Steep consequences, life-saving tips: Survive an accident

September 23, 2011

A gruesome photo of an aircraft accident victim with a hole in his chest, only part of his heart remaining (and it visible in the open cavity), graphically illustrated to hundreds of pilots the importance of wearing shoulder harnesses during Dr. Ian Blair Fries’ seminar, “How to Save Your Life in an Aircraft Accident” on Sept. 23 during AOPA Aviation Summit. The human body is surprisingly resilient, able to withstand up to 40 Gs when properly restrained, but certain precautions must be taken.

Notepads and electronic devices at the ready, pilots nearly filled the 600-capacity room to learn and adopt the safety practices that could mean the difference between life and death in an accident. The seminar focused on tips that go beyond emergency procedures checklists.

Don’t play with fire

When it comes to aircraft fires, don’t play around. According to Fries’ accident statistics research, fire occurs in about 8 percent of accidents; however, if there is a fire, the fatality rate is more than four times greater. An indicator of a fire—other than the obvious, smoke—is multiple system failures. Even if you identify and extinguish the fire, don’t continue to your final destination. Land at the nearest airport.

And if you make a forced landing—on or off the airport—with a fire, exit the aircraft as soon as possible. Fire only stops burning when it runs out of fuel. However, pilots sometimes forget that “If you are in the plane, you are fuel,” Fries said.

Maximum trim glide

Many pilots are taught to establish best-glide speed in the event of an engine out. But the speed varies with aircraft weight, so Fries, a pilot and aviation medical examiner, recommended what he calls “The Fries Technique.” Pilots should practice at altitude to become familiar with the maneuver, he cautioned. Reducing the power to idle, maintain altitude as long as possible only by trimming the aircraft, not moving the yoke. That, he said, will give you as good of an airspeed as any other technique when you start descending and allow you to look outside instead of constantly rechecking your airspeed indicator to ensure you are at best glide. Eventually, you’ll end up with full nose-up trim. By using trim, the airplane is establishing a glide; it’s stable, so that “you can do all the other things that you need to do.”

While in the power-off glide, it will be more difficult to see over the nose of the aircraft. Don’t pick a landing spot that you can see over the nose, he cautioned: You won’t make it. Instead, look to your left (if you are flying in the left seat); in addition to providing a better sight picture, that’s also the direction you’ll likely be turning to make the desired landing spot. Aim for the middle of the runway (or field or wherever you’ll be landing).

“The bottom line is you are far, far safer going off the end of the runway going at a slower speed” than you are landing short of the runway at flying speed. The slower the aircraft touches down or impacts an object, the fewer Gs the aircraft and its occupants will absorb. An aircraft is built to absorb more forward force than vertical or lateral forces, he said, explaining the importance of landing straight ahead whenever possible.

Restraints make life-and-death difference

Seatbelts and shoulder harnesses are key to survival, as Fries demonstrated in a handful of graphic aircraft accident scenes and post-crash victim photographs. One pilot survived an accident with just a scratch above his eyebrow; another pilot was gored by the control yoke. The first wore his shoulder harness and the second didn’t.

The primary cause of aviation accident injuries is when the occupants strike their aircraft, Fries pointed out during the presentation. Without a shoulder harness, the pilot and co-pilot are thrust forward into the instrument panel and onto the control yoke. But simply wearing the seatbelt and should harness won’t do much good if the seatbelt is old (nylon seatbelts have a lifespan of about five years, Fries said), isn’t fitted properly across the pelvic bones and diagonally across the breast bone, or isn’t tight enough.

Seatbelt strength is measured in pounds, and a 1,500-pound strength is common in most aircraft, he said. But how does that translate to Gs? It equals 9 Gs if you weigh the FAA-standard estimate of 170 pounds. That’s good because aircraft are certificated to withstand at least 9 Gs forward force. But, if you weigh 188 pounds it drops to 8 Gs; 214 pounds translates to 7 Gs; 250 pounds equals 6 Gs.

Fries suggests changing the seatbelts in your aircraft every five years (something you can do yourself as preventive maintenance under FAR 43.3 Appendix A (c)(14) and (15)), upgrading to seatbelts of 3,000-pound strength, and tightening the lap and shoulder belts as tight as possible before a forced landing.

“Tight, tight, tight is vitally important,” he said.

It’s just as important, he reminded pilots, to make sure everything in the cockpit is restrained: “The oil can in the back is still going 60 knots as it hits your head.”

Evacuation is key

Every aircraft has more than one way to exit in case of an emergency, even if it’s through the baggage door or a window. The time to look for it is not when you need it, he counseled. Fries also said to practice emergency egress in different types of clothing—you’ll see what catches, where.

“You will survive if you plan to survive, you practice to survive, and expect to survive!” Fries concluded.

Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Miller | AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.