Authorized for Cold Water Service: What Divers Should Know About Extreme Cold

The following is reprinted from my article published in ECO Magazine, March 2015.  It was published in its current format as an ECO Editorial Focus by TSC Media. Thank-you Mr. Greg Leatherman for making it available for reprinting.ECO Magazine

It is the highpoint of your career as an environmentally minded marine biologist. The National Science Foundation has provided a generous grant for your photographic mission to the waters 100 ft below the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Now you’re on an important mission, searching for biological markers of climate change.

Under Antarctic Ice, photo by Dr. Martin Sayer.

Above you lies nothing but a seemingly endless ceiling of impenetrable ice, 10 ft thick. Having spent the last several minutes concentrating on your photography, you look up and notice you’ve strayed further from safety than you’d wanted. The strobe light marking the hole drilled in the ice where you’ll exit the freezing water is a long swim away. And, unfortunately, your fellow scientist “buddy” diver has slipped off somewhere behind you, intent on her own research needs.

You’re diving SCUBA with two independent SCUBA regulators, but in the frigid cold of the literally icy waters, you know that ice could be accumulating within the regulator in your mouth. At the same time, a small tornado of sub-zero air expands chaotically within the high-pressure regulator attached to the single SCUBA bottle on your back—and that icy torrent is increasingly sucking the safety margins right out of your regulator. You are powerless to realize this danger or to do anything about it.

At any moment, your regulator could suddenly and unexpectedly free flow, tumultuously dumping the precious and highly limited supply of gas contained in the aluminum pressure cylinder on your back. You’re equipped and trained in the emergency procedure of shutting off the offending regulator and switching to your backup regulator, but this could also fail. It’s happened before. 

As you try to determine your buddy’s position, you’re feeling very lonely. You realize the high point of your career could rapidly become the low point of your career—and an end to your very being. Picture046

The preceding is not merely a writer’s dramatization. It is real, and the situation could prove deadly—as it has in far less interesting and auspicious locations. Regulator free flow and limited gas supplies famously claimed three professional divers’ lives in one location within a span of one month.

There is a risk to diving in extreme environments. However, the U.S. Navy has found that the risk is poorly understood, even by themselves—the professionals. If you check the Internet SCUBA boards, you constantly come across divers asking for opinions about cold-watersafe regulators. Undoubtedly, recent fatalities have made amateur divers a little nervous—and for good reason.

Internet bulletin boards are not the place to get accurate information about life support safety in frigid water. Unfortunately, the Navy found that manufacturers are also an unreliable source. Of course, the manufacturers want to be fully informed and to protect their customers, but the fact remains that manufacturers test to a European cold-water standard, EN 250. By passing those tests, manufacturers receive a “CE” stamp that is pressed into the hard metal of the regulator. That stamp means the regulator has received European approval for coldwater service.

As a number of manufacturers have expensively learned, passing the EN 250 testing standard is not the same as passing the more rigorous U.S. Navy standard, which was recently revised, making it even more rigorous by using higher gas supply pressures and testing in fresh as well as salt water. Freshwater diving in the Navy is rare—but depending on the brand and model of regulator in use, it can prove lethal.

The unadorned truth is that the large majority of manufacturers do not know how to make a consistently good Performing cold-water regulator. Perhaps the reason is because the type of equipment required to test to the U.S. Navy standard is very expensive and has, not to date, been legislated. Simply, it is not a requirement.

Some manufacturers are their own worst enemy; they cannot resist tinkering with even their most successful and rugged products. This writer is speculating here, but the constant manufacturing changes appear to be driven by either market pressures (bringing out something “new” to the trade show floor) or due to manufacturing economy (i.e., cost savings). The situation is so bad that even regulators that once passed U.S. Navy scrutiny are in some cases being changed almost as soon as they reach the “Authorized for Military Use” list. The military is struggling to keep up with the constant flux in the market place, which puts the civilian diver in a very difficult position. How can they—or you—know what gear to take on an environmentally extreme dive?

My advice to my family, almost all of whom are divers, is to watch what the Navy is putting on their authorized for cold-water service list. The regulators that show up on that list (and they are small in number) have passed the most rigorous testing in the world.

