Pilots have long been known to harbor an incongruous mix of fatalism and optimism.
We’re fatalists in the sense that we know aircraft accidents will happen. We’re optimists because we believe they won’t happen to us.
Consider the case of airbags for airplanes.
Even though seatbelt-mounted air bags have become standard equipment in many new airplanes—including new Cirrus SR22s—I was pleased by the fact that AOPA’s 2009 Let’s Go Flying SR22 didn’t have them. The seatbelts in the 2005 model SR22-G2 are made from soft material, and they’re comfortable to wear on long cross-country flights. You can cinch them down firmly in turbulence. They’re just normal, the way aircraft seatbelts have always been.
But a visit from the folks at AmSafe, the world’s leading seatbelt supplier, changed several minds at AOPA about the safety value of airbag seatbelts, including mine, and I’m pleased to say the Let’s Go Flying SR22 is getting a new set of seatbelts, with airbags, in June when Landmark Aviation, a Cirrus service center in Frederick, Md., installs them.
AmSafe has been making automotive seatbelts for many years, and they’ve been installing them in aircraft since 2001, mostly in airliners and business jets. They’ve also moved into general aviation, however, and their products are now found in new Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, and Mooney singles. Seatbelt airbags have already saved several lives in GA, and they’ll doubtless save more as the technology becomes more widespread.
I always assumed that aircraft accidents took place at such high speeds that the presence of an airbag was unlikely to make a difference in survivability. It turns out that’s not true. Many aircraft mishaps would be survivable with airbags. And pilots and passengers could walk away from some pretty horrendous takeoff and landing accidents if their airplanes were airbag equipped.
I didn’t have to look outside my immediate family for an example. My brother, Harry, was a passenger in a Cessna 180 that crashed high in the Sierra Nevada a decade ago. He and a friend were returning by air from a camping trip when they decided to take a close look at a high-elevation landing strip. The problem came when the pilot (a highly experienced aviator) lowered the Cessna’s flaps in preparation for a touch-and-go landing. The airplane started to settle, and in the thin air, it wouldn’t hold altitude even at full power. They were heading toward a clearing and had almost made it when the airplane hit a tree and cart-wheeled.
Harry’s face hit the instrument panel, and he’s got an impressive scar in his forehead and some missing teeth as a memento. The pilot fared worse with a broken wrist and jaw. Their rescue was a story in itself, but afterward, they both spent the better part of a week in intensive care. Had their airplane been equipped with airbags, their injuries almost certainly would have been less severe.
AmSafe belts can now be installed as a retrofit on most existing airframes including SR22s. And I’ve got the feeling that they’ll become an even more popular product in the future—especially if aircraft insurance companies get on board and offer lower rates for airbag-equipped airframes.
There’s never been an inadvertent or uncommanded airbag deployment on an aircraft. They don’t pop out in turbulence, or firm landings. It takes bent metal to fire them, and the deployment is virtually instantaneous—much quicker than the blink of an eye.
Let’s hope the future occupants of the gorgeous Let’s Go Flying SR22 never use the AmSafe airbags we’re installing; but I’ll feel better flying it knowing they’re there.