April 2009 Issue

Putting It Down

When you absolutely, positively have to make an off-field landing, preparing the cabin and flying the airplane until it stops are key.

One of the more unpleasant realities of personally flown aircraft is that one’s exposure to the risk of coming to a stop in a fashion other than intended is higher than we care to admit. While many of us fly our entire careers without so much as a scratched airplane or an engine hiccup, others are not so fortunate. Those of us with an IQ above room temperature accept there is a true risk of being involved in a crash. Once the premise is accepted, the question becomes what to do about it. One answer is to think about it beforehand and act accordingly, especially when it comes to considering occupant protection, developing a personal checklist and preparing for when something ugly happens. Years of research and feedback from the school of hard knocks has shown time and time again that the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves in the event of a quick stop is to wear all of the available restraining systems in whatever seat we occupy. There has been full-scale human impact research going on since World War II, and it is absolutely consistent in its results: An unrestrained occupant has a lousy chance of surviving any kind of crash impact. Even low-speed collisions generate G loads in the double digits, and no human being in the world is strong enough to "brace" for those loads (nor prescient enough to predict their precise direction even if it were possible). A seatbelt is the first line of defense; it keeps the occupant more or less in the seat and stops a major killer in accidents—that of being thrown out of the vehicle. (And, as comedian Bill Cosby once noted, it helps the ambulance driver find you.) While folklore is full of anecdotes about people who survived because they were "thrown clear," inquiry into those stories has shown that virtually every one is a myth. A human isn’t designed to hit the ground, a tree or wall going 30 miles per hour, much less whistling along at 70. The degree of pulverization of bones, soft tissue and internal organs when that occurs is the stuff of which pathology textbooks is made.

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