BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014

BBC Homepage

In Horizon:

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > Horizon > Recent Horizons > How to Kill a Human Being

Near death experiences

More on this Topic

Recent Horizons

Elsewhere on the Web
The BBC is not responsible for content on external sites

Why am I seeing this page?

This feature can also be viewed as flash video. This page exists for people who have problems seeing broadband flash videos, and for visitors from outside the UK.

Visit BBC Webwise for instructions on how to install the free flash plugin.

On his journey to find the perfect killing machine Michael put his own life in the experts hands to experience what it would be like to be executed.

CS gas

CS gas

Put through his paces at an army training camp Michael gets exposed to a non-lethal but highly unpleasant gas.

Video transcript

Together with a group of volunteers he will be exposed to a non lethal but highly noxious gas which provokes a number of similar bodily reactions to cyanide, its lethal counterpart.

Mark: Don the respirator, chin in first, make sure that the harness is central on the crown.

CS gas is used by the military to simulate chemical attacks and like cyanide it provokes a terrible irritation to the skin eyes and lungs as well as gasping, confusion and vomiting. To establish that the gas chamber can be reasonably painless all Michael has to do is breathe in the noxious gas calmly and deeply and say his full name and date of birth.

Mark: Is everybody okay?

All: Okay.

Mark: We're now going to be exposed to the CS and what I want you to do is remain calm and keep your breathing going as much as possible and keep your eyes open, undo the zip of your sleeves, pull back the hood one, two, three. Keep your eyes open, okay state your name. OK, State your name, date of birth. State your name and date of birth.

Man: (Not clear)

Mark: State your name and date of birth.

Man: (Not clear)

Mark: State your name and date of birth.

Michael: Michael Portillo, May 53.

Mark: Okay follow the man one behind the other.....let the wind come into your face, deep breath.

Michael: That was completely horrible, stinging couldn't keep my eyes open for a moment, my eyes are absolutely messed up. I found it very difficult to speak, I couldn't get my whole date of birth out even. Great to get out of there.

Mark: look at me

Michael: Thank you.



Michael gets accelerated to 9 Gs. He loses vision and is stopped just seconds from passing out.

Video transcript

At the Royal Netherlands Air Force Physiology Centre there's a small group of scientists that routinely take human subjects to the brink of death using hypoxia. Doctor Ted Meeuwsen trains fighter pilots to survive the constant threat of this deadly condition when making extreme manoeuvres. To experience hypoxia for himself Michael is going into a human centrifuge. There his body will be subjected to a massive increase in the force of gravity known as G force.

Michael: My god Ted am I going in that thing there?

Dr Meeuwsen: Well actually you are.

Michael: It's like an enormous spanner with a coffin at one end really isn't it? Okay so you're going to spin me round in this thing.

Dr Meeuwsen: Yes.

Michael: And the blood is what, it's going to go to my feet?

Dr Meeuwsen: Exactly because the G forces react on the body you become heavier and also the inside of the body will become heavier.

Dr Meeuwsen: There it is, 9 G's, so your body becomes nine times more heavier.

Michael: That's simply dreadful.

Comm: When Michael begins to feel hypoxic he will lose his peripheral vision.

Dr Meeuwsen: Okay you can step into the gondola.

Michael: Right okay.

Dr Meeuwsen: Then seconds away from unconsciousness everything he sees will turn grey.

Michael: Oh that is, that is very nasty now.

Dr Meeuwsen: Okay I've got my safety limits, the door's closed the operator is ready and the doctor is also ready, so if you're ready you may push the go and keep it there.

Michael: It goes by pressing it.

Dr Meeuwsen: Two one you're on your exploration and describe to us what you are feeling right now.

Michael: I'm now feeling a lot of pressure in my body, I can feel the blood rushing down into my body.

Dr Meeuwsen: Can you reach your nose with your hand, with your finger?

Michael: My hand weighs a ton, I can just about do that. It's very, very tough the horizon has gone completely and my arm is being pressed down again now. I feel very heavy and I can't keep my head straight, oh my head is going and my legs weigh so much.

Dr Meeuwsen: How is your vision?

Michael: My vision is still fine but my eyes are getting very heavy. My vision is still fine, I can see peripheral but it's getting very, very tough.

If Michael continues to spin for another sixty seconds the gravity induced hypoxia will kill him.

Michael: Oh my head is very heavy, oh my peripheral's going, I'm going grey....

Dr Meeuwsen: Okay you may shoot the target now. Squeeze the muzzle, squeeze the muzzle.

Michael: I'm very, very grey now, tipping forward very, very badly.

