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Perils of Parachutes

It may sound like a quick solution to saving one’s life but jumping out of a plane in a parachute may be more dangerous than one can imagine. Capt. Lim Khoy Hing elaborates on the perils. 

Ian*, a young flyer from Scotland once wrote to me with many questions, as he had some very scary experiences when he first started flying.

     On one of his flights to London Heathrow airport, he experienced severe turbulence. Ian heard a loud bang and the plane seemed to drop. He thought he was going to die.

     The rough ride stopped after two minutes and the aircraft stabilized. Then, without warning, it seemed to drop again. Ian turned around and saw the other passengers holding onto their seats. Some were screaming. There had been an announcement earlier, warning passengers of the turbulence but Ian had no idea it would be that bad. Thankfully, the plane landed without any incidents.

     Most of Ian’s questions have been addressed before in Travel 3Sixty or in my website (www.askcaptainlim.com), such as how planes stay in the air and, cope with turbulence and emergencies such as failed engines, onboard fire and lightning strikes.

     One very interesting question he asked was why planes were not equipped with parachutes so passengers can jump out in the event of a crash landing. I will address this question in this month’s article.

Planes minus the Parachutes

First of all, equipping every passenger with a parachute on commercial planes is not very practical. It will also be fraught with many difficulties. Very simply, commercial planes are not designed for easy exits at high altitudes and speeds. For starters, the doors cannot be opened in midair unless the plane is depressurised below 10,000 feet.

     Even if it was possible to jump out of the plane in a parachute, due to the high speed and turbulent air flow, a passenger who attempts this will get hurt during the exit, including hitting the plane or even getting sucked into the engines.

     Furthermore, it is not easy to operate a parachute and land safely without basic training. The outside temperature at 40,000 feet is extremely cold (– 55° Celsius).  Lack of oxygen may also cause the jumper to become unconscious very quickly.

When to Jump

Most of the time, one wouldn’t know if the plane is definitely going to crash. By the time the crash is ascertained to be imminent, the passengers will not have time for parachutes anyway. Due to this huge uncertainty, who would decide on the right time for all passengers to strap on their parachutes and commence an orderly jump out of the plane? If there is an emergency, the captain’s main responsibility is to immediately solve the problem and attempt a safe landing. He simply would have no time for any other matters.

Successful Emergency Landings

There have been three occasions where planes have successfully crash landed. In 1983, one Air Canada Boeing 757 ran out of fuel and landed safely on a disused runway where go-kart races were being held. All on board that plane survived. In 2001, a chartered Transat Air A330 landed on an Atlantic Ocean island when both its engines failed because of a fuel leak. 306 lives were saved from this longest ever glide-landing of a commercial airliner.

     The latest event happened in 2009 when an US Airways Airbus A320 ditched into the Hudson River in New York. The plane had to make a controlled water landing onto the river after losing thrust on both engines due to bird strikes at about 3,000 feet. This happened just three minutes into the flight after a normal take-off from LaGuardia Airport. Miraculously, all 155 passengers and crew survived the mishap. Within those three minutes, it would not have been possible for all on board to jump out in time even if there were parachutes available.

Impracticality of Parachutes

There are more reasons why the parachute is an impractical device on board. They are expensive and having one for every passenger would increase the cost of air travel. Its additional weight too would affect the payload. Furthermore, stringently regulated safety maintenance and packing measures would incur extra cost and hinder the rationale for its installation.

     Most aircraft accidents occur either immediately after take-off or just before landing. There is usually no time (like the Hudson River ditching) to get all passengers, including the old and young ones, to put on their parachutes orderly. It would also be an exercise in futility as very few people have ever experienced sky diving with parachutes. Additionally, for the parachute to open safely, there must be sufficient altitude for it to deploy.

     Another problem is the exit speed of the jumper. A commercial airplane cruises at about 400 – 500 knots (740-926 kph). Standard parachutes are made to open at speeds around 110 knots (203 kph). Jumping out at this high speed would rip the fabric of the canopy to shreds unless the plane is flying at a much slower speed.

Much Safer Without

As George Bernard Shaw said, “The optimist invented the airplane, the pessimist, the parachute.” Statistics allow me to say with confidence that you are much safer flying on a plane than travelling in a car.

Here’s an old parachute joke that might raise a chuckle or two.

‘A pilot and four passengers were in a plane travelling through stormy weather.

Suddenly, the pilot came running back to the passengers and announced that lightning had struck the plane and that they were going to crash in a matter of minutes.

“There are only enough parachutes for the four of us,” he announced. “Since I’m the pilot, I get one!” After saying this, the pilot grabbed a parachute and jumped out of the plane.

“I’m the world’s greatest athlete,” proclaimed Michael. “This world needs great athletes, so I must live.” Michael then grabbed a parachute and leapt out of the plane.

“I’m the smartest man in the world,” bragged Bob. “The world needs smart men, so I must also live!” Bob grabbed a parachute and jumped out too.

At this point, an elderly man began to speak. “I have lived a long life compared to you. You may take the last parachute. I will go down with the plane.”

The fifth passenger strangely held up two parachutes and handed one to the old man.  “You don’t have to stay here! The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”’

 * Name changed to protect person’s identity

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Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.