Just how crashworthy is your aircraft’s cabin? Here’s hoping you’ll never find out. Our safety refurbishment article that begins on page 7 contains a number of useful tips for preparedness, plus a rundown of aftermarket products for raising the bar on cabin crashworthiness and occupant safety. For years, I thought little about the issue, other than snugging the seat belt during the takeoff roll and instructing passengers how to operate the cabin door and emergency windows. And then I was in a crash.
It was a controlled crash (if there is such a thing) of a high-wing Cessna into a field of Cow Corn after total engine failure. As an occupant in the front right seat of the aircraft, I learned a lot about crash landings, including the effectiveness of shoulder restraints. But what I learned most was how vulnerable to injury cabin occupants are from unsecured items. The stuff we generally take along on every flight including flashlights, headsets, bottles of water, pens, phones, fire extinguishers—and of course, tablet computers and portable GPS units—become dangerous projectiles.
The plane was fresh out of maintenance that included interior disassembly. As a result, some accessories that should be secured in the aft baggage area ended up on the rear seat and on the floor when the shop put everything back together (inlet plugs, containers of oil, portable urinal and a small metal step ladder come to mind). It was my responsibility to secure them.
Aside from a windmilling propeller, the landing and rollout in the field was normal until the aircraft starting slicing through the tall cornstalks. That’s when stuff started flying about the cabin. The aircraft ultimately ended up flipping tail over nose in the soft soil and that sent all of the loose items settling onto the other pilot and me. The aircraft had one of those large cockpit organizers that fits between the two front seats. It secures to the cabin carpeting with two strips of Velcro. It didn’t stay in place when the aircraft flipped, sending it and all the gadgets stored in the compartments flying. All’s well that ends well, save for a cracked tooth, some minor cuts from the shoulder belt and a spike in blood pressure.
Aside from securing loose objects in the cabin, you’ll want to be mindful of where you mount portable electronics. Specifically, keeping the hardware out of the occupant flail envelope. During a crash, this is the volume of space that surrounds the flailing body. Think of the videos you’ve seen of crash test dummies and how the head and extremities of the dummy jerk forward and aft during impact. The flail envelope varies, depending on body size and the type of restraint system, but engineers consider the flail envelope when designing aircraft interiors. You should take a similar approach when loading your equipment in the cabin. In general, mounting a portable device to side pillars, side windows and even on the lip of the glareshield might compromise a safe flail envelope for the head. During landing, my flailing head sent the headset, ballcap and sunglasses into the windshield.
Aircraft manufacturers are improving occupant crashworthiness by considering objects that cause injury. The interior of a Cirrus is one example. While the control stick is within the flail envelope of the torso, its placement to the side of the panel could take it out of the way of a flailing head. The air vents and the ignition switch are recessed into the molded subpanel, potentially reducing injury to the torso. You might follow this lead when upgrading the avionics in your aircraft. Substitute rocker switches for blunt toggle switches and avoid placing switches where your head might impact them in a crash. It’s one of many ways to delethalize the cabin.—Larry Anglisano