Survival Training: Airplane Evacuation

Flight attendant. Photo by Tom Purves. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

In the last post, we reviewed Amanda Ripley’s book The Unthinkable, which urges all of us to become more aware of emergency situations and be psychologically and physically prepared to handle them. In the book are several suggestions with regard to escaping from airplanes that I found very helpful and wanted to pass along. We are going a little off topic from our change theme but bear with me, we’ll get back on track next week.

As we know from Ripley’s work, one of the biggest problems the average person faces in an emergency situation is paralysis, i.e. being so overwhelmed by a situation that the person does nothing rather than using the precious time available to do something that might save one’s life. This is especially true in the case of airplane evacuations. Ripley indicates in her book that many times an airplane crash or fire is survivable but you have to move quickly and get off the plane as quickly as possible. The brief training you get in the airline safety presentation at the beginning of a flight does not do much to tell you some of the most important and very simple things you need to know.

While I have never been involved (and never hope to be involved) in an airplane crash, the first airplane business trip I took required an emergency landing and the lessons Ms. Ripley teaches would have helped me tremendously in that situation.  So below are 6 tips on airline emergency preparedness garnered from Ms. Ripley’s research and my own experience.

1. During an airplane emergency, it is likely that the captain will not be communicating with passengers at all and you need to sit calmly and quietly and be ready to help yourself rather than waiting for instructions.

In my situation, we were about an hour into a commuter jet flight, when suddenly the oxygen masks deployed. Since this had never happened to me before, my blood pressure immediately increased and I looked around the plane anxiously. My fellow travelers, all middle-aged men who appeared to be veteran business travelers, noticed the masks but didn’t seem to be doing anything about them. I looked across the aisle and asked a man, “Should we put these on?” He shrugged indicating he had no idea.

There was no communication from anyone for a very long time. The flight attendant looked as perplexed as the rest of us. I naively assumed that they all must have been through this type of experience before and since this was my first business flight I should follow their example. Now that I know about the normalcy bias and the natural unwillingness to be the first to make an action that could be perceived as panicking, I would trust my own instincts before I would look to anyone else for guidance.

2. If the oxygen masks ever deploy in flight, put one on immediately. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to do so or for other passengers to do the same.

Ms. Ripley informs us that in the event of rapid cabin decompression, you have only 10-15 seconds to get that oxygen mask on before you are at risk of passing out. This is why they tell you in the safety briefing that if you are traveling with children you should put your own mask on first before you help your children. So if the mask comes down, put it on right away.

During my fateful flight, there wasn’t a rapid decompression but rather a gradual failure of the ventilation system. When we took off, we all noticed that the plane was a bit hot. The pilot told us that things would cool off once we were in flight. Little did we know that this was the first sign that the ventilation system in the plane was not working correctly. I later learned that the heating and cooling of the plane is directly tied to the pressurization of the cabin so if you don’t have air conditioning you are at risk of losing pressurization and oxygen.

About 5 minutes after the oxygen masks deployed, the pilot came on the intercom telling us that the ventilation system was malfunctioning and that we should put the masks on as a precaution. This was my first experience with these oxygen masks. I was not prepared for what I experienced. First, the flow of oxygen is very weak. You don’t feel a rush of air or really have much sense of whether the mask is working at all. For some reason, I assumed that the emergency oxygen supply in a plane was in some sort of large air tank in the ceiling. It turns out the supply is a small canister about the size of a mailing tube in the ceiling above each seat. The oxygen is generated by a chemical reaction in the tube rather than a tank of air.

Also, since these oxygen masks are rarely used, they were not in the best condition. Many of the masks did not seem to be working. Fortunately, this was not a full flight so many passengers could simply change seats until they found a mask that worked. The flight attendant advised us that we might need to tug on the plastic cord a little to get the oxygen flowing. Many people pulled the cord so hard it came out of the canister and due to the heat of the canister could not put it back in without burning fingers.

3. If there is a problem during your flight, chances are the first thing that the pilot will be doing is trying to land the plane as soon as possible. Don’t be immediately alarmed if the plane is rapidly descending.

Nobody likes the sensation of rapid descent in an airplane. In my situation, with no information coming from the captain, it took all of my concentration to breathe slowly and focus on whether oxygen was flowing into my mask. When the plane started suddenly descending, my heart was beating so quickly and all I could do was pray, “Please God, don’t let this be my time to go.”

Fortunately, there was no panicking on the plane. All of the men around me seemed almost numb to the situation. It was very quiet and I watched in horror as the plane was edging lower and lower to a completely unfamiliar rural landscape below.

It would have been tremendously reassuring if the captain or flight attendant had been able to communicate with us that the the reason we were descending so quickly was that we needed to get to an altitude where oxygen can flow in the plane without pressurization. The oxygen supply lasts only a short while, maybe 30 minutes. This information came much later after we had already descended to the “safe” altitude.

The pilot then made an emergency landing at a small, rural airport–again with no communication to the passengers. We had no idea where we were until we pulled up to the gate to unload.

4. If it becomes necessary to have a crash landing, after the plane comes to a stop, you need to focus on getting out as soon as possible.

Based on Ms. Ripley’s research and interviews with survivors, you learn that those who survived plane crashes are the ones who immediately unbuckled their seat belts and headed for the exits as soon as the plane crashed without waiting for any formal instruction. Many times people are so stunned by what happened they just sit there in their seats waiting for instructions or paralyzed by shock. Again, yelling at people to get out, is often enough to shock people back to their senses. Calm evacuation goes much faster than when people scramble to climb over seats and rush the exits.

5. Never stop to grab a carry-on bag or any other items when it is necessary to evacuate an airplane quickly.

When it is time to get out quickly, too many people stop to grab their carry-on bag and take it with them off the plane. Ms. Ripley indicates the carry-on bags are tremendously dangerous in this situation. If the cabin is full of smoke, people end up tripping over the bags and the bags become weapons when they are flung down emergency slides toward other passengers waiting below. Let that bag go and just focus on getting the people out. If you ignore this rule, you could end up causing your own death or someone else’s.

6. If it is necessary to use the emergency slide at the exit, mentally prepare yourself to fling yourself down that slide as quickly as possible without pausing at the exit to contemplate the view.

Women, apparently we are the worst offenders of this rule. Delaying at the exit means less time for everyone else to get out. We need to risk minor injury getting out of the plane to avoid harm to ourselves or others by being too slow.

For an inspiring example of all these tips in action, check out the recently released video from the National Geographic channel on the famous landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1919 in the Hudson by Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles.

Have an airplane survival story or tip? Please share in the comments.