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Virginia plane crash: What is hypoxia and what part could it play in a plane crash?

A plane that entered restricted airspace over Washington D.C. on Sunday, causing the military to scramble four fighter jets to intercept it, crashed in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, killing all onboard the craft, according to authorities.

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The details of why the plane took such a twisting course and why its pilot failed to respond to the F-16s that were shooting flares to get his attention are still unclear.

However, some aviation experts speculate that a lack of oxygen — known as hypoxia — may have incapacitated the pilot.

Hypoxia, the lack of sufficient oxygen to maintain normal physiological functions, can happen if a plane has a rapid decompression during flight or if pressurization or oxygen systems malfunction, according to the FAA.

Hypoxia “occurs when there is not enough oxygen in the cabin,” Steve Ganyard, an ABC News aviation contributor, said Sunday. Ganyard said he believes the incident could be an example of hypoxia incapacitating those aboard the Cessna.

“The pressure should keep enough air in the cabin to stay alert and stay awake. In this case, it can happen insidiously where you lose consciousness, you begin to feel tingling, you get a sense of euphoria and it very slowly overcomes the people in the cabin,” Ganyard said.

Some have compared the incident to the one that took the life of professional golfer Payne Stewart. A Learjet carrying Stewart and five others flew uncontrolled for thousands of miles across the heart of the country in October 1999 before it crashed into a field in South Dakota with such force that it left a hole in the ground 40 feet wide and more than 10 feet deep.

Military pilots who tracked the plane reported seeing frost on the inside of the plane’s windows, a sign that the plane’s cabin had lost pressurization.

Hypoxia can quickly affect those in a depressurized cabin. The time of useful consciousness, or the amount of time an individual is able to function effectively when there is inadequate oxygen, depends on several factors, according to The Airline Pilots Forum.

If a plane is flying at 35,000 feet and suffers a rapid decompression, a person would have 30 to 60 seconds to respond. If the plane is at 45,000 feet, occupants would have 9 to 15 seconds of useful consciousness to react.

FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, showed the Cessna had flown at an altitude of 34,000 and never lost that altitude until it crashed. The plane was on autopilot, according to authorities.

A person will die from hypoxia within minutes, depending on several factors. They will first lose consciousness.

Brain damage can begin within a minute or two of total oxygen deprivation, according to spinalcord.com.

Five minutes after the loss of oxygen, death of brain cells and severe brain damage will happen. Most people will die within 10 minutes of total oxygen deprivation.

John Rumpel, who owned the plane and is also a pilot, told The New York Times that he didn’t have much information from authorities but hoped his daughter, granddaughter, the child’s nanny and the pilot, didn’t suffer. He suggested the plane could have lost pressurization.

“They all just would have gone to sleep and never woke up,” Rumpel said.

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