I watched many military episodes from Hollywood movies when I was a young boy. (I still watch them, but not as often). I thought that soldiers were super-beings and envied their prowess. I also got puzzled at how they jumped off an aircraft more than 10,000 feet above the ground.
As far as I comprehended, every plane up there had a parachute for every occupant. From my childish reasoning, I grew up knowing that surviving a plane crash was as easy as strapping a parachute and flying to safety in a nearby thicket.
If you also think as I did back then, you’re probably mistaken. But you can hang on to your innocence until you discover five sure reasons from this article to believe otherwise. So, welcome aboard, tighten your seat belt, let’s fly together, and see if we’ll have a parachute for today’s flight. Shall we?
First off: An Overview About Parachutes
At the mention of the word ‘parachute,’ credit goes to pioneers of skydiving such as Sebastien Lenormand and Andrew Garnerin, who first demonstrated the principle behind parachuting. However, it was not until 1797 that Garnerin successfully performed the first jump on a parachute.
Although his parachute had no rigid airframes, he clocked a stunning 8,000 feet in the air, using an umbrella-like device that was barely 30 feet wide. Afterward, other inventions would follow, and parachuting would become a sport in 1960.
Today, parachutes have wide-ranging applications beyond skydiving sport. For instance, astronomers use them to control the reentry of space capsules from deeper space into the atmosphere. Parachutes also come in handy for military applications such as special ops, dropping food supplies, weaponry, and personnel behind enemy lines.
Still, they’re essential lifesavers on special combat aircraft. Fighter jet pilots, for instance, heavily rely on parachutes for safety. They can press an ejector switch during an imminent crash, vacate the aircraft, and land safely using a parachute.
So, if they’re essential lifesavers in military planes, why aren’t they available in passenger aircraft?
Ideally, aerospace companies never think about parachutes when designing commercial passenger aircraft. That’s why you’ll only find the usual life vest strapped under your seat for an emergency. It comes in handy to keep you afloat if the plane crashes in water.
So, if you’re a nervous flyer, you may often wonder why airplanes don’t have such essential devices. Do airlines not care about your safety or find the parachute unnecessary? Well, next time you don’t see a parachute under your seat, think of the following reasons:
1. You Require Adequate Training to Maneuver a Parachute
When you watch skydivers roll in the action movies, you’ll almost imagine you’d quickly nail it the first time. But without adequate training, maneuvering a parachute in the air and landing is not as simple!
Take basic skydiving, for instance, where you’ll have to get strapped to an expert throughout the session as a beginner. Yet, you still require up to five hours’ training session.
When landing, you should master static jumping, balancing, and flexing your legs. Moreover, you require a detailed briefing before you launch off. When you become an expert, you still need a whole day to master your instructor’s body movement and communication signals.
Contrary to what we think, skydivers are not demigods from the alien world. They are human, except that they’ve trained and mastered their craft. That’s why they can dash off at supersonic speeds and land as if they had angelic wings.
In contrast, most fliers onboard planes rarely have such training. You’d be shocked that even your pilot, who becomes a “de jure” savior during a flight, cannot maneuver a parachute. So if you have never jumped off a plane, to believe you can do it the first time is to take a far-fetched risk.
2. Successful Skydiving Is a Planned Event
A well-thought-out strategy is an essential determinant of successful skydiving, besides training. Every diver knows they need to plan beforehand and that they’ll undoubtedly exit a moving plane. Essentially, diving groups will often leave a minimum altitude (500 feet) between sessions, with some seconds to spare before making a jump.
But a crash situation on a regular flight is quite different. When emergency strikes, confusion and panic creep in, and everyone scrambles for the next exit. Then you’ll have more than 300 passengers strapping parachutes they’ve never used before and trying to jump before the plane bursts into flames.
With a sheer number of people scrambling for safety in a plane crash, you can almost bet they’ll have a raindrop’s chance of survival using parachutes.
