I was recently seated in an airline cabin that began filling with smoke. I heard the captain's voice say we were making an emergency landing. I braced for impact: head down as close to my thighs as I could manage, hands protecting the top of my head. When it appeared we had stopped moving, I made my way through a smoke-filled cabin in the dark, opened an emergency exit door and slid down an inflatable chute.
Not necessarily in that order.
I did all that (and you can, too) over a six-hour time span, in the comfort of the British Airways' Safety, Procedure and Equipment building near Heathrow in London. Anyone with about $200 and a day to spare can sign up for BA's Flight Safety Awareness course and learn everything they ever wanted to know about airline safety in a full-motion cabin simulator where it seems that everything that can go wrong actually will go wrong. Those who complete the course come away with a very different point of view about many things, not least of all, the oft-ignored flight attendant safety briefing.
Please direct your attention to the flight attendant
Regarding that briefing: First of all, yes, listen to it and note where the exits are (and, contrary to what is said, not just the nearest ones). Check to see where your life vest is located, and touch it to make sure it hasn't been removed by a light-fingered passenger -- a not-uncommon occurrence. Though you won't be told to do so, fasten and unfasten your seat belt five or six times. More about that later.
And be aware, as you listen, that the announcement is woefully inadequate to prepare you for how a true emergency situation would look, sound, smell and feel or for what you should really be ready to do.
Before you read any further, it's best to remember that there was not a single commercial airline fatality as the result of an accident in 2012. Flying is a staggeringly safe means to get from one place to another.
But, just as sure as someone will win the lottery, there are people who will one day be sitting in an airplane that crashes or must ditch in water.
So should you, as a frequent flyer, take a flight safety training course?
You may as well ask if people who hopefully buy lottery tickets should take a wealth management class. Realistically speaking, the two courses will have about the same utility for most people.
Then why do it? Perhaps one of my trainers said it best: "We're anorakish." In the U.K., anoraks, the all-weather pullover, are associated with the nerdish and obsessive people who might, for instance, stand by perimeter fences near airports to watch planes take off and land. There is a subset of humanity who just can't, as laymen, learn enough about experiences incidental to flying in airplanes.
Also, according to the trainers, a fair number of civilians feel compelled to take flight-safety courses because they're control freaks.
BA first opened its crew flight-training programs and equipment for nonemployees in response to requests from global corporations -- petrochemical companies, primarily -- who were willing to pay to have their frequent flyers well prepared in case of an emergency.
Then, apparently, someone at the airline realized it's possible to monetize the anorakish and control freaks among passengers, as well. Think of flight safety training as the ultimate, and most expensive, ancillary service.
'Masks will drop down ...'
So what did I learn during my six hours?
• Knowing what I now know, I would think twice about heading for an exit row egress in an emergency, even if it's the closest exit.
• There is a circumstance in which I would dread having a beautiful flight attendant plop on my lap and say, "Hold me tight."
• And under no circumstances will I ever inflate my life jacket before leaving the plane following a water landing. Not because it might make movement more awkward in a tight situation, but because it would greatly increase the likelihood I will die.
Diane Pashley and Andy Clubb, the extraordinary trainers of the BA Flight Safety Course, said at the beginning of my training session that they would tell it like it is, and sure enough, they answered every question with disarming, sometimes alarming, candor.
For example: As you'll recall from preflight safety videos, in the event the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will drop from above. You are instructed to put on your own mask before helping others.
The imagery as these instructions are being given shows a parent calmly putting a mask on before helping her child in what appears to be an atmosphere as peaceful and well-lit as a library reading room.
In reality, however, if a plane loses pressure, it's quite possible that there is, for some unusual reason, a hole in the fuselage. Simultaneous with the opening of the hole would be a very loud bang, similar to what most people would think of as a bomb going off.
In this circumstance, as frigid air rushes into the plane -- at 37,000 feet, the outside air temperature would be about minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit -- any moisture in the air will freeze and become visible. This will look to most passengers like smoke.
Masks will drop down and, in a hidden overhead chamber, chemicals will mix together to create oxygen, which will flow down a tube and through a pouch which, as careful listeners know, may not inflate. But a byproduct of the creation of oxygen will be heat intense enough to burn the label off the chemical chamber and produce a burning smell.
So the stage is set: Passengers who believe they've just heard a bomb explode will see what they think is smoke and smell something burning.
Will they remain calm?
