Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Emergency Descent

I blogged recently about the panic engendered in passengers by the standard, safest response to a depressurization incident at altitude. I'll say it again, though. The one non-standard thing that has happened is that the cabin pressure has dropped. Passengers will feel this through ears "popping" and or pain in their sinuses and ears. They probably will not notice any shortness of breath.

Then the airplane and crew reacts according to design. The oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. Everyone screams. Drop them on the ground, with the wheels on the pavement, people still scream. The homey airlines like Southwest and Westjet will even include "stop screaming" as one of the instructed steps for use of the oxygen masks.

The crew begins an emergency descent. They are getting you and your screaming lungs to a place where you can breath unhindered just as fast as human reflexes, the surrounding terrain, and the structure of the airplane allow. The rapid descent is a good thing.

I can sympathize with passengers not knowing this, and even if they do know, I can understand how unsettling a rapid descent can be. And the pain can be very severe ruptured eardrums and sinuses do heal, however, while the results of oxygen deprivation don't. It's a very easy choice.

But the media are not sealed in a rapidly descending airplane with a crew who are too busy to make a passenger announcement about what is happening. They have the opportunity to ask questions of informed people. But they prefer to just talk to the shaken passengers. So you get things like this.

Up to 26 hospitalized in forced landing in France

The terminology "forced landing" usually refers to a landing made by an aircraft that cannot sustain flight, typically one without engine power. The descent to 10,000' was forced, but that's a whacky way to describe the event. The airline says that those taken to hospital were complaining of earache, and were all released. Judging from the line in the article, "Although French officials said the plane descended 26,200 feet (8,000 meters), Ryanair gave no details about a loss of altitude," the airline should take some blame for this ridiculous article because they didn't explain the emergency descent in their press release. The reporter is left believing that the airplane malfunctioned in some way so as to suddenly drop out of the sky, and has transmitted this ignorance to the readers.

26 Hospitalized After Ryanair Jet's Midair Plunge, Emergency Landing

Emergency landing is more accurate than forced landing, but really it was an emergency descent. I wonder if they even had equipment waiting. Once again the headline describes the response to the emergency, not the actual emergency itself. Is it because the actual emergency makes a boring headline or does FOX not get it either?

I'm not saying that the reason for the depressurization might not be a serious problem. I just want the media to realize that the rapid descent is a proper response to the problem, not the problem itself. If they did report that, then perhaps the next planeload of passengers to experience a deliberate emergency descent wouldn't think they were in a death plummet.

17 comments:

david said...

Small plane passengers wouldn't have a problem -- they're used to spiraling rapid descents out of cruise from 10,000 ft over an airport because someone has to go NOW!

(My family's never made me do that, but I know lots of pilots who've had the experience.)

dpierce said...

I wonder if the screaming would keep the eustachian tubes open, preventing an eardrum rupture?

That particular article originated with the AP, but FOX' live coverage of aviation incidents is hillarious.

I remember catching a report of an Airbus that was about to land with its nose gear stuck 90 degrees off-center. Man, did they hype it. Several "experts" they did phone interviews with said it would be a non-event. They kept hyping it.

Now I'm watching just to see if anyone will mention, after the landing, that perhaps they made too much of this. No chance. They just replayed the landing for a half hour. Amazing. No wonder people freak out over minor things.

Lord Hutton said...

Perhaps this blog ought to be made available to all aeroplane passengers?

jb said...

Hi Aviatrix,

Forget about trying to get even a decent media coverage as far as an aviation incident is concerned...

Here in Spain, the recent sonic boom incident with two spanish fighter planes was described by one of the main Spanish newspapers as "two military jets surpassing the speed of light..."

Wonderful!

Regards,
jb

Scott Johnson said...

Hey JB: Remember the CNN coverage of the breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia? They reported, both in the lower third and the voiceover, that the shuttle was traveling at "18 times the speed of light" during re-entry. CNN: Not rocket scientists. :)

Aviatrix, I don't know what all the fuss is about. I've been through two rapid descents from the FL2xxes, one as a pilot and one as a passenger, and they were both really exhilarating rides! :)

Ed said...

Good article, but...people who've been around aviation for a while will know what had equipment waiting means - fire trucks and ambulances at the end of the runway. Unfortunately, that's the sort of "in" terminology which might well cause further confusion with the sort of journalists who screw up stories like this.

Astroprof said...

I can see how someone not familiar with aircraft can become a bit panicked in the middle of an incident like that, particularly if others around them are panicked. But, people who know a little about aviation should know better. Frequent fliers should know about the emergency procedures (granted most don't).

But, for the reporters, it is an entirely different matter. They are safely on the ground when this is going on. They have the internet and other resources to research the matter. For them to still mis-report the story is inexcusable. Of course, I have dealt with the press on more than one occasion for astronomy topics, and I find them to be mostly inexcusable.

Anoynmous said...

If anyone ever reports something like "the crew took only a few minutes to descend to an altitude where the oxygen masks were not required" (instead of "the airliner suddenly dropped over 26 thousand feet"), the reporter should be congratulated enthusiastically.

Anonymous said...

The general purpose media is so universally awful these days that expecting quality reporting from them--on any topic--is like expecting a pig to sing.

The only consistently good source for high-quality reporting on aviation incidents is pprune.

Aviatrix said...

I admit I snuck the "equipment" into that entry without explaining for those who knew what I meant. It isn't something you want to tell the journalists because then they think it's more serious than it is. I've had firetrucks waiting for me because my electrical was out. I telephoned the tower for a landing clearance and they took it upon themselves to scramble trucks. It was not an emergency.

And I hooted out loud at your "faster than light" reports. They REALLY have no idea. Warp five, captain!

Ed said...

Yes, first version of my comment had a paragraph about how common it is for them to roll the equipment when there's any slight problem with a flight, even if there's no real risk of an accident on landing. I cut it before posting but perhaps shouldn't have; it's a point well worth making.

david said...

I think that the emergency teams at the airport probably need to scramble every once in a while just to keep cobwebs and squirrels out of their trucks.

Aviatrix said...

You're absolutely right, David. When I've apologized to firefighters for the unnecessary call that's what they say. They appreciate the exercise. It's not like causing an UNSAR. Once when it was a community fire department and not an on-airport one I gave them a little tour of things like where the fuel lines run in a Cessna, and how to shut off the fuel and electrical.

Richard said...

Actually Aviatrix, the odd UNSAR (for non aviation people that's an Emergency Location Transmitter activation when no emergency exists) isn't a big deal, especially if CASARA is called out to deal with it instead of our scarce military resources. We like the exercise too. Its when someone quietly turns off the ELT without reporting the activation, leaving searchers wondering what happened; or when the pilot is tracked down and says he will go turn it off as soon as he finishes the round of golf that people get upset (yes that has happened).

Alistair said...

scrambling the trucks isn't always a good thing.

the fire brigade at MNI had an exercise that ended in the airport being shut for a fortnight.
they came careening out of their little shed onto the runway, with one water tank empty, and rolled the truck over. had to wait for a new fire tender to be brought from ANU on the cargo ship.

granted this is a tiny Caribbean island so it's not that much of a surprise when bizzare things like that happen!

Steve said...

One aspect that you forgot is that the media is not to educate or inform people. Their job is to sell advertising which requires the media to exaggerate every event, and given their lack of in-depth knowledge of any one event, they tend to make stuff up to sell more advertising.

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