Safety Publications/Articles

Professionally Speaking

Buckle up

Ditching shoulder harnesses is a disservice to students

Question: What do the following have in common: Race car drivers, agricultural pilots, race pilots, stunt drivers, stunt pilots, test pilots, fighter pilots, bomber pilots, and other military pilots? Answer: They all wear seat belts and shoulder harnesses. All of them. All the time. Without fail.

Why do I ask? Because, in recent weeks I have twice seen instructional flights during which neither student nor instructor wore shoulder harnesses. In both cases they wore seat belts, but the shoulder harnesses were folded neatly away rather than in use-despite the FAR 91.105 requirement that they be used if installed.

Folks, surely we all know that the combination of seat belt and shoulder harness is much safer than seat belt alone. This is no longer debatable. We know this as irrefutable fact. Why, then, would we teach any other way? Why would a CFI in a modern aircraft ever fly without both belts, much less allow a student to witness him/her doing so?

Yes, I grew up in cars without seat belts, much less shoulder harnesses. Yes, I got my private certificate in an airplane without shoulder harnesses. Yes, I have flown many miles and many hours in Luscombes, Champs, et al with no shoulder harnesses. True, I never drove a car equipped with shoulder harnesses until I was married and had three kids. But for crying out loud, folks, back then we didn't know better. Now we do.

If you ever hung out with agricultural pilots (we used to call them cropdusters), you would believe in shoulder harnesses. I sold ag aircraft for years, and it surely made a believer out of me. I wish I could relate a few of many stories about ag pilots crashing airplanes and walking away. I remember one who crashed, and then called me before the wreckage was cool. He wanted me to deliver a new airplane to his field ASAP. I told him I'd get it there just as soon as I could get it washed. He said, "Washed, hell! Just get it here fast."

I arrived shortly thereafter. He was standing on his strip, holding a hose in his hand. I parked; he hooked the hose to the airplane and started filling the hopper immediately. "My wife's got your check in the office," he said. While his wife and I completed the paperwork, he roared off to spray cotton. And this was a man who had totaled an airplane just a couple of hours before!

Watching ag pilots, who wear both belts on each flight, made me a believer-you might even say a fanatic.

I also settled a few insurance claims in my day. I remember a fatal crash in which the cockpit was simply not deformed, but the pilot died. I sincerely believe a shoulder harness would have saved him.

I also remember the time I was lucky enough to watch one of the greatest bareback riders work with a new horse. Lesser riders cavalierly waved off the safety rope, but this man-the greatest of them all-carefully hooked it up. He was a real pro, just as we should be.

I'll stick my neck out on this. I think that conducting instructional flights in modern aircraft without requiring the student (and CFI) to wear both seat belts and shoulder harnesses belts is unethical as well as illegal. I even think it is unethical to allow a student to see a CFI flying with a shoulder belt neatly folded away rather than worn. It just ain't professional.

Ralph Hood, an aviation speaker and writer, has been flying for more than 33 and has amassed more than 3,000 hours of flight time. He is a multiengine commercial pilot with an instrument rating.

By Ralph Hood

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