In reality, this picture comes short of conveying the full chaos that would ensue. In fact, the environment I just described above might still be closer in atmosphere to a library reading room than what might actually be occurring.
In addition to all of the above, the cabin would be filled with flying paper -- in-flight magazines, air sickness bags and yes, flight safety briefing cards -- and anything else that isn't strapped down: computers, food trays and, perhaps, flight attendants. If you'll recall from the video, four masks may drop down over a row of three seats. This is when a flight attendant might plop onto your lap, grab a mask and scream "Hold me tight!"
Although this may sound like an exciting first date -- perhaps something to tell your grandchildren about later -- there are other forces of nature that work against romantic feelings. A depressurized cabin is somewhat like a well-shaken can of Coke that has been suddenly opened. The physics behind the analogy work at the personal level as well as the fuselage level. Any extraneous gases and liquids that are not well secured within you and your fellow passengers -- and flight attendants -- will also be rushing out.
Knowing this, I now have one more reason to prefer a window seat over aisle.
Overwing exit? Maybe.
I mentioned above that I would now think twice about going out an exit row emergency door.
Why? After an emergency landing, the trained flight attendants will be manning the front and back doors (provided the doors are operational). On the other hand, the exit rows will be overseen by untrained passengers who may well be in a state of panic.
Should the passengers in that situation have the presence of mind to remove the emergency exit hatch, they will likely bonk their heads with it as they pull it loose. (Had my class not been warned to keep our heads back -- an unnatural and awkward position while pulling a 33-pound piece of metal free from its fittings -- I would very likely have given myself a lump.)
While passengers in the exit rows will be climbing over seats and maneuvering through a narrow space to exit over the wing, flight attendants will be hustling people out through much larger doors front and rear. Our trainers estimated that eight passengers get out of a front or rear exit for every one that gets out through an exit row.
By the way, the next time you enter a plane, look to the left of the door and you'll see a handle attached to the wall for no obvious reason. It's actually there to help keep the flight attendant from being pushed out of the plane during an emergency evacuation. In the midst of the rush and crush to the exit, the flight attendant must push open a door that, especially on older planes, can be somewhat heavy. If there's a lot of panicked passengers pushing to get out -- a likely occurrence -- the attendant is in danger of being swept away and out of the plane by the human tide, perhaps before the slide has inflated. The handle provides a measure of stability.
The crew, incidentally, is not required to stay until the last passenger is out. If the situation is life-threatening to crew members, they can go. "You stay until it is unsafe for you to stay any longer," our trainers said.
Don't inflate life vests. Really.
The one piece of the flight safety briefing that, previous to the class, I was most likely to disregard was the admonition to not inflate the life vest until outside the plane. I assumed the instruction was given because inflated vests would make a crowded, chaotic scene feel even more crowded.
But there's a critically important reason for this. In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines flight was hijacked and the pilot ditched the plane in the Indian Ocean rather than fly it into occupied buildings, as hijackers demanded. The vast majority of the 175 passengers survived the ditching, yet only 50 passengers emerged from the plane alive.
Why? Many of those who died had inflated their vests in the aircraft. The plane began to take on water after the exit doors were opened, and those with inflated life jackets floated up to the ceiling as the water rose. They were found drowned inside the plane.
Should a well-meaning passenger pull your cord to inflate the vest while still in the plane, stick your finger down the manual blow-up valve and let the air out. You can reinflate it with four breaths once you're outside the plane.
Our trainers said that, following a ditching, it might not be the best use of your time to stop and put on the life vest. Depending upon circumstances, a better strategy might be to just grab the uninflated vest and head for the exit. Presuming you can swim, get out of the plane quickly, then don and inflate the vest.
Seats and belts
The seat belt is "the best bit of kit on the plane," said trainer Andy Clubb. But simple as it is, things can go fatally wrong with it, as well. Clubb recommended that as soon as you get on the plane, fasten and unfasten the belt five or six times to implant a fresh memory about where the buckle is and how it works. He said that after a crash, some passengers are found dead, still sitting in their seats, belts buckled, even though most other passengers had time to get out.
Autopsies have revealed scratching and bruising along the thighs of these seated passengers. Investigators have theorized that, in a panicked state, these passengers went for their seat belt release as they would have in a car, clawing for a side-release button with increasing desperation.
The trainers were asked why, if flight attendants wear a four-point harness and pilots a five-point harness, passengers have only a simple lap belt.
