The tragic crash of Asiana flight 214 on July 6th touches our lives and hearts, especially those of us who fly a lot. I have been particularly affected by this incident because San Francisco is a frequent connection point for me. I've been in airplanes that land on the runway in question, and have many times gulped as the plane looked like it was about to land in the water. It's something you get used to if you land in San Francisco regularly, but it reminds me of how precious life is, and how important it is to cherish your family and friends.
Do Those Safety Briefings Really Matter?
If you fly the same airline as I do most of the time (United), you could probably stand up and deliver the briefing yourself, word for word. Some airlines make the announcement a little more entertaining than the nice attendants at United do, but the information is no less important if it's delivered with humor than if it's delivered with a straight face. The reality is that every line of instructions has been carefully thought out, and every major point of safety awareness is something you should memorize and follow.
After the Asiana crash I reviewed some of the videos about it, including people who were on the airplane, people who witnessed the crash, and experts evaluating the crash circumstances afterwards. The immediate loss of the flight attendants in the rear of the airplane didn't help the lack of direction that some of the passengers expressed. Since the plane did not immediately catch fire, some were concerned about unnecessarily evacuating if there was fuel on the ground that could pose a fire hazard. Eventually everyone got off the plane, though many had serious injuries.
Preparation is the Key
It also didn't help that there was no warning before the impact of flight 214 into the end of the runway. If passengers had been aware that a crash was imminent, they could have assumed the brace position and possibly avoided some of the reported spinal injuries that happen when you're tossed around like a rag doll. The brace position that passengers are instructed to assume has been proven to be effective in reducing bodily injury during crashes. The seats that partially collapse during a crash actually are absorbing some of the energy that would otherwise go into your spine. The collapse of these seats may result in leg injuries, but it still saves lives. Having seats break like that does contribute to the challenge of evacuating the airplane, but the majority of passengers are still able to get out of the plane to safety. When Captain Sully Sullenberger landed his airplane in the Hudson River a few years ago, everyone was able to get out of the plane, and only one person had a broken leg from the impact.
If you're curious about some of these facts, I invite you to locate an episode of the Mythbusters on the Discover Channel titled "Killer Brace Position" that aired June 22, 2005. After consulting with aviation experts, the team constructed a special drop rig with airline seats installed. They tested the strength of the configuration along with the effects of seats collapsing. As a frequent airline passenger, it was an illuminating look at the reasoning and results of the years of government and aviation industry safety studies. Yes folks, there's a good reason to pay attention to those safety briefings, and to mentally rehearse what to do, should the unthinkable happen on your flight.
Documentary Deliberately Crashed a Boeing 727 for Science
In 2012, Discovery Channel, Channel 4 in the UK, and Pro Sieben in Germany assisted a group of scientists, airline experts, and aviation researchers in deliberately crashing a Boeing 727 in the Mexican desert, to study the effects of airline disasters on the human body, the airplanes, and the equipment installed in the plane. The documentary aired as part of the Curiosity series.
It took 4 years of planning and research to accomplish the task, not to mention the hurdles they had to overcome with the local authorities to get permission to stage the crash. The plane had a human pilot until a few minutes before it went down, and the last 2-3 minutes were piloted by remote control from a chase plane. In the amateur video on the page below that captured the crash, you can see the chase plane flying just above it. (You may have to paste the 2 halves of this link into your browser.)
This feat had been previously attempted by NASA and the FAA in 1984 with a Boeing 720, but NASA was unable to keep their airplane from burning upon impact. This second group succeeded in crashing but not burning. That meant that they were able to collect the data from the scientific equipment onboard, and confirm things like the fact that the brace position really is the safest way to endure a crash. They also uncovered a rather the unnerving result that some of the miles of wiring inside your airplane may shaken loose during a crash and become an obstacle to your safe exit.
You can see the clip of the final moments of the crash at the Discovery website:
Subsequent videos on that page show you the results the scientists found. It was a huge success, as well as a leap forward in the knowledge and understanding of airline safety. I encourage you to watch, learn, and apply the knowledge to your own passenger safety routines.