Occasionally someone will ask me why they don't have parachutes or ejection seats on airliners.
Fair question, actually.
In the earliest days of the airlines passengers sometimes actually were given parachutes. Of course they were probably flying in Boeing Model 40 biplanes at a blistering 90 knots. A Boeing Model 40 held exactly two passengers, by the way.
Parachutes on airliners went out with the 1920s and haven't come back. They probably never will. Read on to find out why.
Why can't I have a parachute?A lot of reasons.
1. You probably don't know how to use a parachute.
Unless you've been trained by the military or spent some time skydiving your odds of successfully using a parachute are not so good.
2. There's no way to get out of a jet airliner in flight.
Here's the big one. D.B. Cooper very carefully chose a 727 for his famous hijacking/skydive because it had a set of rear stairs that could be lowered in flight.
Could being the operative word. 727s were subsequently modified with a "D.B. Cooper switch" to prevent the stairs from being opened in flight. It's now a moot point because nobody except for a few charters are hauling passengers in 727s anyway.
Even if we depressurized the aircraft so that one of the entry doors could be opened, the force of the slipstream at jet speeds would either prevent you from getting out or smash you against part of the airplane. It would be messy.
3. Parachutes cost money.
Hey, the airlines don't even want to give you free peanuts anymore. Do you think they're going to spend the money on parachutes?
4. Parachutes add weight.
Roughly 40 pounds each. That's 8000 pounds on a 200-seat airliner. Given a choice I'd take an extra 8000 pounds of fuel over a parachute almost any day.
5. Parachutes take up space.
Space that could be used for passengers. Passengers buy tickets, parachutes don't.
6. Not everyone can wear a parachute.
Some people are too old, too young, too small, too large, too disabled. Sorry wheelchair lady! It's every objectivist for himself! Thank you for flying Ayn Rand Airlines.
7. Parachutes can only be used under controlled conditions.
I wasn't completely truthful when I said there's no possible way to get out of an airliner. The 707-derived KC-135 had a way to get out. The aircraft was normally boarded via a ladder that went up to the cockpit through the crew-entry chute.
By pulling a lever we could deploy a spoiler that would block the slipstream in front of the crew-entry chute and theoretically we could jump out with a parachute.
Not sure I'd have wanted to try it. Most of the time the parachutes were stashed in the back of the aircraft and we didn't wear them.
I know of exactly one time where it was successfully used. A tanker crew screwed up badly and ended up in a very low fuel state. The Aircraft Commander decided to press on and try to land. The rest of the crew mutinied and jumped out. The Aircraft Commander was able to land the plane, by himself.
Basically, any situation so dire that I wouldn't be able to land the aircraft would probably preclude me from escaping with a parachute. If the structure fails and the aircraft is spinning uncontrollably you will be pinned inside. This was the sad fate of many a WWII bomber crew.
OK smart guy, so why can't I have an ejection seat?Mostly for the same reasons:
1. You don't know how to use one.
2. They cost a lot of money.
3. They add a lot of weight.
4. They take up a lot of space.
5. They will injure you. The chance of injury in an ejection is 100%.
6. Sometimes they will kill you. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
7. Multiple people ejecting at the same time is difficult and dangerous.
I know of two instances where everyone had to get out at the same time. In both cases one of the rear crew members (gunner or EWO) was struck by the pilot or copilot's hatch and killed.
I can only imagine trying to sequence a 200-passenger ejection without anyone running into each other.
In a future diary I'll
bore you to death tell you everything you ever wanted to know about aircraft escape systems but for now let's just say that they're quite impractical for airliners.
So what about a big parachute for the whole plane?OK, now we're getting somewhere. I kind of like the idea of floating the whole plane to the ground like an Apollo space capsule. What's really cool about this idea is that the technology exists!
Had you going there for a second, didn't I? Yes, the technology exists for a 2000-pound Cessna that goes slightly faster than my car. It's called a Ballistic Recovery System and it works quite well. Several lives have already been saved by these.
I'd be curious to know just how much parachute would be required for a fully loaded 747-800. Maximum takeoff weight is just under a million pounds.
Maybe one of you genius engineering types wants to take a stab at it. After that you can figure out how we'd successfully deploy it at .84 mach. The drag chute on the B-52 was only good for 135 knots or so.
If it were feasible I figure Donald Trump would already have one on his private jet. I'm sure he thinks his pampered butt is more worth preserving than yours or mine.
So what do we do?Until someone invents anti-gravity boots or something we'll just have to take solace in the fact that airliners are really safe.
I'll end this with a (probably apocryphal) story from WWII. A C-47 transport was flying out of a base in India with a load of cargo plus two passengers in the back. Shortly after takeoff, one engine began to sputter.
The copilot opened the cockpit door, tossed one parachute into the back and shut the door.
The two passengers stared at each other, stared at the parachute, stared at each other - when the malfunctioning engine started running smoothly again.