We were told there are a couple of reasons. In reality, all planes would be inherently safer if passengers faced the rear: Since most crashes result in an abrupt halt of forward motion, it would be better to be thrown against the back of a seat than being whipped forward.
Four-point harnesses are designed for rear-facing seats that flight attendants sit in during takeoff and landing.
But paying passengers simply do not like flying backward. The first airline to introduce that feature would likely be out of business quickly, the trainers said.
And beyond that, they added, passengers would feel encumbered by a four- or five-point harness and be even less likely to wear their seat belts at times other than takeoff and landing, when there is a serious risk of injury due to clear air turbulence.
There were a number of other useful observations or pieces of advice or warnings passed along during the course:
Brace position: When assuming the brace position (leaning forward with your head as close to your thighs as possible, to shorten the distance your head will whip forward in a crash), also keep your heels back, tightly up against the bottom of your seat. Crash tests have shown that if your feet are out in front of you, there's a greater possibility of breaking your feet or ankles if they're thrown forward during a crash. If pushed farther back, feet are driven down rather than out.
Also while in the brace position, you'll put your hands on the back of your head to protect it. Keep your dominant hand beneath the other; if something does fall on you that possibly breaks or bruises the uppermost hand, you'll still have the use of your dominant hand.
Shoes: It's best to keep your shoes on, especially during the most dangerous times of the flight, takeoff and landing. In an emergency evacuation, after you exit you may find yourself on a rough, freezing or very hot surface. Once, passengers who descended barefoot onto a tarmac in Phoenix one hot summer day received burns on the bottoms of their feet. The only exception is that women should remove high-heel shoes before going down an emergency slide.
The emergency slide: While it would be fun to go down the emergency chute if you could first sit down and push off as you would on a child's slide, that would slow things down quite a bit. And to get flight certification, an airplane manufacturer must demonstrate the aircraft can be evacuated in 90 seconds. Even the Airbus A380, which can hold more than 800 people, had to pass the 90-second rule. For that aircraft, it took several attempts, but BA came up with a system that actually got everyone out in 77 seconds during a time trial.
The proper way to go down a chute is take a step out (or make a slight jump) and land on your butt. This can make people nervous, and the very first ones out will be most nervous of all: The attendant may be urging passengers to go before the slide is fully inflated. Even if somewhat limp, it will be inflated enough, but perhaps most disconcerting for the first passengers in line is that they will be ordered to go before the slide is touching the ground. The slide inflates outward, and the weight of the first passenger is usually what brings it to earth (or water).
Smoke: Although almost every item installed within an airplane cabin is flame-resistant, the presence of smoke is one of the gravest dangers an airline passenger can face. Smoke is likely to rise to the top of the cabin -- "the Guinness effect," our trainers called it -- but once people start moving around and through it, it will begin to move lower. It would not take many breaths of smoke, perhaps made all the more toxic by burning chemicals and plastics, before a passenger would pass out. The best advice is to try to stay low, beneath smoke.
I once met a woman whose husband had died in the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am 103, and she had made it her life's work to convince airlines and regulators that passengers should be supplied with personal smoke-proof hoods with oxygen tanks. In support of her position, she noted that flight crew are supplied with smoke hoods, and if they were good enough for them, why not for passengers?
I asked the trainers why smoke hoods were not supplied. Smoke hoods, they said, are not easily donned without training, and they would likely slow an evacuation. And if there was a lot of smoke present, a slower evacuation could mean even more deaths due to smoke inhalation. Like many safety procedures, they said, choices are often made between the better of two imperfect options.
I believe I am more anorakish than control-freaky by nature. My staff and family might disagree with that self-assessment, but I enjoyed the training course simply for its behind-the-scenes peek at flight safety-related issues, as opposed to feeling somehow reassured by the content. I went into it, and came out of it, comfortable with the statistically low incidence of in-flight emergencies.
I asked the trainers why the course isn't made into a feature-length documentary-style in-flight video option for long-haul flights. If they did that, they'd have more knowledgeable passenger base, and it would be a riveting way to pass the time.
"We're talking about planes burning, crashing and ditching," Clubb said. "Remember, we're an airline. There has to be a balance."
In other words, if someone is motivated by nerdiness or control issues, then fine, the airline will provide you with the flight safety backstory. But making it accessible to the masses might be too much for the rank-and-file flyer. "The last thing we want to do is scare anyone off flying," Clubb said.
British Airways is one of several airlines offering flight safety training for passengers. For more information about this course, go to www.ebaft.com.
Email Arnie Weissmann at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.