All these advances have led to quite remarkable reductions in the number of incidents and accidents in global aviation. For an industry so obsessed with safety therefore it seems odd that one component has been allowed to languish far behind all these other advancements: the inflatable evacuation slide.
In a moment I’d like you to take a look at a short video of Emirates cabin crew members practicing the use of an A380 upper deck evacuation slide. You should note that they are in a nice, well-lit, training facility and, like kids in a playground, are all giggling as they take orderly turns going down the slide which lands them on a pristine padded rubber mat.
Take special note however of the fifth guy down and how he fares on contact with the mat. Click here.
Now I want you to try to envisage a real life version of what you just saw. Imagine an identical slide from the same height, but this time buffeted by wind and rain in total darkness. There is no comfy landing pad at the bottom of the slide, just a hard asphalt runway. And instead of a group of laughing young cabin crew, substitute your elderly parents, your young children and/or you yourself as the ones taking what can only be described as a leap of faith onto that fearsome slide. Oh yes, and don’t overlook the fact that, unlike the training exercise, this imaginary evacuee group will be fresh off the bowel-loosening experience of an emergency landing.
Now of course the upper deck on an A380 or a Boeing 747 is about as bad as it gets from a slider’s perspective. The sill to which the slide is attached is a daunting eight meters above the ground whereas the lower deck on a wide-body is typically ‘only’ about a five meter drop.
The problem of course is that the slide sits at a 45 degree angle, so as Pythagoras would tell you (the sum of the square hippopotamus or whatever) that means the slide is… well really quite long and very steep.
As today's lead story reports, last week, after smoke alarms went off on an Orlando-bound Virgin Atlantic A330 the pilot quite correctly decided to turn back and make an emergency landing at London Gatwick airport. The airplane touched down safely and came to a complete stop surrounded by a gaggle of fire and rescue service vehicles with everyone on board safe and sound - at least that is until the dreaded slides were deployed!
Bear in mind It was a dry day, broad daylight and the aircraft was intact with no fire or other damage and the passengers were as calm and collected as can be expected in such a situation. Nevertheless in the process of the emergency slide evacuation no fewer than 15 of the 312 passengers and crew ended up in hospital: five had ankle injuries, five more suffered spinal or back injuries, two had rib injuries and two had abdominal or stomach injuries. There was also a child with a broken leg.
As one passenger Kirsty Bonwick told it: "A lot of people were hurt, scraping their arms and legs and elbows and bleeding. You think you're going to stop at the end of the chute and then get up, but you go flying off it and into the concrete, which is why everybody cut their arms and legs and were bleeding."
The strange fact is that this Virgin tale was by no means atypical of such incidents and it’s not that the industry isn’t aware of the problems. Statistics show that 50 percent of slide evacuations result in injuries to passengers and ten percent of these are classified as serious.
One FAA study (The Airport Cooperative Research Program) struggled with the relevance of the 90-second evacuation requirement in airplanes like the A380 that can carry in excess of 700 passengers spread over two decks. Their conclusion was that even with its complement of sixteen slides this would still seem like a highly optimistic target for such a gargantuan aircraft.
The same ACRP study relates anecdotal evidence such as, “The cabin crew noted difficulties during the evacuation process. Some flight attendants let people take their belongings with them while others forced people not to take them when evacuating. Thus, some passengers evacuated down the slides with their cabin baggage. Passengers taking luggage or wearing high-heeled shoes risk damage the slide as they slide down. It was also observed that passengers collided with each other at the bottom of the slides as they did not do know what to do next”.
What seems conspicuous by its absence in such reports is any discussion as to whether or not airlines might err too heavily on the side of safety in a significant number of so-called emergency landings.
It would certainly appear there may be an argument for not rushing so readily to deploy the slides and start shooing passengers down them. The famous line about hindsight and 20/20 vision has to be considered I know, however it does seem that in the vast majority of slide evacuations the passengers could have safely waited on board to exit the aircraft via air-stairs or jet-ways - the false alarm on Virgin Atlantic being the most recent such example.
In the meantime maybe it’s time for a smart aero design firm to come up with some improvements that will improve the passengers’ odds in what seems like a game of “Let’s see who can catapult face-first into the tarmac the hardest.”
As Paul Simon puts it, “You know the nearer your destination the more your slip slidin’ away.”