Through hundreds of hours of testing, in the most extreme conditions possible, the Navy has learned what all SCUBA divers should know:

• Even the coldest water (28°F; -2°C) is warm compared to the temperature of expanding air coming from a first stage regulator to the diver. There is a law of physics that says when compressed air contained in a SCUBA bottle is expanded by reducing it to a lower pressure, air temperature drops considerably. It’s the thermal consequence of adiabatic (rapid) expansion.

• Gas expansion does not have to be adiabatic. Isothermal (no temperature change) expansion is a process where the expansion is slow enough and heat entry into the gas from an outside source is fast enough that the expanded gas temperature does not drop.

• The best regulators are designed to take advantage of the heat available in ice water. The most critical place for that to happen is in the first stage where the greatest pressure drop occurs (from say 3,000 psi or higher to 135 psi above ambient water pressure (i.e., depth). They do that by maximizing heat transfer into the internals of the regulator.

• First stage regulators fail in two ways. The most common is that the first stage (which controls the largest pressure drop) begins to lose control of the pressure being supplied to the second stage regulator, the part that goes into a diver’s mouth. As that pressure climbs, the second stage eventually can’t hold it back any longer and a free flow ensues.

• The second failure mode is rare, but extremely problematic. Gas flow may stop suddenly and completely, so that backup regulator had better be handy.

• Second stage regulators are the most likely SCUBA components to fail in cold water due to internal ice accumulation.

• Free flows may start with a trickle, slowly accelerating to a torrent, or the regulator may instantly and unexpectedly erupt like a geyser of air. Once the uncontrolled, and often unstoppable free flow starts, it is self-perpetuating and can dump an entire cylinder of air within a few minutes through the second stage regulator.

• A warm-water regulator free flow is typically breathable; getting the air you need to ascend or to correct the problem is not difficult. In a cold-water-induced free flow, the geyser may be so cold as to make you feel like you’re breathing liquid nitrogen and so forceful as to be a safety concern. Staying relaxed under those conditions is difficult, but necessary.

• Water in non-polar regions can easily range between and 34°F to 38°F; at those temperatures, gas entering the second stage regulator can be at sub-freezing temperatures. European standard organizations classify ~10°C (50°F) as the cold/non-cold boundary. The Navy has found in the modern, high-flow regulators tested to date that 42°F is the water temperature where second stage inlet temperature is unlikely to dip below freezing.

• The small heat exchangers most manufacturers place just upstream of the second stage is ineffective In extreme conditions. They quickly ice over, insulating that portion of the regulator from the relative warmth of the surrounding water. Heat Ex Regulator

• Regulator “bells and whistles” are an unknown and can be problematic. Second stage regulators with multiple adjustments can do unpredictable things to heat transfer as the diver manipulates his controls. The last thing a cold-water diver should want is to make it easier to get more gas. High gas flows mean higher temperature drops and greater risk of free flow.

• Only manufacturer-certified technicians should touch your regulator if you’re going into risky waters. The technician at your local dive shop may or may not have current and valid technician training on your particular life support system. Don’t bet your life on it— ask to see the paperwork.

• Follow Navy and Smithsonian* guidance on handling and rinsing procedures for regulators in frigid waters. A single breath taken above the surface could freeze a regulator before you get your first breath underwater.

U. S. Navy reports on tested regulators are restricted. However, the list of those regulators passing all phases of Navy testing is available online. If your regulator, in the exact model as tested, is not on that list, do yourself a favor and don’t dive in frigid waters.


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The original Editorial Focus article is found in the digital version of the March ECO magazine here, on pages 20-25.


After the Heart Attack – The Healing Power of Athletic Passions

DSC06084-B2There is nothing quite like a heart attack and triple bypass surgery to get your attention.

Even if you’ve been good, don’t smoke, don’t eat to excess, and get a little exercise, it may not be enough to keep a heart attack from interrupting your life style, and maybe even your life.

Post-surgical recovery can be slow and painful, but if you have an avocational passion, that passion can be motivational during the recovery period after a heart attack. There is something about the burning desire to return to diving, flying, or golfing to force you out of the house to tone your muscles and get the blood flowing again.

My return to the path of my passions, diving and flying, began with diet and exercise. My loving spouse suggested a diet of twigs and leaves, so it seemed. I can best compare it to the diet that those seeking to aspire to a perpetual state of Buddha-hood, use to prepare themselves for their spiritual end-stage: it’s a state that looks a lot like self-mummification. Apparently those fellows end up either very spiritual or very dead, but I’m not really sure how one can tell the difference.