Dr Meeuwsen: Stare at the horizon.

Michael: I need to press those muscles, I need to press those muscles, I'm staring at the horizon. Wow. That was extraordinary, my legs felt so incredibly heavy and my arms were really heavy, when I was asked to do that I could hardly move this arm at all.

Dr Meeuwsen: You nearly blacked out.

Michael: Yeah? How much longer?

Dr Meeuwsen: Seconds. Really, five, eight seconds.

Michael: I was on the point of blacking out.

Dr Meeuwsen: Yes.

Michael: I would then have become unconscious, if you'd kept it going I would be dead.

Dr Meeuwsen: Exactly.

Decompression chamber

Decompression chamber

In an oxygen depleted environment, Michael is unable to perform simple tasks, including saving his own life.

Video transcript

Dr Wittenberg: You need to put a mask on your face and please hold it like this.

This is an altitude chamber it simulates the low oxygen concentration you get at high altitude and provokes an entirely different form of hypoxia. In the human centrifuge Michael had the blood pushed from his brain to his feet. In the altitude chamber there will be plenty of blood in his brain but hardly any oxygen in his blood.

Dr Meeuwsen: Michael how are you feeling?

Michael: A little tense.

Dr Meeuwsen: A little tense. I will ask you to remove the mask at eight or nine thousand feet and then you will experience a rapid decompression.

This is a risky experiment as unconsciousness can occur quite suddenly.

Michael: That was a sudden change.

Dr Meeuwsen: That's what we call a rapid decompression. Just recover.

Dr Whittenberg: Tell me what you're experiencing.

Michael: A little bit giddy. A little bit light headed.

Physiologist Doctor Jans Wittenberg is monitoring Michael's condition by asking him to complete basic tasks.

Dr Wittenberg: Can you show me by sticking up your fingers how much nine minus five is.

Michael: Nine minus five would be four.

Dr Wittenberg: Excellent, what card is this?

Michael: That's the eight of clubs.

Dr Wittenberg: Excellent.

Michael's brain is suffering from oxygen starvation making him feel drunk, euphoric and over confident.

Dr Wittenberg: Can you hold this up for me?

Michael: I can hold it up, yes.

Dr Wittenberg: And can you put the shape in it as well.

Michael: Alright I'm looking for, I'm looking for...I can't see that one.

Dr Wittenber: It's here, see?

Michael: Okay.

Dr Wittenberg: What kind of card is this?

Michael: It's the three of diamonds.

Dr Wittenberg: Three of diamonds?

Michael: Yes.

Dr Wittenberg: Got another shape for you, can you put it in?

Michael: Yes it's the star, yes.

Michael will eventually face an ultimate test. Will he be able to switch his oxygen back on and save his life? Or will he be too far gone to care?

Dr Wittenberg: How much is eight minus three?

Michael: Eight minus three is four.

Dr Wittenberg: Is it four?

Michael: Eight minus three. No eight minus three is....

Michael is dangerously hypoxic.

Dr Wittenberg: Okay I think it's time to recover Michael, can you put up the switches. Six minutes, put up the switches or you will die.

Dr Meeuwsen: Just swing the mask back on.

He's experiencing what appears to be the perfect method of execution and he doesn't care.

Dr Wittenberg: Put up the switches or you will die. Put up the switches....

Dr Wittenberg: Can you tell me how you feel now? How do you feel?

Michael: I feel much better.

Dr Wittenberg: Jolly good. How much is eight minus three.

Michael: Five. Definitely five.

Dr Wittenberg: Thank you.

Michael: Yeah, yeah.

Dr Meeuwsen: Okay Jans thank you. Michael.

Michael: Where are we now Captain?

Dr Meeuwsen: Well actually you are descending now to sea level again, we are at twenty six thousand feet.

Michael: How much longer until I would have been unconscious?

Dr Meeuwsen: Well a matter of seconds.

Michael: Really?

Dr Meeuwsen: I guess ten to twenty seconds and then...

Michael: And from there to death?

Dr Meeuwsen: That's your final destination then.

Michael: If Jans hadn't stepped in then...

Dr Meeuwsen: He saved your life today.

Michael: You're kidding

Dr Meeuwsen: Be very thankful.

Michael: Thank you Jans.

Dr Meeuwsen: But overall Michael was it painful?

Michael: No, I thought the experiment was a failure because I was getting all the answers right. Did I get all the answers right?

Dr Meeuwsen: In the end no.

Michael: Really?

Dr Meeuwsen: Yes.

Michael: I thought I was doing really well. I thought I'd outwitted you.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy