Okay, I’m back after moving all weekend. I have some adventures to relate, but first let’s close out my rant about flying in small planes and crashing and whatnot.
First, this was rather clearly a rant: I am very frustrated with accidents and people dying. This includes cars, airliners, space shuttles, etc, but especially small airplanes. Just doing a very quick and simple Google search, I found dozens of politicians and entertainers killed in small planes over the last 90 years. Most of them had to do with flying under bad weather conditions and/or otherwise using poor judgment (like running out of gas – that’s about as retarded as it gets).
This was my main point: use good judgment and common sense and don’t travel under poor conditions. I am not afraid of flying (in the last two years we have flown to Australia, Guam, Hawaii twice, LA twice, etc), although I am leery of small planes – all you have to do is go up in one and you can feel how susceptible to the weather, winds, reality they are. Of course they are more vulnerable than large commercial jets, just as canoes are more susceptible to the weather, tides, currents, aquatic creatures than are aircraft carriers: duh.
All of my historical facts about crashes and the like were as accurate as my research allows, but I would have thought some of my ranting and raving was rather obviously not to be taken literally, with such terms as “air brakes” and hands reaching out of the sky as indications of my frame of mind.
However, my point about parachutes on commercial flights was perhaps not as obviously rhetorical as I should have made it. So, just to make sure that my intentions are clear and my facts separated from bluster, please consider this letter I received from concerned citizen Troy Loney, who is an expert on parachutes:
- “If you are fortunate enough to survive an explosion in your car, you survive. If you survive an explosion at 20,000 feet, you have terminal velocity to look forward to. If NASA or the airlines really cared about people as anything other than cargo and revenue, they would issue each passenger a parachute, at least to even the odds.”
There are so many things wrong with this, I hardly know where to begin. I’ve been designing and testing parachute systems for a living for nearly thirty years; the payloads have ranged from tiny (flares) through medium-sized (people) to large (Shuttle — its landing brake parachute); half of this design work was for personnel systems, from skydiving equipment to pilot emergency rigs to specialized military gear, and it included ejection seat work. I’ve also made many thousands of jumps, a large fraction of them testing various items of parachute equipment, and participated in the training and supervision of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of skydiving students. I think I’m qualified to critique the concept.
Broadly, the problems with equipping commercial passengers with parachutes
fall into four areas: engineering issues, implementation issues, cost issues, and legal repercussions. They tend to be interrelated in complex ways, however, so I’ll sort of wander my way through from more-or-less the user’s point of view.
The short version is that equipping passengers with parachutes will enormously increase the cost of flying, while making the experience extremely annoying and uncomfortable; it will be effective as a lifesaver in almost no real-life situations, and the users will almost certainly be severely injured even when they manage to live; and the lawsuits resulting from its implementation will likely bankrupt the airline industry, along with any industries supporting the parachutes.
To begin with: passengers will be required to wear the parachutes from before the time they board the plane, until after they arrive in their destination concourse. There simply isn’t time in an emergency situation for them to don a parachute, insufficient room on the aircraft for everyone to do it, and they won’t know how to do it correctly in any event (think about falling out of the harness on opening, being injured during opening, being improperly positioned for landing — not to mention interfering with deployment of the parachute). There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all parachute — too large or too small a parachute for one’s weight results in dramatically increased injury rates — and the harness must be adjustable to properly fit each wearer; this means
1. The airlines will have to stock a large number of emergency parachute systems, in all the appropriate sizes, at each airport (which has interesting logistical implications, including the presently-mandated air/inspect/repack by an FAA-licensed rigger every 120 days, but there aren’t enough riggers or lofts to do this now);
2. Each passenger must be assisted by trained personnel while donning and
adjusting the parachute; take a first-jump course at any skydiving school if you don’t believe this. There are several fittings and adapters to connect (and only one way to do it right), straps to be adjusted and stowed, and the whole thing must be checked once it’s on the wearer; this will add hours to travel times, not to mention increasing staffing requirements (and it will probably result in lots of sexual-harassment suits, too);
3. While it’s conceivable (but not especially likely) that men could use the restroom at least for urination without doffing the parachute, women certainly could not; most of the previous step must then be repeated by trained personnel when the bathroom visit ends;
4. Even a very well-designed and fitted parachute will be uncomfortable for several hours’ wear (and perhaps injurious to the feeble), and will definitely wrinkle and possibly damage the wearer’s clothing. Oh, by the way: all women, regardless of personal preference or religious requirements, _must_ wear slacks — no skirts or robes allowed; ditto robes on men.
5. I could go into the issues with children, but why bother.
You might ask, why not build the parachute into the seat? Having every seat be an ejection seat simply won’t work — not only is it too expensive, but ejection forces often injure even trained military pilots and would certainly routinely injure and even kill untrained, out-of-shape civilians, but it’s virtually impossible to equip a passenger jet with that many ejection seats: no overhead storage allowed, hatches for each seat must be explosively jettisoned (what about controlling the aircraft while this is going on?), for which the airframe must be completely redesigned (not to mention weight goes through the roof) — and then a sizeable fraction of the passengers in the rear would hit the tail anyway…
So, why not just replace the seat cushion with the parachute and strap ’em in there? There are similar pilot’s emergency rigs made… but the problems of fitting and adjusting the harness remain, only this time it must be done in the aircraft instead of in the terminal, dramatically increasing time-at-gate. You can’t build automatic strap retraction devices into the parachute — they’d add too much weight and bulk to be practical. Then there’s the problem of keeping the parachute in the seat frame until the user needs to exit the falling aircraft, but making sure it releases properly (and easily, with no assistance) then and only then.