The exercise routine began slowly and carefully: walking slowly down the street carrying a red heart-shaped pillow (made by little lady volunteers in the local area just for us heart surgery patients). The idea, apparently, is that if you felt that at any point during your slow walk your heart was threatening to extract itself from your freshly opened chest, or to extrude itself like an amoeba between the stainless steel sutures holding the two halves of your rib cage together, that pillow would save you. You simply press it with all the strength your weakened body has to offer against the failing portion of your violated chest, and that pressure would keep your heart, somehow, magically, in its proper anatomical location.

I am skeptical about that method of medical intervention, but fortunately I never had occasion to use it for its avowed purpose.

Eventually I felt confident enough to ditch the pillow and pick up the pace of my walks. In fact, I soon found I could run again, in short spurts. It was those short runs that scared the daylight out of my wife, but brought me an immense amount of pleasure.  It meant that I might be able to regain my flying and diving qualifications.

Three months later I was in the high Arctic with good exercise capability, and most importantly the ability to sprint, just in case the local polar bears became too aggressive on my nighttime walks back from the only Ny-Alesund pub.

Stress test, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

After that teaching adventure, I prepared myself for the grinder that the FAA was about to put me through: a stress test. Not just any stress test mind you, but a nuclear stress test where you get on a treadmill and let nurses punish your body for a seeming eternity. Now, these nurses are as kindly as can be, but they might well be the last people you see on this Earth since there is a small risk of inducing yet another heart attack during the stress test. Every few minutes the slope and speed of the treadmill is increased, and when you think you can barely survive for another minute, they inject the radioisotope (technetium 99m).

With luck, you would have guessed correctly and you are able to push yourself for another long 60-seconds. I’m not sure exactly what would happen if you guess incorrectly, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.

And then they give you a chance to lie down, perfectly still, while a moving radioisotope scanner searches your body for gamma rays, indicating where your isotope-laden blood is flowing. With luck, the black hole that indicates dead portions of the heart will be small enough to be ignored by certifying medical authorities. (An interesting side effect of the nuclear stress test is that you are radioactive for a while, which in my case caused a fair amount of excitement at large airports. But that’s another story.)

The reward for all the time and effort spent on the fabled road to recovery, is when you receive, in my case at least, the piece of paper from the FAA certifying that you are cleared to once again fly airplanes and carry passengers. With that paper, and having endured the test of a life-time, I knew that I’d pass most any diving physical.

IMG_0645 (2014_06_22 07_00_11 UTC)
Vortex Springs, 2010

Having been in a situation where nature dealt me a low blow and put my life at risk and, perhaps more importantly, deprived me of the activities that brought joy to my life, it was immensely satisfying to be able to once again cruise above the clouds on my own, or to blow bubbles with the fish, in their environment. Is there anything more precious that being able to do something joyful that had once been denied?

A goofy looking but very happy diver sharing a dive with his Granddaughter, July 2014.











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Without a doubt, the reason I was able to resume my passions was because I happened to do, as the physicians said, “all the right things” when I first suspected something unusual was happening in my chest. The symptoms were not incapacitating so I considered driving myself to the hospital. But after feeling not quite right while brushing my teeth, I lay down and called 911. The ambulance came, did an EKG/ECG, and called in the MI (myocardial infarction) based on the EKG. The Emergency room was waiting for me, and even though it was New Years’ eve, they immediately called in the cardiac catheterization team. When the incapacitating event did later occur I was already in cardiac ICU and the team was able to act within a minute to correct the worsening situation.

Had I dismissed the initial subtle symptoms and not gone to the hospital, I would not have survived the sudden onset secondary cardiac event.

The lesson is, when things seem “not quite right” with your body, do not hesitate. Call an ambulance immediately and let the medical professionals sort out what is happening. That will maximize your chances for a full and rapid recovery, and increase the odds of your maintaining your quality of life.

It will also make you appreciate that quality of life more than you had before. I guarantee it.

Does Your Rebreather Scrubber Operate in Its Goldilocks Zone?

Exoplanet Gliese 581d, orbiting the red-dwarf star Gliese 581, only 20 light-years away. (The existence of this planet is currently in dispute.)

