Friday, June 04, 2010

Float Plane Safety

A British Columbia newspaper wraps up a series on float plane safety today, but I'm writing this after reading the first installment only. According to that article, British Columbia is home to twenty percent of all commercial float plane operators in Canada. It misrepresents the situation a little by saying that BC movements represent 97 per cent of all float plane traffic at Nav Canada staffed facilities, because BC is the only place in Canada where there are floatplanes taking off and landing under the clearance of a control tower. Hundreds of flights a day take place across the country to and from places that don't even have names, let alone control towers or FSSes.

British Columbia is especially vulnerable to float plane accidents, even if they don't really have the lion's share of float plane movements, because BC float planes service remote coastal areas, where in most other provinces float traffic is in and out of remote lakes and rivers. The coastal inlets in BC are in close proximity to mountainous terrain, prone to fog and heavy rain, and often out of range of conventional nav aids. Salt water, even just moist salt air, is exceptionally hard on aircraft, so I wouldn't be surprised of airplanes operating in that environment suffered more equipment failures.

The introduction to the series criticizes existing regulations governing float planes, including the safety briefing a reported received on a Harbour Air flight, as it did not describe how to operate the exit doors. Last time I flew on a float plane I don't remember if the pilot detailed the operation of the exits, but he did give a demonstration of putting on the life jacket. The briefing card in both cases would have diagrams showing how to open the door.

The idea of passengers routinely wearing lifejackets inside the airplane brings to mind a couple of scenes from Six Days, Seven Nights (which, by the way, I first saw as an in-flight movie). When the engaged couple first travel in Harrison Ford's character's Beaver, they are asked to wear life jackets, and this effectively emphasizes their discomfort with the small aircraft. In later scenes, even ones where the protagonists are flying a bullet-ridden aircraft on a set of makeshift floats, they do not wear life jackets. Life jackets are perceived as a symbol of fear and discomfort.

I'd like to see some testing--not too hard to do in dunk tank egress trainers--on whether wearing lifejackets inside the cabin actually helps passengers escape. A lifejacket, even uninflated, impairs mobility and flexibility, and it could get caught on things. One passenger who became confused and inflated the jacket could impede the exit of others. It may be that these concerns are as silly as the argument people used to make against wearing seatbelts in cars, afraid that they would be trapped in the vehicle by their seatbelt. I'd just like to see it tested, on passengers who have had a standard briefing, including some with simulated injuries.

The safety briefing I give does include step-by-step door opening instructions. I don't fly over water sufficient to trigger a regulatory requirement for lifejackets to be present and briefed.


gmc said...

re: "I'd just like to see it tested, on passengers who have had a standard briefing...."

Me too but I suspect the dangers of accidentally drowning one or two would be high...?

Inflating a life vest inside an airliner during emergency evac. would be bad enough. Inside a small plane it would be disastrous for everyone. I carry standard marine life-vests in my small plane for the few times I might fly over water. I don't wear one beforehand because should the aircraft turn turtle on ditching, it would pin me into my seat. No easy answer.

borealone said...

I'm actually very interested in how this review plays out, and whether the powers-that-be can find a solution that works.

I fly floats privately, often with my small children on-board, so egress issues are something that I've thought about a lot. There aren't any great solutions.

Personally, I weigh wear a Mustang manual inflatable vest designed for fishermen - it's got pockets and such that actually make it useful, rather than cumbersome, and it really doesn't feel like a lifejacket. Totally non-TSO approved, but it's the kind of think that I could see a commercial float pilot being pretty comfy in. When I'm out with my wife or a buddy, I've got an extra for whoever rides right seat.

I've also looked into more user-friendly manual inflatable vest options for my kids - but there is nothing approved by either TC or USCG for kids under 16. I understand that European standards are different, so I'm looking at British and German models in hopes that i can find something suitable.

Oh -and I would be remiss not to mention those lovely yellow vinyl TSO-approved lifevests that I'm required to carry. They stay in their pouches in the seatbacks. They are close at hand, but I have no confidence that anyone would be able to get into one in a real emergency (ie an upset or capsize) in the close quarters of a small floatplane.

It's frankly unbelievable that in a world where we can solve complex problems that we've not yet come up with a simple solution to a problem that continues to cost the lives of pilots and passengers.

Aviatrix said...

The underwater egress training places have people in SCUBA gear standing around underwater watching the situation and ready to provide air and/or other assistance to anyone who loses it.

A session in the egress trainer might be a cool thing for a float company to make available to frequent fliers or as a bonus for buying a multi-ticket pass. It probably wouldn't cost them that much if they were bringing the company in to do their own pilots, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Those Mustang vests seem to be the best bet. But most fatalities are the result of being trapped, so all the recent emphasis on life vests isn't addressing the main issue. Improved exits should have first priority. Once your out though, it sure would be nice to have a vest, especially if your plane is heading for the bottom. If I can post a link to a good article, this one is worth reading:

click here