. The Safe Escape comes with a five-year warranty from the date of manufacture and the manufacturer will replace the mask free of charge if you use it in an actual fire during that time. We think that's a good policy; although this is the least expensive of the three masks, the free replacement following real-life use should discourage hesitation in using it out of a sense of false economy. The manufacturer guarantees that the mask will give you 30 minutes of breathable air in a smoky or fiery environment.
COGOThe Israeli-made COGO was a contradiction. The foil-wrapped package comes in a canvas carry bag, but was very difficult to open without scissors and some tugging. We would be hard pressed to get it open in an emergency and would bring it on board already cut open. The directions on the packet were very clear. Made of a vanilla-scented latex compound, it was a challenge to fit over a ponytail and especially difficult to pull over glasses. There would have been room for them inside, but the narrowness of the neck opening was an obstacle and it took two tries to get it on. But once it was on, it was outstanding. The soft mouthpiece allows for rapid exhalation and prevents vapor buildup inside the mask. The tight neck fit kept the smoke out completely and filtration was excellent. Our pulse ox reading during the test was 96 percent and we felt no ill effects from the smoke at all.
Practice, PracticeBonanza pilot John Whitehead had an electrical fire a few years ago and was struck that the cabin was completely filled by smoke within 30 seconds. "I could just see out the side windows ... and that was it," he told us. "Beside the lack of visibility, the horrid smell of the burning plastic wire was choking and distracting. A hood would have to be donned quickly to be of value." Smoke hoods are only useful if you include them in your mental emergency preparation and if you can get to them reliably and quickly. The directions may be complex and not too easy to read when you actually need the hood. Being familiar with the opening instructions, donning procedures and usage is essential before you need the hood, not during the emergency. Donning a smoke hood takes two hands, so if you don't have an autopilot or a co-pilot, trim for level flight and do your best. Opening the package may take up to 30 seconds if you stay calm and you're familiar with the package; getting the hood on and adjusted may take another 15. Blue says, "It depends on how freaked out you are and how much smoke has accumulated. If you smell a little smoke, open it up and get ready to don it. If the smoke doesn't increase, that's OK." Blue urges consistency in placement of the hood; he Velcros it to the carpet by his seat. "I keep it in the same place every time so I can grab it without thinking about it. Include it in your preflight checklist and touch it every time." Jonathan Elkoubi, general manager of Safer America (source for two of our test hoods, the Parat C and the COGO), says a hood should be easily stowable and retrievable in the cockpit's limited space. He noted that their sample hoods were tested with children: The average time to don a Parat-C was eight seconds and the COGO took seven to 10 seconds. The now-recalled Evac-U-8 had a response time of four to eight seconds. And speaking of children, does it make sense to have a hood for every occupant? Our view is no. Unless you brief the occupant on using the mask -- unlikely -- helping them with it inflight is a non-starter and will distract you from you primary duty to get the airplane on the ground.
ConclusionEach of the hoods we tested worked well once on -- which one you choose depends on your facial features (beards, long hair and glasses are complicating factors) and how quickly you can don it. If glasses, a beard or long hair are a consideration, avoid the COGO and go with the Parat-C or the Safe Escape. Otherwise, we think the Parat-C is the best choice, if cost isn't a factor for you. It's easy to put on and kept the smoke at bay. But at $69.95, the Safe Escape hood is less than half the price of the Parat-C and thus represents the best value of the three, even given its donning foibles. The work-around for that is to train a little on quick donning and learn to set the straps correctly.
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