In space, there is a so-called Goldilocks zone for exoplanet habitability. Too close to a star, and the planet is too hot for life. Too far from its star, and the planet is too cold for life, at least as we understand biological life, life dependent on water remaining in a liquid state. Earth is clearly in the Goldilocks zone, and so is a purported planet Gleise 581d, from another solar system.

Carbon dioxide absorbing “scrubber” canisters in rebreathers have similar requirements for sustaining their absorption reactions. If it’s too hot, the water necessary for the absorption reaction is driven off. Too cold and the water cannot fully participate in the absorption reactions.

Those with some knowledge of chemistry recognize that cold retards chemical reactions and heat accelerates them. But that does not necessarily apply to reactions where a critical amount of water is required. Water thus becomes the critical link to the reaction process, and so maintaining scrubber temperature within a relatively narrow “Goldilocks” zone is important, just as it is for life on distant planets.

Temperature within a scrubber canister is a balance of competing factors. Heat is produced by the absorption of CO2 and it’s conversion from gas to solid phase, specifically calcium carbonate. A canister is roughly 20°C or more warmer than the surrounding inlet gas temperature due to the heat-generating (exothermic) chemical reactions occurring within it.

Heat is lost from a warm canister through two heat transfer processes; conduction and convection. Conduction is the flow of heat through materials, from hot to cold. Hot sodalime granules have their heat conducted to adjacent cooler granules, and when encountering the warm walls of the canister, heat passes through the canister walls, and on to the surrounding cold water.

You can think of this conduction as water flowing downhill, down a gravity gradient. But in this case, the downhill is a temperature gradient, from hot to cold. If the outside of the canister was hotter than the inside, heat would flow in the opposite direction, into the canister.

Copper is a better conductor of heat than iron (it has a higher thermal conductivity), explaining why copper skillets are popular for cooking on stoves. Air is a poor conductor of heat, explaining why neoprene rubber wet suits, filled with air bubbles, are good insulators. Air-filled dry suits are an even better insulator.

Chemical absorption reactions heat an otherwise cold canister (yellow is hot, red is warm, black is cold.) (Copyright John R. Clarke, 2014).

Convection is the transfer of heat to a flowing medium, in this case gas. You experience convective cooling when you’re working hard, generating body heat, and a cool dry breeze passes over your skin. Convective cooling can, under those circumstances, be delightful.

When you walk outside on a cold, windy day, convective cooling can be your worst enemy. Meteorologists call it wind chill.

There is wind chill within a canister, caused by the flow of a diver’s exhaled breath through the canister. In cold water the diver’s exhaled breath leaves the body quite warm, but is chilled to water temperature by the time it reaches the canister. Heat is lost through uninsulated breathing hoses exposed to the surrounding water.

As you might expect, if the canister is hot, that convective wind chill can help cool it. If the canister is cold, then the so-called wind chill will chill it even more.

Copyright John R. Clarke, 2014.

The amount of heat transferred from a solid object to gas is determined by three primary variables; the flow rate of the gas, the density of the gas, and the gas’s heat capacity. Heat capacity is a measure of the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a set mass of gas by 1° Celsius.

Both the heat capacity and density  of the gas circulating through a rebreather changes not only with depth (gas density), but with the gas mixture (oxygen plus an inert diluent such as nitrogen or helium).  The heat capacity of nitrogen, helium and oxygen differ, and the ratio of oxygen and inert gas varies with depth to prevent oxygen toxicity. Nitrogen and helium concentrations vary as well,  as the diver attempts to avoid nitrogen narcosis. Capture2

Q is heat transferred by convection, and the terms on the right are, in sequence, diver ventilation rate, gas density, heat capacity of the inspired gas mixture at constant pressure, and the difference in temperature between the absorbent and environmental temperature.

The interaction of all these variables can be complex, but I’ve worked a few examples relevant to rebreather diving. The assumptions are a low work rate: ventilation is 22 liters per minute, water temperature is 50°F (10°C), oxygen partial pressure is 1.3 atmospheres, and dive depths of 100, 200 and 300 feet sea water. The average canister temperature is assumed to be 20°C (68°F) above water temperature, a realistic value found in tests of scrubber canister temperatures by the U.S. Navy.

