16 January 2009

Expect some changes to pre-flight safety demos

US Airways A320 in the Hudson moments after crash
Something dramatic happened yesterday afternoon in New York. 

Like everyone else, the aviation industry is delighted and relieved that there were no fatalities on the US Airways A320 that crash landed on the Hudson river, and they, like everyone else, are toasting hero-of-the-hour pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, and all those boatmen who got to the downed airliner passengers so quickly.

But there is another theme sweeping through airline community conversations this morning - amazement. 

Until yesterday civil aviation aircrews have viewed 'ditching' as a catastrophic and probably un-survivable prospect. Many cabin attendents have had mixed feelings about the compulsory safety demos that they encourage passengers to watch before take-off - especially all the reassuring procedures for landing on water, with nice orderly disembarkation onto wings, into life-rafts & detachable inflated evacuation slides, with all the passengers wearing their life-jackets neatly tied around the waist and not inflated till out of the cabin.

There have been rare examples of planes landing intact on the water, but the received wisdom passed down from instructors to crew is that jet airliners, particularly those with underwing engines, simply rip apart (starting with the wings) on impact with water, and sink quickly.

It has been an 'un-spoken truth' whispered between those in the galley - the 'elephant-in-the-room' at pre-flight safety demos - but yesterday's crash, in freezing Titanic-like conditions, demonstrated that it can be done.

Last night the aviation forums were abuzz with posts from pilots and aviation professionals singing the praises of Capt Sullenberger and his crew... AND the designers of the Airbus, who have built a new generation of airliner that is strong enough to withstand the impact while allowing the engine pylons to break off without pitching the whole aircraft over or ripping the wings off.

Next time you step on board an airliner, expect the pre-flight safety demo to be conducted with a little more enthusiasm and sincerity. 

Oh yeah, and expect your fellow passengers on internal flights to pay more attention to the arrangements for ditching in water, even if the flight is flying over land only... that assumption was exploded yesterday too!

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