Preparing to ditch
What’s it really like to have to evacuate over water? Passengers find out in a training course that employs a facsimile of an airplane cabin.

Preparing to ditch

It was his third try, and the first two hadn’t gone well. The man was seated in a bus-like facsimile of an airplane cabin suspended above what looked like an Olympic-size swimming pool. At the command of the leader of the exercise, the big blue “fuselage” plunged into the water and slowly turned upside-down. As the cabin filled with water, all the other “passengers” followed the prescribed procedure of keeping their feet on the inverted floor and calmly moving from one handhold to the next toward the closest exit. But this one man did what he’d done the previous two times–he tried to swim his way to safety. Predictably, he bobbed up toward the highest point of the cabin–in this position, that would be the back section, farthest from the door–just as he had the previous two times.

After one of the two scuba divers poised for just such an intervention rescued him, the man shook his head in disbelief. “I knew what I was supposed to do,” he lamented between gasps for air. “I just couldn’t keep myself from trying to swim.” Dan McInnis, an instructor for Survival Systems USA in Groton, Conn., said, “There’s a big difference between sitting in your seat and hearing a briefing and experiencing what we do here. And that difference saves lives when it happens for real.”

He suggested that regular passengers on private aircraft should at least ask the crew for an emergency procedures walk-through–what he described as an “extended safety briefing”–which involves physically following safety measures for evacuating an aircraft. Better yet, attend a safety course where you actually experience the rush of water and the blurred vision or even total darkness involved in a water landing. “It’s the little things that people learn to recognize as most important,” McInnis said. “Like releasing the seat belt is one of the last things you do, not the first.”

There are two lessons here: First, if your pilot has to ditch, don’t try to swim to an exit. Second, people who undergo emergency training are far more likely to revert to that training when the emergency happens for real–the man in the example above was the exception that proves the rule. Of course, pilots understand this from their regular recurrent training in the cockpit. They prepare over and over for catastrophes involving engine failures, cabin fires, electrical malfunctions, severe weather and more. This reinforces their memory in the same way basketball players improve their free throws and jump shots by practicing thousands of times.

But how about passengers? It can be just as important for them to react calmly and correctly when the chips are down. Think of what might have happened during the “Miracle on the Hudson” ditching if half the passengers–or even just a few–had panicked and disrupted the evacuation procedure.

If you fly regularly on private aircraft, ask the crew for not just a preflight briefing but also a walk-through of the evacuation procedure. Physically “walking the walk” will leave you with a much clearer memory of what you’d need to do than would simply hearing about procedures. This would be especially important in the event of a nighttime emergency, when the lights go out. If you fly over water, you should know the locations of emergency lighting, flotation gear, fire extinguishers and first-aid kits. And know how to find them by feel alone.

An actual cabin-evacuation course with a training provider such as Survival Systems can give you the invaluable added benefit of actually carrying out emergency procedures. There is nothing like experiencing the rush of cold water and a cabin filling up. The same is true of a realistic cabin-smoke training or an altitude chamber where you can experience a facsimile of rapid cabin decompression.

The odds against ever having to evacuate an aircraft for real are astronomical (discounting the possible need to escape an uncomfortable conversation with your boss while taxiing to the parking area). But understanding the recommended procedures and knowing the escape routes can give you a peace of mind you might appreciate, flight after flight. It can also be a comfort to know that you can assume a leadership role should the situation call for fast action and a cool head. Remember the man who couldn’t stop trying to swim his way to safety, and “don’t be that guy.”