The heat capacities for mixtures of diving gases come from mixture equations, and for the conditions we’re examining are given in the U.S. Navy Diving Gas Manual. (This seems to be a hard document to obtain.)

At 100 fsw, the heat transfer (Q) for a nitrogen-oxygen (nitrox) gas mixture is 34.2 Watts (W). For a helium-oxygen mixture (heliox), Q is 27.4 W.  At 200 fsw, Q for nitrox is 59.9 W, and for heliox Q is 50.3 W. At 300 fsw, Q for nitrox gas mixture is 85.5 W, and for heliox, is 59.9 W.

Interestingly, the heat transferred from the absorbent bed to the circulating gas is the same at 300 fsw with heliox as it is at 200 fsw with nitrox.

Photo courtesy of David L. Conlin, Ph.D., Chief – National Parks Service Submerged Resources Center. Photo by Brett Seymour, NPS.

Dr. Jolie Bookspan briefly mentioned the fact that helium removes less heat from a diver’s airways than does air in her short article on “The 36 Most Common Myths of Diving Physiology” (see myth no. 20). Conveniently, heat exchange equations apply just as well to inanimate objects like scrubber canisters as they do to the human respiratory system.

From these types of heat transfer calculations it is easy to see that for a given depth, work rate and oxygen set point, it is better to use a heliox mixture than a nitrox mixture if you’re in cold water. That may sound counterintuitive considering helium’s high thermal conductivity, but the simple fact is, the helium background gas with its low density carries away less heat from the canister, and thereby keeps the canister warmer, than a nitrox mixture does. The result is that canister durations are longer in cold water if less heat is carried away.

In warm water, the opposite would be true. Enhanced canister cooling with nitrox would benefit the canister.

An earlier post on the effect of depth on canister durations raised the question of whether depth impedes canister performance. The notion that increased numbers of inert gas molecules block CO2 from reaching granule absorption sites has little chemical kinetic credence. However, changing thermal effects on canisters with depth or changing gas mixtures does indeed affect canister durations.

I’ve just given you yet another reason why helium is a good gas for rebreather diving, at least in cold water. Unfortunately, these general principles have to be reconciled with the specific cooling properties of all the rebreather canisters in current use. In other words, your canister mileage may vary. But it does look like the current simple notions of depth effects are a bit too simplistic.






How Cold Can Scuba Regulators Become?

The Arctic science diving season is in full swing (late May). Starting in September and October, the Austral spring will reach Antarctica and science diving will resume there as well.

Virtually all polar diving is done by open-circuit diving, usually with the use of scuba. Picture046

As has often been reported, regulator free flow and freeze up is an operational hazard for polar divers. However, even locations in the Great Lakes and Canada, reachable by recreational, police and public safety divers, can reach excruciatingly cold temperatures in both salt and fresh water on the bottom.

Sherwood Fail

Decades ago a reputed Canadian study measured temperatures in a scuba regulator, and found that as long as water temperature was 38° F or above, temperatures within the second stage remained above zero.

Recent measurements made on modern high-flow regulators at the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit show that the thermal picture of cold-water diving is far more complex than was understood from the earlier studies.

NEDU instrumented a Sherwood Maximus regulator first and second stage with fast time response thermistors. The regulators were then submerged in 42°, 38°, and 34° F fresh water, and 29° F salt water, and ventilated at a heavy breathing rate (62.5 liters per minute), simulating a hard working diver.

In the following traces, the white traces are temperatures measured within the first stage regulator after depressurization from bottle pressure to intermediate pressure. That site produces the lowest temperatures due to adiabatic expansion. The red tracing was obtained at the inlet to the second stage regulator. The blue tracing was from a thermistor placed at the outlet of the “barrel” valve within the second stage regulator box. Theoretically, that site is exposed to the lowest temperatures within the second stage due to adiabatic expansion from intermediate pressure to ambient or mouth pressure.

Regulators were dived to 198 ft (60.4 meters) and breathed with warm humidified air for 30-minutes at the 62.5 L/min ventilation rate. The regulator was then brought to the surface at a normal ascent rate.

To make the breathing wave forms more distinct, only one minute of the 30-minute bottom time is shown in the following traces, starting at ten minutes.

