Have you ever wondered why they bother to have a safety demonstration on the plane at all? A lot of people think ok, if the plane is going to crash what is the point of knowing any of these things. They’d rather skip the safety demonstration all together – for two reasons, one being the “It will never happen to me” attitude and one being that they find it annoying, repetitive and intrusive.
If you knew what I knew, you’d know watching that safety demonstration very closely might actually save your life. Not every incident on a plane is fatal. Incidents on a plane can *become* fatal if people haven’t been paying attention to the safety demo. Here’s a few things I think you should know. They may not be things you *want* to know, they may scare you a little. However being scared might make you a survivor instead of a statistic.
First of all, you need to know about hypoxia. At sea level there’s plenty of oxygen in the air. As you go up into the atmosphere, two things happen – it becomes a LOT colder, and there is less oxygen. Where commercial planes generally fly is between 30,000-40,000 feet and they do this for a lot of technical reasons which I won’t bore you with here. They are able to do this because the cabin you are travelling in is pressurized.
The moment the plane doors shut, air is pumped into the cabin to increase the air pressure within the plane. That means you can safely breathe, and the air is kept warm, and the plane can safely fly at high altitude without killing you. You may notice you have to swallow in order to make your ears pop.
However in air travel, things can and do go wrong. If they did happen to go wrong, you need to know this – at 30,000 feet, you have approximately 45-75 seconds to get on oxygen before you lose consciousness and will be unable to put your mask on. At 40,000 feet, you have between 10-30 seconds to put your mask on.
The safety demonstrations try oh so gently to not scare you, but in effect what they do is take away any urgency you should feel. There have been times when the masks have fallen from the ceilings in commercial jets and the passengers just sat there looking at them. Nobody made an effort to put their mask on. Lucky them, because in those cases there wasn’t anything wrong with the plane, but they *could* have died if there had been. So, that makes safety lesson number one –
IF YOU SEE OXYGEN MASKS DROP DOWN IN THE CABIN, PUT ON THE MASK FIRST AND ASK QUESTIONS LATER.
It’s better to look a little silly than to be very dead, would we all agree?
So why would the masks drop down, I hear you ask? What’s going to be wrong with the plane? Best case scenario is that something is wrong with the planes cabin pressurization system. Worst case scenario is that there has been an explosive decompression of some kind. That could be anything from a small hole in the plane to the plane missing an entire section.
If there has been an explosive decompression, there will be a fine mist in the air for a short time, things will be flying around in the cabin. You may experience intense pain in your ears especially if you have a bad cold or flu the pain caused by this cannot be described, it will make it impossible to think. Anything or anyone not tied down is going to fly around and might even get pushed out through the hole. So that makes safety lesson number two –
KEEP YOUR SEATBELT FASTENED ALL THE TIME YOU ARE SEATED.
It’s just good sense to do that and not just because of the possibility of explosive decompression, there could be turbulence, anything can happen. I’ve seen people thrown out of their seats during *taxi* from the runway to the terminal because the plane had to brake suddenly. That could end in tears – or even a broken neck. Have you been on a plane and heard all that seatbelt un-doing right after the plane lands? So that makes safety lesson number three –
DO NOT UNDO YOUR SEATBELT UNTIL THE PLANE HAS STOPPED AND THE PILOT HAS TURNED OFF THE SEATBELT SIGN (unless you are being ordered to evacuate the aircraft by the flight attendants).
You’re not going anywhere until the plane stops anyway, having your seatbelt undone won’t make you get off the plane any faster, so why take the risk?
If something did happen, the amount of time you’d be in shock because you were in “it won’t happen to me mode” could be the amount of time it takes to kill you. Many passengers die because they sat in stunned silence while the plane filled with smoke. It’s almost like they gave up – they thought well, the plane is crashing, that’s it, I’m dead, there’s no way I can survive this. People can and do survive. Safety rule number four is important and simple.
BE PREPARED FOR ANYTHING. READ. EDUCATE YOURSELF ON PLANE SAFETY. KNOW WHAT CAN SAVE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.
There are a lot of good aviation safety books out there. However there is one book which I believe should be on your bookshelf. It is called “Black Box” by Nicholas Faith. There are many excellent lessons to be learned from this book, even by non-aviation fans.
I know a fair bit about flying. I have absolutely no fear of it. What I fear is that the people around me aren’t going to have paid attention to the safety demonstrations, and they’re going to slow me down to the point I can’t get off the aircraft. Passengers have been known to try and collect their hand luggage in the event of an evacuation.
You know something? If you’re in front of me, and you’re trying to get your hand luggage out of the overhead locker, and we’ve been told to evacuate, I’m going to punch you, push you or KICK you, hard. I’m going to get you the F*CK out of my way, and I don’t care who you are or how important your stuff seems to you. You may be more interested in your laptop than saving your life, but I want to live, so get out of my way, get out of everyone else’s way, have some respect for the lives of others. Safety rule five therefore is –
IF TOLD TO EVACUATE, DO NOT DAWDLE. DO NOT BRING ANYTHING TO THE EXIT BUT YOURSELF. THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT WILL NEVER LET YOU TAKE IT OFF THE PLANE ANYWAY AND PASSENGERS MIGHT KILL YOU IF YOU GET IN THEIR WAY.
And PS – even if you don’t have travel insurance that covers everything you have on the plane, if your stuff is destroyed the airline will usually compensate you. And if you’re dead, you can’t use your stuff, so leave it where it is and get out of the aircraft. NOW.
I will leave you with this final thought and a few videos. On August the 22nd, 1985, a British Airtours Boeing 737-200 lined up for take off at Manchester airport. 130 passengers were on board. As the plane gained speed, there was a loud thump heard. The pilot thought a tyre had burst, so he aborted the take off, slowed the aircraft, and turned off the runway. He did not know the plane was actually on fire because parts of the engine had disintegrated and been thrown through the wing fuel tank. The evacuation was more difficult because most of the exits on the side of the plane that was on fire could not be used. 55 people died.
What surprised most people about this incident was that the plane never crashed. It never got off the ground at all. It was at an airport with an excellent fire fighting team who trained constantly and who arrived at the aircraft within moments, literally, of the fire being reported. This incident was one of the major factors in changing many things in aviation, from the materials used in building planes becoming less flammable to aisles and exits being made wider.
What does an evacuation of a big plane look like? Chaos really. This video shows the new Airbus A380 being evacuated. 873 people in 77 seconds. Can you imagine how much slower it would be if people were trying to get their stuff?
Chuck Yeager talking about another pilot experiencing hypoxia and how he helped save the pilot’s life.
Air Force Pilot undergoing hypoxia training
Further reading on plane crashes and how to prepare for them and potentially survive them – (all are PDF, so be patient while your browser loads them)
Am I Alive? One flight attendant’s heart breaking story of what happened when the plane crashed. I recommend you read it but beware, it pulls no punches and is disturbing in some ways. Tissues may come in handy, it sure brought tears to my eyes.
Training Saves LivesAnother flight attendant’s story.
United Flight 11 Explosive decompression and quite a lot of missing plane as well as 9 missing passengers.
United Flight 232 A long read but well worth it. Captain Al Haynes is one person I greatly admire, and you’ll see why if you read that.
You should also check out my previous post – what not to wear on a plane.