Would You Survive a Crash?

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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.

AirTran Kudos
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.

Comments (26)

"The fact is, the American traveling public is the largest collection of ill-dressed, coarse slobs on the planet"

Paul, maybe they look like scum because they are being treated like scum. People must suffer all the indignities of a common prisoner just to get to the gate. Why get all dressed up to go to a place where even the waiting area seats are specially designed to not let you get comfortable?

As far as having passengers being responsible for operating aircraft hardware, that will always be a weak link. I guess airlines save money by letting passengers fend for themselves in the most critical situations.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 14, 2012 7:38 AM    Report this comment

Personally I would rather open the door myself to escape a fire than wait for a flight attendant that may be unconscious or dead. Being prepared in case of the worst is something we all should do whether we are flying around the patch or commercially. Kudos to you for dressing like a human being instead of someone going to the gym or laundromat.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | June 14, 2012 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Nice commentary that applies broadly to commerical as well as GA. I'm curious, WHAT ARE YOUR THREADS MADE FROM? You didn't mention in your article the number of accidents where horrific burns occur because synthetic fibres melted and became one with skin. When I fly I dress comfortably, neatly, and in 100% natural fibre.

And yes, I strongly believe that polite behavior (with the crew and passengers) is important in setting the stage for good outcomes.

Posted by: John Townsley | June 14, 2012 9:17 AM    Report this comment

Not sure I buy the claim that the airlines treat us like scum. Customer service could be better, that's for sure. But it's more often adequate to good than it is awful. That's well above the scum level.

And besides, the pax in first class look just as bad, usually and they certainly aren't being treated like scum as they sip their wine and drinks while the hoi polloi shuffle back to the cheap seats.

And if I ever surrender my self-esteem and dignity to the point that that I feel it proper to expose my ass crack in public as retribution, someone please just shoot me.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 14, 2012 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Shirts I wear are 100 percent cotton. I have a bunch of them. All black. Khaki dress pants also cotton, although a couple of them are blends that are mostly cotton. Sometimes you have to make a compromise and the risk here is low enough to justify it.

This relates to the consciousness of survival I mentioned. Habitual lower-risk choices can make a difference.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 14, 2012 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Sorry, no soup for you on this one, Mark. The great unwashed look that way at every venue I can think of besides maybe a job interview. Though I will concede a certain dumbing down of many Americans who constantly prompt me to mentally repeat to myself 'does he/she really think they look good like that?' Yes, I know, they could care less how they look to me. Too many with distorted views of freedom.

My concern has always been desert and mountain survival and I think I am fairly well prepared for those terrains. Never really gave water much thought, but the short checklist is good and easy to remember. I just hope if I'm struggling to free my seatbelt one eventful day while mustering all the controlled panic, or consciousness of survival I can, some guy doesn't knee me in the back just as I break free. He'll immediately feel the reality of social Darwinism full strength. :)

Another thought: fat is less dense than muscle and bone, maybe try and sit near the heavily endowed if the aircraft is sinking fast. Just saying.

Posted by: David Miller | June 14, 2012 12:23 PM    Report this comment

I am old enough to remember air travel before it sank to the level of a third-world bus ride. Back in the fifties passengers dressed well and put on their Sunday manners. Now it has all the gentility of a rugby scrum. Still, like Paul, I prefer to dress "business casual," not to try to impress anyone but old habits die hard. Having seen how nicely some synthetic fabrics burn as well as how it feels when a shirtsleeve is flaming, I only wear natural fabrics or Kevlar for both personal flying as well as commercial. In fact, I have seriously thought about having traveling outfit made of Kevlar.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 14, 2012 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I have concerns with passengers with multiple carry-on items. This seems to be a really bad problem with pax from developing countries. I feel I can walk over anyone retrieving their carry-ons.

Posted by: Douglas Irvin | June 14, 2012 1:15 PM    Report this comment

"The fact is, the American traveling public is the largest collection of ill-dressed, coarse slobs on the planet" Sorry Paul, as a ob/gyn doc who takes care of pregnant woman, you are wrong. Unfortunately.

