Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components

Built-in and portable oxygen systems are used in civilian aviation. They use gaseous or solid oxygen (oxygen generators) as suits the purpose and aircraft. LOX systems and molecular sieve oxygen systems are not discussed, as current applications on civilian aircraft are limited.

Gaseous Oxygen Systems

The use of gaseous oxygen in aviation is common; however, applications vary. On a light aircraft, it may consist of a small carry-on portable cylinder with a single mask attached via a hose to a regulator on the bottle. Larger portable cylinders may be fitted with a regulator that divides the outlet flow for 2–4 people. Built-in oxygen systems on high performance and light twin-engine aircraft typically have a location where oxygen cylinders are installed to feed a distribution system via tubing and a regulator. The passenger compartment may have multiple breathing stations plumbed so that each passenger can individually plug in a hose and mask if oxygen is needed. A central regulator is normally controlled by the flight crew who may have their own separate regulator and oxygen cylinder. Transport category aircraft may use an elaborate built-in gaseous oxygen system as a backup system to cabin pressurization. In all of these cases, oxygen is stored as a gas at atmospheric temperature in high-pressure cylinders. It is distributed through a system with various components that are described in this page.

Oxygen Storage Cylinders

Gaseous oxygen is stored and transported in high-pressure cylinders. Traditionally, these have been heavy steel tanks rated for 1800–1850 psi of pressure and capable of maintaining pressure up to 2,400 psi. While these performed adequately, lighter weight tanks were sought. Some newer cylinders are comprised of a lightweight aluminum shell wrapped by Kevlar®. These cylinders are capable of carrying the same amount of oxygen at the same pressure as steel tanks, but weigh much less. Also available are heavy-walled all-aluminum cylinders. These units are common as carry-on portable oxygen used in light aircraft.

Most oxygen storage cylinders are painted green, but yellow and other colors may be used as well. They are certified to Department of Transportation (DOT) specifications. To ensure serviceability, cylinders must be hydrostatically tested periodically. In general, a hydrostatic test consists of filling the container with water and pressurizing it to 5⁄3 of its certified rating. It should not leak, rupture, or deform beyond an established limit. Figure 1 shows a hydrostatic cylinder testing apparatus.

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 1
This test stand is used for hydrostatic testing of oxygen cylinders. The water-filled cylinder is lowered into the barrel on the left where it is pressurized to the proper level as monitored via gauges mounted on the control panel. A displacement container on the top left of the control board collects water from the barrel to measure the expansion of the cylinder when pressurized to ensure it is within limits

Most cylinders also have a limited service life after which they can no longer be used. After a specified number of filling cycles or calendar age, the cylinders must be removed from service. The most common high-pressure steel oxygen cylinders used in aviation are the 3AA and the 3HT. They come in various sizes but are certified to the same specifications. Cylinders certified under DOT-E-8162 are also popular for their extremely light weight. These cylinders typically have an aluminum core around which Kevlar® is wrapped. The DOT-E 8162 approved cylinders are now approved under DOT-SP-8162 specifications. The SP certification has extended the required time between hydrostatic testing to 5 years (previously 3 years). [Figure 2]

certified list of oxygen cylider
Figure 2. Common cylinders used in aviation with some certification and testing specifications

The manufactured date and certification number is stamped on each cylinder near the neck. Subsequent hydrostatic test dates are also stamped there as well. Composite cylinders use placards rather than stamping. The placard must be covered with a coat of clear epoxy when additional information is added, such as a new hydrostatic test date.

Oxygen cylinders are considered empty when the pressure inside drops below 50 psi. This ensures that air containing water vapor has not entered the cylinder. Water vapor could cause corrosion inside the tank, as well as presenting the possibility of ice forming and clogging a narrow passageway in the cylinder valve or oxygen system. Any installed tank allowed to fall below this pressure should be removed from service.

Oxygen Systems and Regulators

The design of the various oxygen systems used in aircraft depends largely on the type of aircraft, its operational requirements, and whether the aircraft has a pressurization system. Systems are often characterized by the type of regulator used to dispense the oxygen: continuous-flow and demand flow. In some aircraft, a continuous-flow oxygen system is installed for both passengers and crew. The pressure demand system is widely used as a crew system, especially on the larger transport aircraft. Many aircraft have a combination of both systems that may be augmented by portable equipment.