The first two tracings were at a water temperature of 42° F. In the first tracing, bottle pressure was 2500 psi, and in the second, bottle pressure was 1500 psi. (For all of these photos, click the photo for a larger view.) 42 2500 SM2

Color code

Color coding of thermistor locations, all internal to the regulator.

42 1500 SM2



When bottle pressure was reduced from 2500 psi to 1500 psi, all measured temperatures increased. The temperature at the entrance to the second stage oscillated between 0° and  1°C. At 2500 psi that same location had -1 to -2°C temperature readings.






The next two tracings were taken in 29° F salt water. The coldest temperatures of the test series were in 29° F water with 2500 psi bottle pressure.

29 1500 SM2

29 2500 SM2










As a reminder, 32°F is 0°C,  -22° C is equal to -7.6° F, and -11°C is 12.2°F. At a bottle pressure of 2500 psi, the temperature inside the second stage (blue tracing) never came close to 0° C. So we’re talking serious cold here. No wonder regulators can freeze.

Frozen Reg 1_hide


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This material was presented in condensed form at TekDiveUSA 2014, Miami. (#TekDiveUSA)


I Too Landed at the Wrong Airport

As a professional in underwater diving, and an amateur airman, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the causes of accidents and “near-misses”. If you’re reading this in early 2014, you are no doubt aware of several recent incidents of commercial and military jets landing at the wrong airport. In the latest case there was a potential for massive casualties, but disaster was averted at the last possible moment.

As they say, to err is human. From my own experience, I know the truth of that adage in science, medicine, diving, and the subject of this posting, aviation. Pilot errors catch everyone’s attention because we, the public, know that such errors could personally inconvenience us, or worse. But lesser known are the sometimes subtle factors that cause human error.

I can honestly tell you  exactly what I was doing and thinking that caused errors at the very end of long flights. Those errors, none of which were particularly dangerous or newsworthy, were nonetheless caused by the same elements that have been discovered in numerous fatal accidents. Namely, what I was seeing, was not at all what I thought I was seeing.

The small but capable Cessna 150B.

Long before the advent of GPS navigation, cell phones and electronic charts,  I was flying myself and an Army friend (we had both been in Army ROTC at Georgia Tech) from Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD to Georgia. I was dropping him off in Atlanta at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport, and then I would fly down to Thomasville in Southwest Georgia where my young wife awaited me.

Since it was February most of the planned six hour flight was at night. We couldn’t take-off until we both got off duty on a Friday.

I had planned the flight meticulously, but I had not counted on the fuel pumps being shut down at our first planned refueling spot. After chatting with some local aviators about the closest source of fuel, we took off on a detour to an airport some thirty miles distant. That unplanned detour was stressful, as I was not entirely sure we’d find fuel when we arrived. Fortunately, we were able to tank up, and continue on our slow journey. We were flying in my 2-seat Cessna 150, and traveling no faster than about 120 mph, so the trip to Atlanta was a fatiguing and dark flight.

As we eventually neared Atlanta, I was reading the blue, yellow and green paper sectional charts under the glow of red light from the overhead cabin lamp. Lights of the Peachtree-Dekalb airport were seemingly close at hand, surrounded by a growing multitude of other city lights. Happy that I was finally reaching Atlanta, I called the tower and got no answer. No matter, it was late, and many towers shut down operations  fairly early, about 10 PM or so. So I announced my position and intentions, and landed.

The runway was in the orientation I had expected, and my approach to landing was just as I had planned. However, as I taxied off the runway, I realized the runway environment was not as complex as it should have been. We taxied back and forth for awhile trying to sort things out, before I realized I’d landed 18 nautical miles short of my planned destination.

My unplanned refueling stop in South Carolina placed me far enough off course to take me directly over an airport that looked at night like my destination, Peachtree-Dekalb, Atlanta. (Solid line: original course, dashed line: altered course.)

I had so much wanted that airport to be PDK, but in my weariness I had missed the signs that it was not. I had landed at Gwinnett County Airport, not Peachtree-Dekalb.

No harm was done, but my flight to Thomasville was seriously delayed by the two extra airport stops. It was after 1 AM before I was safe at the Thomasville, GA airport, calling my worried wife to pick me up.

She was not a happy young wife.