Posted by: SCOTT PETERS | June 14, 2012 3:00 PM    Report this comment

Personally, I dress "casual" because I don't have that many nice clothes, and I'm not going to mess them up in a grubby airline seat, spilling airline food in my lap with turbulence, wrinkling the heck out of them so I look terrible at my destination. I suppose I could wear one suit and take another, but I don't see it happening. On an unrelated topic, the driver's license medical--while it's not a bad idea, limiting it to 180 HP and VFR means it's not going to be helpful for practical use of the airplane. Serious travel always includes the risk of IFR, and a medical that won't allow that won't help.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | June 14, 2012 3:26 PM    Report this comment

Denims, T shirt and Takkies. Had my fill of formal dress retired now with my own income generator so you have to take me as I am ;)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 14, 2012 5:14 PM    Report this comment

Who knew, doc? An endless parade of hairy 60 year old men in tank tops, crudely tatooed arms jutting out of t-shirts that say 'You should die' and jabba rolls frighteningly coming toward you would be second best in show...

No worries for you, Bruce. Paul correctly left out the Europeans, we alone hold the award. Unless imprinted on your t-shirt it says 'You should die' :0

Posted by: David Miller | June 14, 2012 6:54 PM    Report this comment

Nothing wrong with being a little grumpy.
It means you have standards that you won't compromise.
As an aviator, you should take pride in that.
I know I would.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | June 14, 2012 9:51 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for the kind words. I may only be dressed in denims but try to look a million dollars it's all about how you dress not what you wear (no tatooes). I'm very particular with the material I choose don't want to be burning after I've left the flame.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 15, 2012 4:17 AM    Report this comment

>>Paul, maybe they look like scum because they are being treated like scum. People must suffer all the indignities of a common prisoner just to get to the gate. Why get all dressed up to go to a place where even the waiting area seats are specially designed to not let you get comfortable

Posted by: LARRY ANGLISANO | June 15, 2012 6:16 AM    Report this comment

"who do you think is going to get better service? Someone wearing their pants around their knees ..or someone dressed and groomed neatly"

NEITHER. Everyone regardless of dress has to nearly undress before boarding. You further cannot reason with TSA over keeping a bottle of water or even ask them why you have to throw away your 6oz toothpaste but two 2.5 oz toothpaste tubes would have been OK. How you are dressed also does not give you a better chair in the terminal nor the aircraft.

There is no "service" any more; there is forced compliance and uncomfortable seating. Might as well dress comfortably if you have to endure 5 hours block time of discomfort...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 15, 2012 7:14 AM    Report this comment

Fraser, your life must be a living hell. TSA takes away your water and you have to take off your shoes--since when is that nearly undressing?--and you seem to fold like a cheap suitcase. Buck up and show some resilience, will ya? If they offend you further, will you respond in kind by mooning the scanner operator?

I'm not the slightest bit uncomfortable in my biz casual and I have never, ever ruined clothes because of a dirty airline seat, although I have smeared oil on pants from checking it in the Mooney and spilled avgas on my shoes. Ruined a shirt changing an alternator on a trip.

As for the seat itself, excepting RJs, an airline seat is no less comfortable than that in a 172. What's miserable is the seat pitch. And why is that way? Because airlines try to make profits on flying around seats for below cost and so they try to stuff more people in the same volume. Now that fares are up and unbundling is all the rage, you can buy more leg room. How about that?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 15, 2012 8:42 AM    Report this comment

I got some e-mail on this topic in the background that provides perspective. This from a flight attendant: "Most common is "too fat to fit". Not only do passengers book an exit row, they ask for seatbelt extensions, and even steal them from other planes so they can use them surreptitiously after we walk away. The people who don't want to put away their electronics or stow their bags under the seat. The gangbangers with their pants down sprawled out listening to their music. Senior citizens who want me to put their bag up for them but want to say they can operate a 45lb door. My favorite medical emergency was the overweight man in the emergency exit who had a seizure while we were on final into ATL. He had decided it was time to quit smoking and the Nicoderm directions of one patch on the arm weren't sufficient, so he placed three over his heart."