Continuous-Flow Systems

In its simplest form, a continuous-flow oxygen system allows oxygen to exit the storage tank through a valve and passes it through a regulator/reducer attached to the top of the tank. The flow of high-pressure oxygen passes through a section of the regulator that reduces the pressure of the oxygen, which is then fed into a hose attached to a mask worn by the user. Once the valve is opened, the flow of oxygen is continuous. Even when the user is exhaling, or when the mask is not in use, a preset flow of oxygen continues until the tank valve is closed. On some systems, fine adjustment to the flow can be made with an adjustable flow indicator that is installed in the hose in line to the mask. A portable oxygen setup for a light aircraft exemplifies this type of continuous-flow system and is shown in Figure 3.

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 3
A typical portable gaseous oxygen cylinder complete with valve, pressure gauge, regulator/reducer, hose, adjustable flow indicator, and rebreather cannula. A padded carrying case/bag can be strapped to the back of a seat in the cabin to meet certification and testing specifications

A more sophisticated continuous-flow oxygen system uses a regulator that is adjustable to provide varying amounts of oxygen flow to match increasing need as altitude increases. These regulators can be manual or automatic in design. Manual continuous-flow regulators are adjusted by the crew as altitude changes. Automatic continuous-flow regulators have a built in aneroid. As the aneroid expands with altitude, a mechanism allows more oxygen to flow though the regulator to the users. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 4
A manual continuous flow oxygen system may have a regulator that is adjusted by the pilot as altitude varies. By turning the knob, the left gauge can be made to match the flight altitude thus increasing and decreasing flow as altitude changes

Many continuous-flow systems include a fixed location for the oxygen cylinders with permanent delivery plumbing installed to all passenger and crew stations in the cabin. In large aircraft, separate storage cylinders for crew and passengers are typical. Fully integrated oxygen systems usually have separate, remotely mounted components to reduce pressure and regulate flow. A pressure relief valve is also typically installed in the system, as is some sort of filter and a gauge to indicate the amount of oxygen pressure remaining in the storage cylinder(s). Figure 5 diagrams the type of continuous-flow system that is found on small to medium sized aircraft.

Aircraft Oxygen Systems
Figure 5. Continuous flow oxygen system found on small to medium size aircraft

Built-in continuous-flow gaseous oxygen systems accomplish a final flow rate to individual user stations through the use of a calibrated orifice in each mask. Larger diameter orifices are usually used in crew masks to provide greater flow than that for passengers. Special oxygen masks provide even greater flow via larger orifices for passengers traveling with medical conditions requiring full saturation of the blood with oxygen.

Allowing oxygen to continuously flow from the storage cylinder can be wasteful. Lowest sufficient flow rates can be accomplished through the use of rebreather apparatus. Oxygen and air that is exhaled still contains usable oxygen. By capturing this oxygen in a bag, or in a cannula with oxygen absorbing reservoirs, it can be inhaled with the next breath, reducing waste. [Figure 6]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 6
A rebreather cannula (A) and rebreather bag (B) capture exhaled oxygen to be inhaled on the next breath. This conserves oxygen by permitting lower flow rates in continuous flow systems. The red and green devices are optional flow indicators that allow the user to monitor oxygen flow rate. The type shown also contains needle valves for final regulation of the flow rate to each user

The passenger section of a continuous-flow oxygen system may consist of a series of plug-in supply sockets fitted to the cabin walls adjacent to the passenger seats to which oxygen masks can be connected. Flow is inhibited until a passenger manually plugs in. When used as an emergency system in pressurized aircraft, depressurization automatically triggers the deployment of oxygen ready continuous-flow masks at each passenger station. A lanyard attached to the mask turns on the flow to each mask when it is pulled toward the passenger for use. The masks are normally stowed overhead in the passenger service unit (PSU). [Figure 7] Deployment of the emergency continuous-flow passenger oxygen masks may also be controlled by the crew. [Figure 8]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 7
A passenger service unit (psu) is hinged over each row of seats in an airliner. Four yellow continuous flow oxygen masks are shown deployed. They are normally stored behind a separate hinged panel that opens to allow the masks to fall from the PSU for use