3. Flight Conditions Are Unfavorable for Human Survival
Moments after your plane takes off, you’ll sometimes hear the captain live on public address saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now at cruising altitude….” It comes as a relief because you can ease your seat belt and head to the lavatory. It is also the hour when you expect to see the flight attendants pushing their trolleys for a mouth-watering snack or a sumptuous meal.
Most aircraft have an assigned cruising altitude for flight efficiency and optimum fuel use. A typical passenger plane cruises at 35,000 feet above mean sea level, and sometimes even higher. That’s slightly more than 10 kilometers above the ground.
Yet, at altitudes exceeding 18,000 feet, research shows that human survival is elusive! First, the surrounding air has little oxygen. As a result, you risk suffering from hypoxia, a sudden loss of consciousness that occurs due to oxygen deficiency. For this reason, skydivers who exceed an altitude of 15,000 feet must have an auxiliary oxygen tank to survive the dive.
If you were to jump off an airplane at cruising altitude, you’d require more oxygen, a face mask, a flight suit, and other equipment which your airline wouldn’t provide.
Besides thin air, the temperatures at a plane’s cruising environment are exceptionally inhospitable. At the bare minimum, your body would be battling temperatures lower than the average freezing point. That’s about -1 degrees Celsius. At such low temperatures, popular science affirms that air inside your lungs would expand and burst, while all your body organs would freeze instantly.
4. Passenger Planes Cruise at High Speeds
So you’ve got the necessary gear to stay abreast of the harsh conditions. How about the plane’s speed? Typically, if you were to do standard parachuting, you’d be safer in a smaller plane traveling at about 80–100 miles an hour.
Yet, commercial passenger planes cruise at speeds above 400 or 600 miles in an hour. As a result, you’ll experience the maximum impact of wind, which would toss you to the plane’s tail or wing, resulting in injury.
For this reason, skydiving planes have a special ramp at the rear to facilitate safe jumping. If your favorite airline anticipated that you’d jump during an emergency, they would install a special exit ramp at the end.
5. Parachutes Add More Weight to the Aircraft
In aviation, four main forces affect flying: weight, lift, drag, and thrust. For the relevance of our context today, let’s focus on weight.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum describes weight as the force that acts downward due to gravity. Essentially, among the four flight forces, weight has a downward effect that tends to pull an object to the earth’s center.
Here’s a depiction of the flight forces:
Since weight has a downward effect, aircraft operators must create a balanced flight. An article by California Aeronautical University reiterates that knowing a plane’s approximate weight and how much it can bear is crucial to flight safety.
An overweight aircraft may outstretch its design limit and flying ability. Thus, having parachutes in the cabin can dramatically impact an aircraft’s stability.
Picture this; a parachute weighs 15–40 pounds. Assuming you were 300 passengers and crew in a plane, and everyone had a parachute, your aircraft would weigh more than 12000 pounds. The whole flight would be bulky and disastrous for a machine that should be as light as possible.
At Edwards Air force Base in the US, Captain Ed Murphy, an aircraft engineer, assigned a corrective task to a technician. He was to fix a broken gauge bridge to its rightful position. As it turned out, the technician inadvertently wired the bridge in the opposite direction; it gave wrong readings.
The faulty procedure coined the now-famous Murphy’s Law, which states, “In any field of endeavor, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
Air transport is the most luxurious and safest means of transport worldwide. But under Murphy’s Law, even the most sophisticated, fly-by-wire aircraft can go wrong.
We set off to discover if we could have a parachute for safety. Luckily, we’ve landed safely without an engine failure or bird strike. But we didn’t have a parachute either. Why? Five reasons come to play.
First, we require some excellent training and planning to maneuver a parachute. Even if we did, conditions at cruising altitude wouldn’t allow us to survive the next second. Our aircraft speed was another nightmare; too fast for skydiving. Then comes weight; a 40-pound parachute for every passenger on board would have been too heavy for our flight!
The bottom line is; military organizations safely deploy parachutes in their operations, but civilian aircraft are safe without them. Thus, when you board a plane, remember that you are safer without the parachute.
Otieno is a student of Aeronautics Engineering and Aviation blogger he is also the Founder of Aerofacts Kenya.