He could write a book, I'm sure. The point here is that I would hope and I am encouraging the readers to not be the dumb asses who do these sorts of things under the banner of supposed mistreatment and lack of what you consider proper customer service.

To me, dignity and self-esteem comes from inside and it's a given, not governed by what others do or do not do. Dress is only a minor part of it.

If you really start feeling sorry for yourself, read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken to understand how a person can maintain dignity and self-respect in circumstances far more trying than having to remove your shoes in a security line.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 15, 2012 8:50 AM    Report this comment

>>To me, dignity and self-esteem comes from inside and it's a given,

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 15, 2012 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Retired now, so no more commercial flights. Did Rany when still in business.

Best flight ever; The first leg of PanAm Flight 1 (it flew around the world). Equipment, New 747. Seating, First Class in one of the two seats just in front of the spiral stairway to the upper deck with an open bar. Stewardess' (correct terminology back in the day) pouring you wine or champaine when you glass was empty. Food, steak or lobster cooked on-board in a real galley below the main deck.

The only flight I recall getting home too early on.

Crash survival when personal flying, do our damndest to get down in our piece. Alway wear shoes sturdy enough to hike 20 miles or more, always wear a durable cotton shirt with long sleeves, have a hat available and bottled water on board.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | June 15, 2012 11:54 AM    Report this comment

Not to be pedantic, but "Stewardess' (correct terminology back in the day)" isn't quite true - the plural of stewardess is stewardesses, not stewardess'.

But I understand what you mean. I recall flying on an older airliner (a 707, I think) and noticing that the call button still had a mini-skirted icon.

And I envy you for your flight!

Posted by: Rush Strong | June 15, 2012 12:19 PM    Report this comment

When I was first learning to fly, I was with my instructor approaching the North Shore of Long Island when I noticed the oil temp gauge buried in the red. I pointed to it and said, "We need to turn back." He agreed. But before I said that, my first thought was, "If this engine blows, I'm putting it down on the beach, I don't care what he (my instructor) says." That was a survival instinct--I intended to save me, not the plane.

BTW, Paul, you may be turning into your father, but my 84 year old father just criticized me for wearing socks in the Summer saying, "That's not cool."

Posted by: Thomas Reilly | June 16, 2012 1:21 PM    Report this comment

"BTW, Paul, you may be turning into your father, but my 84 year old father just criticized me for wearing socks in the Summer saying, "That's not cool."

LOL! It's not so bad as long as you don't wear them with sandals. Also, it's considered more fashionable to wear the shirt out, not tucked in.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 17, 2012 2:18 PM    Report this comment

And here I was thinking I was a follower of fashion! But got to have the shirt tucked in. Once flew with shorts (and the last time)left the aircraft with sunburnt legs what a pain ;)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 17, 2012 2:26 PM    Report this comment

I think there is a growing safety problem on LoCo Airlines, I think. Some of them are reserving the exit rows for passengers who pay a substantial premium. On our tour of East Asia recently we were on at least five flights where the exit rows were not occupied at all even thought the aircraft was almost full.

This means delay (and no training, for the first at the exit, in at least a couple of cases the people in the next row were unsuitable (old or with kids) but of course that is not seen as a problem.

On the other hand we got the exit row on our ANA Saigon to Tokyo for free. It was very comfortable!

Posted by: Chris Vernon-Jarvis | June 28, 2012 12:31 AM    Report this comment

Interesting commentary. So, what's your take on GA pre-takeoff passenger briefings? Do you do a detailed brief, or just hit the required items on the assumption (which I've heard more than once from part 91 AND part 135 pilots) that the passengers don't really listen anyhow...

Posted by: John Townsley | June 30, 2012 7:33 PM    Report this comment

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