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 8
The crew can deploy passenger emergency continuous flow oxygen masks 
and supply with a switch in the cockpit

Continuous-flow oxygen masks are simple devices made to direct flow to the nose and mouth of the wearer. They fit snugly but are not air tight. Vent holes allow cabin air to mix with the oxygen and provide escape for exhalation. In a rebreather mask, the vents allow the exhaled mixture that is not trapped in the rebreather bag to escape. This is appropriate, because this is the air-oxygen mixture that has been in the lungs the longest, so it has less recoverable oxygen to be breathed again. [Figure 9]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 9. Examples of different continuous-flow oxygen masks

Demand-Flow Systems

When oxygen is delivered only as the user inhales, or on demand, it is known as a demand-flow system. During the hold and exhalation periods of breathing, the oxygen supply is stopped. Thus, the duration of the oxygen supply is prolonged as none is wasted. Demand-flow systems are used most frequently by the crew on high performance and air transport category aircraft. [Figure 10]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components location diagram
Figure 10. Location of demand-flow oxygen components on a transport category aircraft

Demand-flow systems are similar to continuous-flow systems in that a cylinder delivers oxygen through a valve when opened. The tank pressure gauge, filter(s), pressure relief valve, and any plumbing installed to refill the cylinder while installed on the aircraft are all similar to those in a continuousflow system. The high-pressure oxygen also passes through a pressure reducer and a regulator to adjust the pressure and flow to the user. But, demand-flow oxygen regulators differ significantly from continuous-flow oxygen regulators. They work in conjunction with close-fitting demand-type masks to control the flow of oxygen. [Figure 11]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 11
A demand regulator and demand-type mask work together to control flow and conserve oxygen. Demand-flow masks are close fitting so that when the user inhales, low pressure is created in the regulator, which allows oxygen to flow. Exhaled air escapes through ports in the mask, and the regulator ceases the flow of oxygen until the next inhalation

In a demand-flow oxygen system, the system pressurereducing valve is sometimes called a pressure regulator. This device lowers the oxygen pressure from the storage cylinder(s) to roughly 60–85 psi and delivers it to individual regulators dedicated for each user. A pressure reduction also occurs at the inlet of the individual regulator by limiting the size of the inlet orifice. There are two types of individual regulators: the diluter-demand type and the pressure-demand type. [Figure 12]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 12
The two basic types of regulators used in demand flow oxygen systems. The panel below the diluter demand regulator on the left is available for mask hose plug in (left), lanyard mask hanger (center), and microphone plug in (right). Most high performance demand type masks have a microphone built-in

The diluter-demand type regulator holds back the flow of oxygen until the user inhales with a demand-type oxygen mask. The regulator dilutes the pure oxygen supply with cabin air each time a breath is drawn. With its control toggle switch set to normal, the amount of dilution depends on the cabin altitude. As altitude increases, an aneroid allows more oxygen and less cabin air to be delivered to the user by adjusting flows through a metering valve. At approximately 34,000 feet, the diluter-demand regulator meters 100 percent oxygen. This should not be needed unless cabin pressurization fails. Additionally, the user may select 100 percent oxygen delivery at any time by positioning the oxygen selection lever on the regulator. A built-in emergency switch also delivers 100 percent oxygen, but in a continuous flow as the demand function is bypassed. [Figure 13]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 13
A diluter-demand regulator operates when low pressure caused by inhalation moves the demand diaphragm. A demand valve connected to the diaphragm opens, letting oxygen flow through the metering valve. The metering valve adjusts the mixture of cabin air and pure oxygen via a connecting link to an aneroid that responds to cabin altitude

Pressure-demand oxygen systems operate similarly to diluterdemand systems, except that oxygen is delivered through the individual pressure regulator(s) under higher pressure. When the demand valve is unseated, oxygen under pressure forces its way into the lungs of the user. The demand function still operates, extending the overall supply of oxygen beyond that of a continuous-flow system. Dilution with cabin air also occurs if cabin altitude is less than 34,000 feet.

