I try to be pretty positive about life at the airlines, and for the most part, I am. This will be one of the few times I criticize both industry and the FAA.
Airline training is pretty intense, and some of it can be done in mind-numbing, excruciating detail. However, there are a few areas in which the training required by the FAA is all that is provided, and as a result, the training provided often is lacking. One of those areas is dealing with a water landing or a ditching.
Fortunately, such events are rare. Unfortunately, as a result of this rarity, and also as a result of the relative ease of US Airways Flight 1549 (the so-called Miracle on the Hudson), emergency water training for pilots has not been made a priority. The airlines usually only do the minimum required with respect to training because of the cost.
Flight attendants often get better training than pilots on ditchings, since the assumption is that they are the ones who will conduct the bulk of the actual evacuation. Flight attendants at major carriers are put through training in a pool with a raft and given an opportunity to get hands-on experience with life vests and other emergency equipment. Pilots…not so much.
So what is missing, and what to keep in mind? In a perfect world, where the flight deck crew finishes the landing with minimal or no injuries, and is able to actively participate in the evacuation, the following are points to keep in mind:
The life rafts are stored in the ceiling. In six years of training at a major, I’ve never seen what they look like when they are packed and sealed. I have no idea how heavy they are (I’m guessing about 80 pounds minimum), or how awkward they would be to move from the ceiling and out the door to the water.
Once in the water, there is no “upside down,” as the rafts are designed to be used no matter which side faces up. That said, the sides are fairly high, so I can only speculate what it must be like to try to get in one of these rafts from the water while wearing a full uniform or even a coat. Add to this the possibility of dealing with frigid water temperatures and you can imagine how smoothly this isn’t going to go in real life.
There are ways to work together to get into the raft and once one or two people are in, they can help the rest get in relatively quickly. Getting those first couple in may prove challenging, especially in rough water.
With respect to some of the other equipment that is available, like portable radios, knives, first aid kits, flashlights, et cetera, we are shown them in a classroom, on tables, but we are never given a chance to use them, and we aren’t forced to find them in the airplane. Given how poorly humans respond in situations of great stress, this is a huge shortcoming.
Some of the emergency evacuation training deficiencies go beyond just water landings. In almost 23 years of airline flying, I’ve never had to partake in a simulated evacuation of the cabin. As mundane as this would be in normal circumstances, imagine what it would be like trying to do this while putting on a protective breathing equipment hood in a cabin that is filling rapidly with smoke. Now imagine being forced to help a passenger with a serious injury try to evacuate—someone with a broken leg or even unconscious. We are exposed to none of this. Further, none of our training is done jointly with the cabin crews.
Airline training covers a gamut of scenarios, and most of what we do is done well, but some of the emergency possibilities are extremely limited. It comes down to each of us to think through some of these scenarios to determine the best courses of action, with the realization that some people will freeze and others will panic. The possibility of a water event strikes close to home for me because I spent a few years doing nothing but overwater flying. Even now, I spend a lot of my time on Atlantic routes, and I fear for the day when an airplane is forced to ditch and a crew begins to realize just how poor their training for such a scenario has been.
If I had my druthers, water and emergency training would be required for every new hire, for each airplane change, each upgrade, and every two years that follows. That training would take place in a wave pool and in a simulated cabin fire, and it would require the use of as many pieces of emergency equipment as possible. Further, pilots would be required to learn and demonstrate basic CPR skills, which we don’t have to do currently (flight attendants do).—Chip Wright