Passenger Evacuation...complete with luggage. (Image: The Guardian)
The smoke plume from British Airways Flight 2276 was still reaching skywards as people were posting dramatic images across the internet. Both distant shots and photos from passengers were blinking across the globe as fire crews tended to the stricken Boeing 777. It was a day and an event that aviation professionals dread and yet it is also the very eventuality that endless hours of training have been directed towards.
On the flight deck, a rejected take-off is a manoeuvre that is part of every recurrent simulator session for pilots. Crews are tested for a range of scenarios from engine failure and fire to tyre deflation and loss of visibility. Sometimes the choice to reject the take-off is obvious and sometimes it is more obscure. Sometimes the failure occurs at low speed with its own directional control issues and on other occasions the problem arises at high speed when the aircraft is beyond its decision speed, or ‘V-1’, and the take-off must continue.
Factored into this is the pilot’s own ‘startle factor’. Those valuable seconds when shock initially drives adrenalin while the brain endeavours to rapidly process, diagnose and act upon the abnormal situation it has been confronted with. And then those hundreds of practised manoeuvres prove valuable as muscle memory acts upon the decision and the crew members work as one to quickly and methodically secure the aircraft as needed.
Too often cabin crew are merely seen as waiters and waitresses in the sky, while the truth is that their primary objective is to provide safety in the cabin. And while emergencies are not taking place, they are able to serve tea and coffee. However, if one examines their ongoing training it is always safety focused, encompassing the procedures and equipment needed in an event such as Flight 2276. It is training that calls for a great many items to be recalled from memory, for should that dreaded day arrive there won’t be time to flick through the manuals. They must overcome their own fears and act decisively, particularly when smoke and fire is involved.
Over the years there have been notable losses of airframes and passengers when flames have engulfed an aircraft on the ground. The Air Canada DC-9 at Toronto and British Airtours Boeing 737 at Manchester are two that come to mind. Flames took hold with frightening speed and tragic consequences for those inside who could not escape. Safety recommendations were made in the wake of these tragedies, based upon the lessons that were learned. Everything from procedures to the materials used in the cabin was examined with outcomes designed to make future air travel safer. Still at the core of these events was the ability to efficiently evacuate passengers in a rapid manner.
Evacuation Aftermath. (Image: The Guardian)
Aircraft certification standards call for manufacturers to demonstrate the evacuation of passengers in 90 seconds, but a good deal must be remembered when this number is quoted. The trials are conducted in a controlled environment with both crew and ‘passengers’ primed for the evacuation. The exercise does prove that such a flow of passengers is possible but on the day of a real emergency a range of variables will undoubtedly come into play. That is why some of the images emerging from the evacuation of British Airways Flight 2276 are both dramatic and disturbing.
As one would expect, the emergency slides appear to be deployed with the exception of the left hand side slides, forward of and ‘over’ the wing – this is not by chance. The cabin crew’s first task before deploying a slide, or using any exit, is to check that it is safe to do so. If it is not safe they will not evacuate passengers into flames and fire but stand at the exit and declare it unusable, redirecting passengers to a viable exit. The photos of the Boeing 777’s burnt out left wing root would suggest that the cabin crew’s training and actions definitely proved beneficial in this instance.
However, some of the images of passengers moving clear of the aircraft are less satisfying – they are carrying luggage. In the event of an evacuation, the speed of the passenger flow is of the essence. A large number of passengers need to file down relatively narrow aisles to the certified number of exits and jump down the pre-inflated slides. And let’s not forget that this Boeing 777 appeared to have two exits blocked out of action. Critical medications and passports can be physically kept on one's person if needed but the carriage of any hand luggage compromises the entire evacuation process. There is the delay involved as passengers retrieve their luggage, the potential for aisles to be blocked, the potential for luggage to pile up at the funnel approaching the exit and the chance of the luggage puncturing the slide or injuring passengers on the way down. On so many levels this is a selfish act in a situation where seconds can mean lives. And it is not as if they have not been told.
On every flight the safety briefing highlights this point among others, yet time and time again certain passengers speak over the briefing or blatantly ignore its contents. At times it’s as if some frequent flyers use the opportunity to ignore the safety briefing to advertise how frequently they fly in some misguided search for status. It is too late to ask for a repeat performance when flames lick the fuselage. Meanwhile, the pilots who fly every sector will undertake a safety briefing and cabin crew members will conduct their silent review prior to every take-off. They are the true frequent flyers and they realise the importance of preparation in an emergency.
As with any incident in aviation, there will be a great deal to be learned in the wake of the British Airways flight’s successful evacuation of its passengers. Hopefully one outcome will be to publicly highlight the futility of taking bags from an aircraft during an evacuation and the potential tragedy that such an act can cause. The photos of BA Flight 2276 highlight the drama and the survival, but they also show the reality of an emergency situation. And when we look closer at those passengers emerging from the smoke with their bags in their hands we can also clearly see that sometimes the devil can be in the detail.
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