Letters to the Editor

Subject: Passengers initiating evacuation
From: Hessel Friedlander <HesselF@fdp.co.za>

There were two cases to which I would like to refer where passengers died as they sat waiting for crew evacuation instructions, that were never given.

One was the Varig crash at Orly airport where the crew and one passenger escaped. The other was a Saudia Arabian Airlines where all 391 died.

In both cases the cause of the accident was 'fire' and in both the pilots made successful landings. The passengers should have opened the doors and jumped out.

To what extent should passengers wait for crew instructions? Surely they should be able to rely on their own initiative? On the other hand many emergency landings do not end up with the whole plane suddenly exploding. What do you suggest passengers should do after an emergency landing if there are no immediate instructions from the crew?

Editor’s Reply:

Good question; difficult answer. Clearly, in cases like the ones mentioned, where the plane is on fire at touchdown and the cabin has filled with smoke and/or fire, there should be no delay in evacuation once the plane has stopped moving. In most cases, the cabin crew will be yelling something like "release your seat belts and get out."

However, there are times when the crew may be incapacitated. Passengers should not sit still and wait in a situation like that; they must get out on their own initiative.

The other side of that coin is that there have been cases where passengers have initiated evacuations on their own, when the situation did not warrant an evacuation.

A passenger started one when he saw flame torching out the tailpipe of one of the engines. The plane was taxiing at the time. Fortunately, the flight attendants were able to stop anyone from jumping after the passenger had opened a door. Had anyone jumped out, they probably would have suffered severe or fatal injuries. Engines torch now and then and it doesn’t affect the safety of the airplane.

The 727 APU exhaust is on the top of the right wing. It will sometimes spit flame out during the starting cycle, after landing and during taxi-in. That, too, has caused some passengers to panic and start opening exits.

My advice, in such doubtful situations (where the plane is on the runway or taxiway and there is no smoke or fire in the cabin and the gear hasn’t collapsed, etc. etc.), is to call it to the attention of a flight attendant so the situation can be properly assessed and made known to the pilots. In other words, use common sense when it is not obvious that an immediate evacuation is necessary.

In cases like the two noted above, passengers are usually highly motivated to get out on their own if they are still conscious and capable of moving. In the crash of the United Airlines Vickers Viscount, on July 9th, 1964, one passenger jumped out before it crashed, because of fire in the cabin. In the two cases, mentioned by writer Friedlander:

Varig, 707-354C, July 11, 1973:

A fire started in the aft right lavatory and spread rapidly throughout the cabin. The captain made an emergency descent and tried to land on runway 07 at Orly airport, France, but was forced to crash land 3 miles short of the runway in a farm field. The smoke was so thick in the cockpit the pilots were forced to look out the opened side cockpit windows to keep the wings level as they touched down. The pilots had the advantage of masks that did not mix the oxygen with ambient air, as passenger oxygen masks do. That kept them conscious and able to crash-land the plane.

The gear collapsed, part of the left wing and all four engines were torn off. Yet, the fuselage remained intact. Seven crew members died (most from inhaling toxic fumes – the flight engineer suffered fatal traumatic injuries as his seat belt was not fastened), and all but one passenger succumbed to the toxic fumes. I have no doubt the reason more passengers failed to evacuate was because they were incapacitated or already dead from heat and toxic gas inhalation.

Saudi Arabian Airlines, Lockheed L-1011-200, August 19, 1980:

This accident illustrates the importance of getting the plane back on the ground as soon as possible, in an in-flight fire situation. The captain continued climbing away from the airport for 4 minutes after he first had notice of a fire in the C-3 cargo hold. When he finally decided to return, the pilots did not don their oxygen masks. The plane was landed safely on the runway, but the captain failed to use maximum braking to bring it to an immediate stop. Instead, he continued on down the runway and then off on a taxiway for 2 minutes and 40 seconds before stopping.

The CVR tape revealed the captain had instructed his crew, before the landing, not to evacuate. Clearly, the captain never realized the seriousness of the situation. The outboard engines were left running, after they stopped, and there was no evidence that anyone had tried to open cabin doors from the inside. The last message from the plane was "We are trying to evacuate now." The victims’ bodies were all found in the front part of the plane.

My suspicion is that passengers did try to find a way out, but heat and toxic fumes overcame them and the crew before anyone could actually open a door. All 301 persons on board died.

July, 1999

Robert J. Boser    

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The Editor of this Web Page, now retired, was an airline pilot for 33 years and holds 6 specific Captain's type-ratings on Boeing Jet Airliners.


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