Would You Survive a Crash?
I was sitting in the exit row of an AirTran 717 last week when I had one of those coincidences of threes that seem to occasionally lift life from the mundane. The flight attendant had just cleared the row of a mother and her daughter, the daughter being too young to legally occupy the seat. In a rare luxury, I had not just the entire row to myself, but the one across the aisle, too. Once the FA completed the obligatory exit-row briefing for an audience of me, she hung around for an idle chat. I pointed out to her that I was a bonafide exit row expert, having been trained in aircraft water egress by Survival Systems, Inc. in Groton, Connecticut. I even have a little card that says so. They have a big sophisticated Dilbert Dunker and train people operating and flying in helos in the oil patch. (Here's an AVweb video on it.)
While I was waiting for the cabin door to close, like most bored passengers, I was scrolling through my e-mail and found one from David Joyce in the UK. He had just completed a research project duplicating the findings of a ditching accident investigation I did in 1998, basically concluding that ditching survival rates for light aircraft are much higher than most people assume—about 80 to 90 percent. The results of his work will appear later this summer in the UK's GASCO Flight Safety magazine. Watch for it.
Having impressed the FA (not) with my expertise, it suddenly occurred to me that I took that training 14 years ago. Could I really remember it or was I just deluding myself again. (I do that a lot.) Well, I do remember it. Vividly. When you're dunked into a cold pool inverted, in the dark, strapped inside an aircraft fuselage from which you are expected to egress without drowning yourself or others, it tends to sear the memory cells. Plus, the survival bullet list is short.
Know where the exit is. I still count seat rows once I'm seated and usually read the safety card. I don't pay much attention to the briefing, but probably should. For a water landing, be ready for cold-water gasp, the tendency to inhale sharply if cold water immerses you suddenly. Tighten your seatbelt and remain seated until the aircraft stops moving. Find the door or exit release—by feel, if necessary—release or open it before releasing your belt. Then unbelt and clear the airplane. That's about it. It applies more to small aircraft and helos than airliners because large aircraft crash dynamics are different. But the underlying principles are the same.
One other thing I do is to read the exit release placard so I'll have some hope of activating it correctly in a fire or smoke situation. Research has shown that survival often turns on such small details. Someone once told me—and I can't remember if it was SSI or other training I got somewhere—that in a marginal situation, consciousness of survival is why some people live and some people don't. In other words, you have to know you are going to survive and to be harshly Darwinian about it, if I have to crawl over the back of someone to do that, I wouldn't hesitate.
A well-known study of a 1985 737 accident in Manchester, UK revealed that many of the 82 passengers who survived acted decisively when an engine fire engulfed the cabin. Some vaulted over seatbacks to get to exits while others hesitated. Fifty four people died.
By the way, the third coincidence occurred after I got home. Completely out of the blue, SSI called and said they have revised their training and would like to have me back again. It's on my to-do list.
Airline travel has become something to be endured rather than enjoyed. I try to get through the ordeal with minimal turbulence and grit my teeth if I have to make a flight change. Last week, I had to do just that and did so at the gate from my departure airport. I was pleasantly surprised when the agent made the change with a smile, easily found a flight that worked for me and didn't charge me a dime. What a relief.
Later, I wondered if it had anything to do with the way I was dressed. On a couple of travel sites, I've read that airline gate agents look favorably on people who are well groomed and polite. So I try to be both. This may be a complete fantasy, but even if it is, that's not why I've upped my sartorial game.
The fact is, the American traveling public is the largest collection of ill-dressed, coarse slobs on the planet. To sit in an airport is to watch a procession of flip-flops, track suits, too-heavy women (and men) in too-small shorts, ripped up jeans, sweat shirts and—my favorite—some teenager with his pants around his knees and his underwear exposed like a flag none of us want to see flown. I like to think of myself as tolerant, so let people wear what they want. I just don't want to be one of them. So I get out the pressed slacks, good shoes and a proper shirt. Sometimes even a suit jacket.
My wife says I'm turning into my father. Maybe so, but at least I'm a well-dressed grump.