Aircraft Accidents and False Alarms

One of the worst things about being in aviation for so many years is that the ridiculous movies Hollywood puts out are so … ridiculous – yeah, I know I overused that adjective.  When I look at a movie, I tend to look beyond the explosions and campiness; I go right for the technical, because if it doesn’t make sense, I can’t believe it.  I’m not talking about Star Wars or Star Trek having a problem with sound being carried through the vacuum of space; they’re science fiction movies and, well, there have to be some liberties.

Recently, I was sitting next to a Mom and her 8-year old son on a flight.  The son was going on about a scene in the movie, Charlie’s Angels (2000) – I feel Mom was going to have a long talk with Dad about letting their son watch Charlie’s Angels, but I digress.  The boy was worried that someone would open the plane door in flight and subject everyone to danger.  Having seen the movie – hey, look, my wife said I could, and I’m old enough – I knew the scene he was worried about.  With Mom’s permission, I dispelled the boy’s fears about such a thing happening as impossible.  Outside of the nonsense Hollywood puts out these days, e.g. Flight, Eraser, Airport 1975, 1977 and 1979, the Media loves to make sensationalism out of the prosaic; they really want the travel industry to worry about the most mundane things, aviation-wise.

But let’s look at the Charlie’s Angels’ inflight door opening scene – (If you haven’t seen the movie, please stop reading and come back three paragraphs from now).  A character grabs a passenger, opens the entry door in flight before jumping out, tumbling through the air.  Now, this movie’s believability is so low, it doesn’t even register on the Believe-O-Gauge, e.g. why don’t they pass out from the thin air, why don’t they hit the wing, why don’t they hit the engine?  This five second scene is so chock full of ‘you-gotta-be-kiddings’.

Okay, the first thing to understand with a high-altitude jet airliner is that most entry doors, over wing escape hatches and aft stair doors are designed as ‘plug’ doors.  That means the access is designed to be bigger than the hole, pulling in and out of the way; or the width/height of the door decreases via mechanisms while opening to fit through the hole and go outside.  When locked in place during flight, it is prevented from opening by a series of lockbars; it is also held in place by air pressure.

At altitude, the inside cabin pressure is kept well above the air pressure outside.  The pressure acting on the doors or escape hatches is in the hundreds of pounds per square inch range, so each square inch of the door has hundreds of pounds of pressure holding it against the door jamb.  Unless Clark Kent decided to slum it for the Daily Planet and tried to step out for some air, the door cannot be opened by John Q. Public.  The media, however, makes a lot out of stories where people try to open the door inflight, but there’s no likelihood of this happening.

To give an example of the enormous air pressure on the inside of a jet aircraft, think to the Aloha Airlines flight 243, B737 accident on April 28, 1988, where half the airliner’s crown separated from the aircraft in flight.  The weakened crown’s structure gave way to the interior air pressure acting on it, blowing it out and away like a balloon.

Another myth the media has forwarded has been that an airliner has been in considerable danger if one of the two pilots becomes incapacitated, e.g. succumbs to a seizure or dies.  FACT: each pilot has been trained, ad nauseum, on how to land the plane he/she is flying you to Grandma’s on, by themselves.  Indeed, the two pilots take turns ‘flying a leg’; they alternate from one flight to the next flight with who is at the controls, so the training is supplemented almost on a daily basis.  You, as a passenger, will never know whose leg your being flown on: Captain’s or First Officer’s.  If their co-pilot becomes incapacitated, the lone pilot may request a flight attendant to operate the radios or assist in running a checklist, but each pilot has it well under control.

Even some aviation circulars run articles about the humdrum; these are issues that come up in flight that don’t rise to the level of, “Oh, really?  Um, wow.”  For instance, ‘Airplane blows tire during landing’ or ‘Engine shut down in flight’; these can be concerns, but when brought to the level of national attention, it becomes trivial and therefore desensitizes the public’s awareness of what is important.

If an engine should be shut down in flight, this is more of an issue when the aircraft is over water.  Airlines, wishing to cut flights shorter and save money, have demanded that the manufacturers of both airframes and engines, increase the technology.  As a result, almost all twin-engine airliners are now Extended Twin-Engine Operated – aka ETOPs – qualified.  This qualification allows only airliners so equipped, the ability to fly hours from land and out over the water, thereby cutting routes by hours and fuel costs exponentially.  If an engine should cut out during an ETOPs flight, the aircraft technology is so advanced that the aircraft can make it to land on one engine.  So even for an ETOPs flight, an engine out is becoming news that is not so important.

A tire blowing out on landing is also not too upsetting.  Airliners today are equipped with anti-skid and more than one tire per landing gear.  If a tire blows out, the pilots, again, receive copious amounts of training in dealing with such occurrences.  The threat to the airplane is minimal.

When the media makes ‘mountains out of molehills’; makes a big deal about less important events, they make important events, insignificant.  Imagine if everything that happened on an airliner was national news; wouldn’t we become immune to the real dangers, e.g. smoke in the cockpit or cracked windshields?

So, what are important events, at least to my experience?  I can think of two that the flying public sees every day.  Turn off the electronic devices when the flight attendant says to.  Airliners today, even though they may be 2/3 the length of a football field, are susceptible to the smallest electronic device signals.  When I started working on digital systems, we were required to wear wristbands that run static electricity to ground.  If not, we could fry electronic equipment worth thousands of dollars in repairs.  So, the next time your Uncle Nunzio, the self-proclaimed electronics expert, says that the whole thing’s a bunch of cow patties because his friend at the barber shop said so, take it from me: it’s not a joke.

The second important event the flying public sees is the abuse of the Americans with Disabilities Act, namely the increase in numbers of ‘comfort’ animals.  Untrained animals, e.g. cats, turkeys (yes, turkeys), Shetland ponies, pigs, certain dogs, inside a hollow tube during an emergency is a recipe for disaster, injury and death on a grand scale.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to escape a smoke-filled cabin under the best of conditions, you are missing something.  Try adding an untrained animal freaking out because it hasn’t been trained in an emergency situation …

Those are two problems I feel are important.  Popping doors open, flat tires, etc. are important, but only in scripts.  As travelers flying in today’s world, we have more important things to get alarmed about.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and False Alarms”

  1. Great article Steve, thanks for the word’s of wisdom and helping to educate the public regarding flying safety!

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