Flight Safety 2 – Aircraft Down

As a Risk Mitigation Professional, I am very particular about the airlines I choose to fly on and I always check the safety records of airlines before booking a seat. However, I recently found myself on board an aircraft I knew was going to crash.

The flight started just like any other. We (there were 23 passengers and three crew on board) were given the usual safety demonstration as the aircraft taxied to the runway. The crew checked our seat belts were correctly fastened, that our tray tables were stowed, our arm rests were down and our seats were in the upright position. The captain gave us some information about the flight and then said, “cabin crew, seats for take off.”

We heard the usual increase in engine noise as the the jet roared down the runway and then lifted into the air. There was a slight shaking as we left the ground, but nothing I hadn’t experienced on hundreds of previous flights I had taken. Within a few minutes though things changed and they changed very quickly.

I first realised there was something wrong was when one of the passengers shouted “fire, there’s a fire.” Others passengers started looking around and hitting the call buttons above their heads. It was at this point that it became evident there was smoke in the cabin and it was getting worse. The realisation quickly hit us that we were in a metal tube that was quickly filling with smoke.

A voice came over PA. “This is an emergency. Brace! Brace! We did as we were told. The crew then started shouting, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” One of the passengers must have looked up to see what was going on and the crew reacted immediately. “You, get your head down. Brace, brace!” The aircraft was shaking violently, then we experienced a hard landing. It went very dark and I couldn’t see a thing.

The voice came back on the PA, “This is an emergency. Evacuate. Evacuate!”

The emergency lighting was visible through the now very thick smoke and the crew were hollering at us. “Unfasten your seat belts, come this way.” I couldn’t see them, in fact I could barely see the person in front of me, but I could hear them. “Unfasten your seat belts, come this way.” Through the smoke I could see lights and before I knew it someones hand was on my shoulder guiding me towards the exit. Another hand was on the top of my head and the command to “jump” was given.

I was out.

The whole thing had only taken a couple of minutes from the time the smoke was first noticed, through the emergency landing, to being out of the aircraft. There was no time to think, it was a survival situation, a time to react.

Fortunately for me and the other passengers, all this took place in a simulator at British Airways Flight Training Centre near London. The fact we all knew something was going to happen before we entered the cabin didn’t diminish the urgency of the situation and it set the scene for a day of training with flight safety experts. Diane and Andy are cabin crew, each with over 20 years flying experience and Geoff a flight engineer with over 27 years (he doesn’t like to mention that) with British Airways. Between them they have countless flying hours under their belts and are the best people to instruct regular travellers like me on what happens in an emergency and how you need to react in order to improve your chances of getting out alive.

Once we had time to compose ourselves, we went back into the simulator and debriefed the emergency. This set the record straight on what happens in a real emergency and allowed us to have our questions and concerns answered by the experts. Once again (read my first “Flight Safety” blog) it became evident that where you sit has an impact on your chances of survival, as does your awareness of the location of the nearest exit. The clear message being that you need to pay attention to the safety briefing, read the aircraft safety card and listen to the instructions of the cabin crew.

The course also taught skills that you ordinarily don’t get chance to practice. Like how to open the doors of an aircraft in an emergency. The front and rear doors are simple enough, you just need to follow the instructions and keep the momentum of the opening door going. But the over wing exits you get on smaller aircraft are not so straight forward. The first thing you need to know is that they weigh just under 20 kilos (40 pounds) and you need to open it whilst still sat in your seat. If you, or the person sat in the emergency exit window seat, don’t have the strength to lift that amount of weight whilst sat down, then you (or they) are in the wrong seat.

The next thing you need to know is that the door falls inwards and if you don’t get your head out of the way, you are going to get hit by 20 kilos of aircraft door. You also need to warn the people sat next to you to sit back, or they will get clobbered by said door. Then you need to have the strength to throw the thing out of the aircraft in order that you can get out yourself. Of course, before you do any of this, you need to make sure it’s safe to open the door in the first place and there’s not a fire just outside the window and remember to remove your seatbelt before attempting to leave the aircraft. All of this might sound obvious, but try doing it in an emergency situation where there is smoke in the cabin and people are screaming.

Other sessions of the course included what happens during a cabin decompression incident. Without going into too much detail, you need to ensure that your seat belt is always fastened while seated and you need to get that oxygen mask on as soon as possible. If you need any incentive, it’s worth highlighting that if you are not strapped in, you will end up floating around the cabin at best, and outside the cabin at worst. And if you don’t put the mask on, hypoxia will start to take effect after 15 seconds you will be fully unconscious within 45 seconds. That’s why you put your mask on before assisting others.

Ditching on water was another topic covered and one that has gathered more interest since Captain Sullenberger successfully managed to land US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009. Again, the overriding message was listen to the safety briefing, make sure your lifejacket is where it’s supposed to be and you know how to fit it properly. Then it was on to jumping down emergency evacuation slides.

For many people this was the highlight of the day. It’s not often you get to jump down a real evacuation slide without being in a real emergency, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. You don’t want to get this wrong, particularly on some of the larger aircraft, as it can be a long way down. You need to make sure you hold on to your clothing (where the collar of a shirt would be is good) and that you sit up, rather than lie down. When you get to the bottom of the slide, you need to move away quickly, or the next person down the slide is going to plough into you at speed. It might have been fun in a training situation, but if you had to do it for real, it most certainly wouldn’t be very amusing.

It’s a widely known fact that smoke kills long before the fire gets to you, but what was fascinating was being taken into a “smoke room”, which is configured to look like an aircraft cabin. The thermostat is turned right up and smoke is released into the cabin. The heat makes the smoke rise and at (standing) head height you can’t see a thing, but down on the ground it’s crystal clear. In a real emergency you need to keep low and follow the emergency lighting and do so quickly, but without panicking.

British Airways have taken the initiative in providing Flight Safety Awareness courses for ordinary people and there can be little doubt that the more people who are aware of what happens in an emergency, the more the chances of survival also increase. Understanding how to react to what the cabin crew are doing to manage an emergency is vital to anyone getting on an aircraft and hopefully you will now pay full attention to the safety briefing the next time you board a plane.

British Airways has an excellent safety record and that is testament to the training they provide their staff and now, passengers. People like Andy, Diane and Geoff understand that training and education is key to improving the outcome of a potentially catastrophic situation. This is not something that should be unique to the airline industry, but something that all industries and individuals should embrace.

The course concluded with a session on accommodation safety, but that’s another blog…………