Pressure-demand regulators are used on aircraft that regularly fly at 40,000 feet and above. They are also found on many airliners and high-performance aircraft that may not typically fly that high. Forcing oxygen into the lungs under pressure ensures saturation of the blood, regardless of altitude or cabin altitude.

Both diluter-demand and pressure-demand regulators also come in mask-mounted versions. The operation is essentially the same as that of panel-mounted regulators. [Figure 14]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 14
A mask-mounted version of a miniature diluter-demand regulator designed for use in general aviation (left), a mechanical quick-donning diluter-demand mask with the regulator on the mask (center), and an inflatable quick-donning mask (right). Squeezing the red grips directs oxygen into the hollow straps

Flow Indicators

Flow indicators, or flow meters, are common in all oxygen systems. They usually consist of a lightweight object, or apparatus, that is moved by the oxygen stream. When flow exists, this movement signals the user in some way. [Figure 15] Many flow meters in continuous-flow oxygen systems also double as flow rate adjusters. Needle valves fitted into the flow indicator housing can fine-adjust the oxygen delivery rate. Demand-flow oxygen systems usually have flow indicators built into the individual regulators at each user station. Some contain a blinking device that activates when the user inhales and oxygen is delivered. Others move a colored pith object into a window. Regardless, flow indicators provide a quick verification that an oxygen system is functioning.

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 15
Different flow indicators are used to provide verification that the oxygen system is functioning: continuous-flow, in-line (left); continuous-flow, in-line with valve adjuster (center); and old style demand flow (right)

Different flow indicators are used to provide verification that the oxygen system is functioning. Other demand-flow indicators are built into the oxygen regulators. [Figure 15]

A recent development in general aviation oxygen systems is the electronic pulse demand oxygen delivery system (EDS). A small, portable EDS unit is made to connect between the oxygen source and the mask in a continuous-flow oxygen system. It delivers timed pulses of oxygen to the wearer on demand, saving oxygen normally lost during the hold and exhale segments of the breathing cycle. Advanced pressure sensing and processing allows the unit to deliver oxygen only when an inhalation starts. It can also sense differences in users’ breathing cycles and physiologies and adjust the flow of oxygen accordingly. A built-in pressure-sensing device adjusts the amount of oxygen released as altitude changes. [Figure 16]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 16. A portable two-person electronic pulse-demand (EPD) oxygen regulating unit

Permanently mounted EPD systems are also available. They typically integrate with an electronic valve/regulator on the oxygen cylinder and come with an emergency bypass switch to provide continuous-flow oxygen should the system malfunction. A liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor/control panel displays numerous system operating parameters and allows adjustments to the automatic settings. This type of electronic metering of oxygen has also been developed for passenger emergency oxygen use in airliners. [Figure 17]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 17
The key components of a built-in electronic pulse demand oxygen metering system: (A) electronic regulator, (B) oxygen station distributer unit, (C) command/display unit, (D) emergency bypass switch

Oxygen Plumbing and Valves

Tubing and fittings make up most of the oxygen system plumbing and connect the various components. Most lines are metal in permanent installations. High-pressure lines are usually stainless steel. Tubing in the low-pressure parts of the oxygen system is typically aluminum. Flexible plastic hosing is used deliver oxygen to the masks; its use is increasing in permanent installations to save weight.

Installed oxygen tubing is usually identified with colorcoded tape applied to each end of the tubing, and at specified intervals along its length. The tape coding consists of a green band overprinted with the words “BREATHING OXYGEN” and a black rectangular symbol overprinted on a white background border strip. [Figure 18]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 18. Color-coded tape used to identify oxygen tubing

Tubing-to-tubing fittings in oxygen systems are often designed with straight threads to receive flared tube connections. Tubing-to-component fittings usually have straight threads on the tubing end and external pipe threads (tapered) on the other end for attachment to the component. The fittings are typically made of the same material as the tubing (i.e., aluminum or steel). Flared and flareless fittings are both used, depending on the system.

