By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the August 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Getting out of an airplane in an emergency is not something we spend a lot of time pondering or practicing. However, it represents a specialized subset of knowledge of which we should all have awareness and expertise. Consider all the time we spend practicing power-off landings, and how likely it might be that we would need to promptly exit the aircraft following such a scenario should it occur in less-than-ideal conditions. Perhaps we should think more about what could go wrong for us and our passengers in such a situation.
Every year, as part of our annual training, the pilot group I work with goes through emergency egress training. We open one of the emergency windows, and each of us has the opportunity to exit through it. This firsthand experience gives us a better sense of what we might be up against in an actual emergency. While this might not be part of our flying protocol, perhaps we should all consider it as foundational training at least somewhere in our flying career — preferably sooner than later.
As we learn, some egress may require an unlikely modicum of “human origami” — folding ourselves into an uncomfortable position to slither through the narrow exit. While younger people may not have much of a problem with the exercise, those of us who are more “experienced” might not be quite as nimble and flexible, making the process a bit more challenging.
Of course, exiting through a window is not the first obstacle we might need to negotiate in an emergency. No matter how well we explain to our passengers how to open the exits (even the normal doors), when it comes time to do it, they often fumble and need assistance. This can be especially true for doors that have multiple latches. A better tactic might be to have them practice opening the door before we ever start the engine. We don’t need to get them worried or anxious, but maybe we could suggest, “Hey, give that door latch a try and make sure it opens up okay.” No need to mention words like “emergency,” “fire,” “crash,” or anything like that. Just frame it up as a simple test to see if the door works right.
Emergency window exits found on some general aviation aircraft can present even greater challenges. First, most passengers will be unfamiliar with their operation. Following the shock and adrenaline of a forced landing, a passenger could be dazed, confused, or panicked. This is no time to be deciphering the small print on the placard or thumbing through the pilot’s operating handbook. There may be a pin to pull, a bar to raise, or other mildly complex and unpracticed mechanical element involved. Not long ago, when practicing emergency egress, we were surprised when rather than pulling the window out of the rubber grommet as expected, the emergency exit handle simply snapped off a chunk of the emergency exit window. In the heat of an emergency, such a scenario could be disconcerting to those seeking rapid egress.
Aircraft seat belts are not as familiar to many passengers as they were in years past. Most cars have shoulder harnesses with inertia reels, rather than the old-school manually adjustable lap belts found in most small aircraft. Not only do we need to instruct our passengers to tighten the belt by pulling on the loose end of the strap, but also we need to show them how to lift the tab on the buckle to release, rather than pushing the red button common on most car seat belts.
One of the more troubling scenarios requiring emergency egress from an aircraft is an emergency ditching. The luckier pilots (and passengers) will land on calm waters and float right side up while a leisurely exit is performed, perhaps stepping out into ankle-deep water covering the wing. The sun is shining, it’s warm, and the Coast Guard is just a few minutes away.
Murphy’s law might suggest a more likely scenario. The aircraft flips inverted and submerges. Never mind if it’s pitch black and the water is icy cold, an inverted, submerged scenario will leave most of us over our heads unless we have the proper training and recall a few important tips as we regain consciousness and find water rushing into the cockpit. Escape in this scenario is a bit more difficult than suggested by the action movies we watch on TV, and professional egress training can increase our odds of survival considerably. Consider the following insights.
First, we should have completed some physical referencing practice to know where to find the door handle, such as placing our hand on our left knee, moving it left to the door panel, and then “upward” to the latch (note that this will be different for different pilots in various aircraft). Then it’s good to recall that we don’t want to release our seat harness until the inrush of water is over (take a deep breath just before our head goes underwater), and until we get that door open and have one hand outside the cockpit. Then we can release the harness, the loose end of the strap having been tucked away before the flight so we can find the buckle blind while floating underwater.
Finally, we pull ourselves clear of the cockpit, pull the auto inflator on our life vest (which of course we were wearing), and raise our hand over our head to protect us as the now-buoyant vest speeds us to the surface.
Safety and Survival
The need to make an emergency exit from an aircraft might suggest a need for other equipment as well, so it can be important for passengers to know where to find key items and how to use them.
Just in case the emergency exit handle breaks off in someone’s hand, or the doors are jammed from the impact, it might be good for someone to know where the fire extinguisher is located. Some experts suggest that the fire extinguisher is much better suited to the job of smashing out a window than extinguishing fires in flight. Either way, it can be a handy tool.
Among the key survival elements that might be pulled from a downed aircraft are the first aid kit (which should include instructions for those not trained as an EMT), blankets, warm clothing, and water. Signal flares and a handheld radio can also be handy items for helping guide would-be rescuers to the scene.
Just in case the emergency landing wasn’t rough enough, it might be good for someone to know about the emergency locator transmitter (or ELT), such as what it is, where to find it, and how to turn it on. This can be a great way to draw attention and get a rescue effort initiated.
Luckily for us all, the need for an emergency egress from an aircraft is a rare situation — perhaps one that we will never face in person. But a few friends of mine have found themselves in such a dramatic situation. As they might tell you, it’s good to be prepared when it’s time to get out.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.