But assume you’ve managed all this, and everyone has a parachute — which I might add will weigh at least 20 pounds, thereby reducing the airliner capacity by 10% or more, but this is actually a very trivial point in the overall context of costs — the next big question is, how do we get everyone out of the airplane in case of an in-flight accident? With them surviving the exit, I mean.
The military allegedly does exits at airliner cruising altitudes, but that requires special equipment (including individual oxygen bottles) and protective clothing, and a whole lot of training. Temperatures are far below zero even before windchill gets added in, and freefall times down to more-survivable altitudes are long enough for frostbite to be very real — eyeballs and lungs included. Decompression (including the bends that SCUBA divers face) becomes a factor. The aircraft will have to descend to a reasonable altitude — under 20,000 feet for sure, but that endangers heart patients and asthmatics, so 15,000 is better (although still not safe for everyone) — before allowing passengers to exit. Otherwise, they’re almost certainly dead anyway, just from the cold and anoxia.
But that’s not the worst: the aircraft must slow to around landing speeds, because otherwise the passengers will receive severe injuries from the air impact alone upon exit. These are known as “flailing injuries” (which includes broken necks), and begin around 200 knots even for trained military personnel; above 400 knots even pilots securely restrained in ejection seats are usually killed. But airliners cruise at well over 500 knots… the aircraft must be under control during this slow-down and descent, then. Your “explosion” scenario, if at cruising altitude and airspeed, will kill even the passengers who are blown free of the aircraft.
Assuming the aircraft is in stable flight at an acceptable airspeed and altitude, getting the passengers out becomes the next issue. There’s the problem of the doors… after D. B. Cooper did his little stunt lo those many years ago, the government mandated changes in all airliners: it’s now impossible to open a door in-flight. So all that would have to change… and if it did, there’s still the problem of getting everyone out of the airplane; even ground-emergency exits using inflated slides result in many injuries, so imagine what an in-air exit will be like. The aircraft aren’t designed for such exits — leave from the forward door and you’ll likely hit the wing (or worse, be ingested by an engine), leave from the aft door and it might be the tail; don’t exit vigorously enough and
you’ll be slapped into the door frame, then the side of the aircraft; some planes have tail doors, but not many do. At best, exits will take place through two doors, and the passengers will slide down a pole like the Shuttle astronauts will have to; now, empty a plane of some 200 passengers at the rate of maybe one every 5 seconds (you won’t be able to run them out the door like exiting skydivers), and it takes many minutes to get everyone out. What you’ve actually required here is the control and time necessary to land the airplane… a better idea overall, I think.
Now, with everyone parachute-equipped and the aircraft prepared for in-flight exits, what do you bet someone’s going to remember ol’ D. B. and decide to emulate him? A bitch, isn’t it?
But let’s hand-wave our way though all that, and do the exit successfully. After everyone gets out, they have to open their parachutes. The users can’t be relied upon to do this — first-jump students, even after a day’s training, can’t reliably perform this task, and they’re jumping intentionally… this is why things like static lines exist. But we probably can’t use a static line here: the airplane’s not designed for it, unlike the military jumpships, and this isn’t a trivial issue. That means automatic openers at least. But who knows what the
distance to the ground will be? It’s cold at 15,000 feet, especially in the winter, and these people aren’t dressed for it — open the parachutes that high, and you’ll guarantee exposure deaths for a significant fraction of the passengers. More reasonable technology would be laser or radar altimeters and computerized controllers to optimize all the conflicting factors, and that’s expensive.
Remember: many — maybe even most — crashes occur at takeoff or landing, where a parachute won’t have the altitude to open. But that’s okay — there’s no time to get out, either.
I’ve yet to mention the problems of opening shock: go too fast when you open and the parachute gets torn apart (nevermind the structural damage to the wearer — just look where those leg straps go!), but a slow-opening parachute uses up altitude that isn’t there at both ends of the flight (or over mountains…). More expense, this time for sensing airspeed. Add in some method of controlling the parachute opening, too — the range of opening airspeeds is pretty large; not cheap, not cheap at all, and forget about reliability as the complexity goes up and up.
But assume it all does somehow work, and now a planeload of untrained, inexperienced, out-of-shape, overweight, pants-crappingly-terrified people are in the air under their parachutes. This means landing injuries. Back before the advent of high-glide student parachutes, first-jump students (self-selected and generally young and in okay shape, with a day’s training, mind you, including much practice in parachute landing falls from a platform) often broke ankles and fractured spines; but with high-glide parachutes, this planeload of people would run into each other as they zipped around the sky. Bad, bad ju-ju, as they entangle and collapse parachutes. And I haven’t even said the magic word “nighttime” yet… nor “clouds”, and forget about “ocean” and “hypothermia”.
I’ve saved the very worst for last, of course.
_Lawsuits_. If they live, they’ll almost certainly be injured, many times severely; then they’ll blame the airline for improper training and negligence. Skydivers sign waivers to protect the skydiving businesses, but those waivers are scary — if the airlines had to use effective waivers, it would scare off all but a small fraction of the flying public (about the fraction that already skydives, comes to think of it).
And if the passenger _didn’t_ manage to live, the lawsuit would of course come from the survivors — because the airline failed to save the passenger’s life.
(I recognize, of course, that the airline industry might lobby for exemptions — much like the HMOs have. But that would require the whole concept to be treated as a serious possibility…)
That’s just the “parachutes” part — the short version, actually, because I didn’t want to get too technical. The bottom line is that there’s no way airlines could afford to implement such a plan, but that’s okay because it couldn’t be made to work properly anyhow. Not even for the small turboprop aircraft that worry you so, where the problems are orders of magnitude smaller.
It’s not a matter of the airlines or NASA not caring, and you do them a monstrous disservice to insist it is. But, as I said — everyone else’s job looks easy.
That about takes care of that, I guess.