Five types of valves are commonly found in high-pressure gaseous oxygen systems: filler, check, shutoff, pressure reducer, and pressure relief. They function as they would in any other system with one exception: oxygen system shutoff valves are specifically designed to open slowly.

The ignition point for any substances is lower in pure oxygen than it is in air. When high-pressure oxygen is allowed to rush into a low-pressure area, its velocity could reach the speed of sound. If it encounters an obstruction (a valve seat, an elbow, a piece of contaminant, etc.), the oxygen compresses. With this compression, known as adiabatic compression (since it builds so quickly no heat is lost to its surroundings), comes high temperature. Under pressure, this high temperature exceeds the ignition point of the material the oxygen encounters and a fire or explosion results. A stainless steel line, for example, would not normally burn and is used for carrying numerous fluids under high pressure. But under high pressure and temperature in the presence of 100 percent oxygen, even stainless steel can ignite.

To combat this issue, all oxygen shutoff valves are slow, opening valves designed to decrease velocity. [Figure 19]

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 19
This high-pressure oxygen system shutoff valve has fine-pitch threads and a regulating stem to slow the flow of oxygen through the valve. A soft valve seat is also included to assure the valve closes completely

Additionally, technicians should always open all oxygen valves slowly. Keeping oxygen from rushing into a low pressure area should be a major concern when working with high-pressure gaseous oxygen systems.

Oxygen cylinder valves and high-pressure systems are often provided with a relief valve should the desired pressure be exceeded. Often, the valve is ported to an indicating or blowout disk. This is located in a conspicuous place, such as the fuselage skin, where it can be seen during walk-around inspection. Most blowout disks are green. The absence of the green disk indicates the relief valve has opened, and the cause should be investigated before flight. [Figure 20]

Figure 20
An oxygen blowout plug on the side of the fuselage indicates when pressure relief has occurred and should be investigated

Chemical Oxygen Systems

The two primary types of chemical oxygen systems are the portable type, much like a portable carry-on gaseous oxygen cylinder, and the fully integrated supplementary oxygen system used as backup on pressurized aircraft in case of pressurization failure. [Figure 21] This latter use of solid chemical oxygen generators is most common on airliners. The generators are stored in the overhead PSU attached to hoses and masks for every passenger on board the aircraft. When a depressurization occurs, or the flight crew activates a switch, a compartment door opens and the masks and hoses fall out in front of the passengers. The action of pulling the mask down to a usable position actuates an electric current, or ignition hammer, that ignites the oxygen candle and initiates the flow of oxygen. Typically, 10 to 20 minutes of oxygen is available for each user. This is calculated to be enough time for the aircraft to descend to a safe altitude for unassisted breathing.

Aircraft Oxygen Systems and Components
Figure 21
An oxygen generator mounted in place in an overhead passenger service unit of an air transport category aircraft

Chemical oxygen systems are unique in that they do not produce the oxygen until it is time to be used. This allows safer transportation of the oxygen supply with less maintenance. Chemical oxygen-generating systems also require less space and weigh less than gaseous oxygen systems supplying the same number of people. Long runs of tubing, fittings, regulators, and other components are avoided, as are heavy gaseous oxygen storage cylinders. Each passenger row grouping has its own fully independent chemical oxygen generator. The generators, which often weigh less than a pound, are insulated and can burn completely without getting hot. The size of the orifice opening in the hose-attach nipples regulates the continuous flow of oxygen to the users.

LOX Systems

LOX systems are rarely used in civilian aviation. They may be encountered on former military aircraft now in the civilian fleet. As mentioned, the storage of LOX requires a special container system. The plumbing arrangement to convert the liquid to a usable gas is also unique. It basically consists of a controlled heat exchange assembly of tubing and valves. Overboard pressure relief is provided for excessive temperature situations. Once gaseous, the LOX system is the same as it is in any comparable gaseous oxygen delivery system. Use of pressure-demand regulators and masks is common. Consult the manufacturer’s maintenance manual for further information if a LOX system is encountered.