I have developed a full-up phobia about airplane seatbelts possibly tending toward a tinge of hatred. YouTube is the cause of this, but so are airplane manufacturers. Like the automobile industry before them, airplane designers and builders have generally viewed seatbelts—or at least their design and execution—as an afterthought. There are some exceptions and also some progress.
What YouTube has to do with this is this: The Rule of 30 Minutes holds that within that time frame if there’s the slightest thing wrong with the seatbelt design, fit or deployment, the people sitting in darkened basements watching this stuff will comment on whatever transgression they have observed. Now, when that I get into an airplane to shoot a video, I am careful to fit the belt as well as it can be fitted, given whatever design limitations it may have. And these are likely to be more than trivial. But sometimes I forget.
It’s not that I have a thin skin or anything or that I particularly care what a YouTube commenter thinks. It’s that they’re often right and I’d prefer to not plunge into the panel in a crash or suffer internal injuries of some sort. That’s what can happen with badly fitted seatbelts. A recent egregious example was the gyroplane I flew for last week’s video. I’m reproducing a frame of it here.
Note how the belt cuts a sharp angle across my chest and terminates far too high on my left side, almost under the armpit. The edge of that belt was cutting into my neck constantly and in a crash, it would exert even more side force into the neck. It probably would prevent submarining—the process of sliding out of the belt from the bottom. But otherwise, it’s just poor ergonomics, like the company just gave up on finding a better solution.
A month ago, I actually killed a video for this very reason. But I’m resurrecting a frame to show you why. It was in a video on the Velocity experimental aircraft. The belt design is not too bad as these things go; the shoulder component is reasonably positioned. But like so many belts of this design, it takes effort to get the lap portion down low on the hips, where it’s supposed to be. In addition to having the shoulder strap twisted, the lap and buckle are too high, hitting me just below mid-chest. Mea culpa. This is operator error that I should have caught. I hated it enough to bury the video forever. And for the record, I would install four-point belts in anything I built or own.
And for all its creakiness and old age, our Cub has exactly that. It does take effort to get the lap strap low, but we’ve got dual shoulder harnesses with a nice spread to keep them off your neck. I use ‘em, too. And I get them so tight I can’t reach the carb heat. So I have special stick to reach forward and do that.
I was all prepared to ding Cirrus on their substandard seatbelt but then, as Warner Wolf used to say, I went to the videotape. Faulty memory. The Cirrus belts are excellent four-pointers that have just the right angle to stay off your neck and remain comfortable without being too difficult to adjust. I must have been thinking of another new airplane.
I’m a not a big fan of the airbag seatbelt. Effective or not—it probably is—I don’t like the weight and bulk of it. Someday in the future, I wonder if Cirrus or some other manufacturer will develop a proper panel-mounted airbag. I know, I know … what if that goes off in the landing flare? Or at glideslope intercept? Actually, not a problem. You’d be well protected for the subsequent crash.
I have been asked from time to time to write something on the crashworthiness of various airplanes. I have resisted doing this because the data to analyze it fairly is fleeting at best. If the industry hasn’t cared much about good seatbelts, it cares even less about collecting data on why people die in crashes.
In most accidents, the NTSB is kind of binary about it. Were there bodies? Yes? No? Let’s look at the mags. These days, we’re more interested in the latest data revision for the glass than, you know, actually surviving flying the thing.