A few years later, I added an instrument ticket to  my aviation credentials, and thought that the folly of my youth was far behind me. Now, advance quite a few decades, to a well-equipped, modern cross-country traveling machine, a Piper Arrow with redundant GPS navigation and on-board weather. I often fly in weather, and confidently descend through clouds to a waiting runway. So what could go wrong?

Piper Arrow 200B at home in Panama City, Fl.

Wrong no. 2 happened when approaching Baltimore-Washington International airport after flying with passengers from the Florida Panhandle. Air Traffic Control was keeping me pretty far from the field as we circled Baltimore to approach from the west. I had my instrumentation set-up for an approach to the assigned runway, but after I saw a runway, big and bold in the distance, I was cleared to land, and no longer relied on the GPS as I turned final.

As luck would have it, just a minute before that final turn we saw President George W. Bush and his decoy helicopters flying in loose formation off our port side. I might have been a little distracted.

In the city haze it had been hard to see the smaller runway pointing in the same direction as the main runway. So I was lining up with the easy-to-see large runway, almost a mile away from where I should have been. It was the same airport of course, but the wrong parallel runway.

I was no doubt tired, and somewhat hurried by the high traffic flow coming into a major hub for Baltimore and Washington. Having seen what I wanted to see, a large runway pointed in the correct direction, I assumed it was the right one, and stopped referring to the GPS and ILS (Instrument Landing System) navigation which would have revealed my error.

The tower controller had apparently seen that error many times before and gently nudged me verbally back on course. The flight path was easily corrected and no harm done. But I had proven to myself once again that at the end of a long trip, you tend to see what you want to see.

Several years later I had been slogging through lots of cloud en-route to Dayton, Ohio. I had meetings to attend at Wright Patterson Air Force base. It was again a long flight, but I was relaxed and enjoying the scenery as I navigated with confidence via redundant GPS (three systems operating at the same time).

As I was approaching Dayton, Dayton Approach was vectoring me toward the field. They did a great job I thought as they set me up perfectly for the left downwind at the landing airport. But then I became a bit perturbed that they had vectored me almost on top of the airport and then apparently forgotten about me. So I let them know that I had the airport very much in sight. They switched me to tower, and I was given clearance to land.

As I began descending for a more normal pattern altitude, the Dayton Tower called and said I seemed to be maneuvering for the wrong airport. In fact, I was on top of Wright Patterson Airbase, not Dayton International.

Rats! Not again.

Dayton airports
Wish my electronic Foreflight chart on my iPad had these sorts of markings.

Well, the field was certainly large enough, but once again I had locked eyes on what seemed to be the landing destination, and in fact was being directed there by the authority of the airways, Air Traffic Control (ATC). And so I was convinced during a busy phase of flight that I was doing what I should have been doing, flying visually with great care and attention. However, I was so busy that my mind had tunnel vision. I had once again not double checked the GPS navigator to see that I was being vectored to a large landmark which happened to lie on the circuitous path to the landing airport. (I wish they’d told me that, but detailed explanations are rarely given over busy airwaves.)

Oddly enough, if I had been in the clouds making an instrument approach, these mind-bending errors could not have happened. But when flight conditions are visual, the mind can easily pick a target that meets many of the correct criteria like direction and proximity, and then fill in the blanks with what it expects to see. In other words, it is easy in the visual environment to focus with laser beam precision on the wrong target. With all the situational awareness tools at my disposal, they were of no use once my brain made the transition outside the cockpit.

To be fair, distracting your gaze from the outside world to check internal navigation once you’re in a critical visual phase of approach and landing can be dangerous. That’s why it’s good to have more than one pilot in the cockpit. But my cockpit crew that day was me, myself and I; in that respect I was handicapped.

Apparently, even multiple crew members in military and commercial airliners are occasionally lulled into the same trap. At least that’s what the newspaper headlines say.

My failings are in some ways eerily similar to reports from military and commercial incidents. Contributing factors in the above incidents are darkness, fatigue, and distraction. When all three of these factors are combined, the last factor that can cause the entire house of cards, and airplane, to come tumbling down, is the brain’s ability to morph reality into an image which the mind expects to see. Our ability to discern truth from fiction is not all that clear when encountering new and unexpected events and environments.

The saving grace that aviation has going for it is generally reliable communication. ATC saved me from major embarrassment on two of these three occasions.

I only wish that diving had as reliable a means for detecting and avoiding errors.