Why Airplanes Don’t Have Parachutes – Our world is like a great kettle, filled with strange theories and ordinary knowledge, seasoned with exciting discoveries. And some diced carrots. Kind of a big existential stew, if you get me. For example: recently, I discovered the existence of special, super-big parachutes…for airplanes! It got me thinking: if even an airplane can have a parachute of its own, why don’t they supply each passenger on the flight with a personal parachute?! Wouldn’t it save hundreds of lives should a crash happen? Apparently, the answer is “no, it wouldn’t”.
But every commercial airliner has a life-jacket under each seat, so why not shove a little parachute in there as well? Now now, have some patience, my friend, because to answer this question, we’ll have to talk about some parachuting basics. Imagine you’ve decided to change your status and add the title “skydiver” to your name.
Like I did. Really. Made 500 jumps before I quit. Survived most of them. That’s a skydiver joke. So, picture right now you’re on a plane that’s taking you to a height of, oh say, 3,500 to 10,000 ft, depending on what kind of a jump you’re on. For beginner solo jumps, the lower heights are best, while student and tandem jumps happen at a higher altitude.
By the way, before the jump, you should have completed a crash course of ground instructions that lasts about 4 to 5 hours. Hmm. Maybe “crash course” isn’t the best choice of words here…Anyhow, this is when potential parachutists learn how to prepare to climb out of the door to exit the aircraft, maneuver their body in the air, and which hand signals will tell the instructor that they’ve changed their mind and want to get the heck back in the plane.
Ha. Still with me? Okay. Now imagine the aircraft has climbed to the necessary altitude and is ready to dump its precious cargo – and that would be you. Skydivers plan to leave the plane either in groups or alone. They attempt some fun maneuvers during any free-fall portion. Then when it’s time to deploy their parachutes about 2,000 feet off the dirt, they try to keep a distance of several hundred feet between each other,
and you can probably guess why. Right, so that their parachutes don’t get tangled mid-jump. Happened to me once. No biggie. I used my reserve chute to land safely. Always carry a spare. Now, one more thing: only specially-trained and equipped skydivers jump from altitudes higher than 15,000 ft. Otherwise you risk a lack of oxygen which can lead to confusion at critical times, like when you’re approaching the ground at 120 miles per hour, and you need to do something a bout it.
Like…you know, stop. And finally, a typical sport parachute and harness weighs about 15 pounds and doesn’t come cheap! All the equipment a skydiver needs to own can cost from $6,000 to $9,000! So, keep all these facts in mind, and let’s finally figure out why it’s tough to supply every single passenger on board a commercial aircraft with a personal parachute.
Some of the most popular commercial airliners these days belong to the Boeing 737 family. On average, these planes can fit about 200 people, including the crew. So, let’s do some math. Obviously, it’s impossible to fit a 4-hour skydiving course in a 10-minute-long pre-flight instruction. This means that passengers would have to watch the video for how to strap on a chute correctly and what to do during the jump on their own.
Also, not all people are great at following instructions. Really. Then there’s the stress and panic that would break out as soon as the plane got into trouble. And to save their lives, passengers would have to stay calm, pull a parachute out from under the seat, and strap it on, all the while keeping oxygen masks pressed to their faces and seatbelts fastened.
Good luck with that. Experts claim that most people wouldn’t even get as far as to get a hold of their chutes. Next, remember I told you that skydivers go down one by one or in small groups so they don’t collide with one another mid-jump? On board a commercial airplane that’s going down, there would be about 200 panicking people.
Do you think they would patiently wait for their turn to exit the plane? The next issue relates to the combined weight of the parachutes on the plane: if each of 200 passengers on board had a 15-pound parachute of their own, it would add more than 3,000 extra pounds to the flight’s weight. And the heavier a plane is, the more fuel it burns, and the more you pay for your ticket.
On top of that, all this equipment would take way too much precious space, and you would have even less legroom (however impossible it may sound). Moving along, using a parachute to save your life only makes sense if your plane goes down mid-flight. But if we have a look at the statistics between 2003 and 2012, just 9% of fatal commercial airplane crashes happened while the plane was at cruising altitude.
The rest of them occurred during takeoff or landing, where it’s too low for a parachute to work. Also, when a crash happens mid-flight, in most cases the culprit is a thunderstorm or a gusty wind. Skydiving in such conditions is extremely dangerous anyway. But wait, there’s more! First, the plane would be moving too fast for the passengers to leave it without smacking the side of the aircraft.
And secondly, do you still remember what height is considered safe for skydiving? Right, no higher than 15,000 feet without supplemental oxygen. But a plane’s average cruising altitude is about 35,000 feet!And about -60 degrees. That’s why, if you decided to leap off the plane mid-flight, you’d need a special mask, oxygen tank, helmet, flight suit, and altimeter to survive in the thin air.
And while an airline company might consider placing a parachute under each seat, squeezing in all the additional equipment is out of the question. Plus I’m thinking the airlines could likely charge you for a parachute, just like an extra checked bag, or a meal. So in the same row of seats, you’d have those folks with parachutes sitting next to those without.
Wow, can you just imagine the conversations over that! As you see, parachutes on board would turn out to be completely useless in the case of an emergency. But how about a whole-plane parachute? As I’ve mentioned before, there are parachutes that can carry a small plane, so, what’s the catch? Why can’t we just hook a gigantic chute on a commercial jetliner and forget all about plane crashes? The most famous producer of whole-plane parachutes is Miami-based BRS, which stands for Ballistic Recovery Systems.
Its founder started this business after the glider he was flying plunged into a lake 500 feet below. Luckily, the man survived and began to look for ways to make aviation safer. So far, the largest plane equipped with a parachute can carry 5 people at the most. Parachutes on such planes get stored inside the fuselage, either above the cockpit or behind the back seat.
If there’s an emergency, a pilot just needs to pull a handle located in the ceiling over their head, and presto! – a large parachute deploys over the aircraft. The descent rate immediately slows down. On the flip side, the impact you would experience if you were inside this plane would feel asif you jumped from a 13-foot height, which still isn’t so cool, come to think of it.
Well, apparently, a parachute can save a small plane that fits several people, but experts aren’t so sure about big commercial aircraft. They agree that, theoretically, it’s possible to equip a jetliner with a chute, but at this point in our technological development, it won’t make any sense. First and foremost, just like with personal parachutes, height matters.
And since most catastrophes happen during takeoff or landing, pilots may simply have no time to deploy the parachute. Plus, a parachute that would be able to significantly slow down a 200-ton airplane would have to be incredibly strong and large. As you understand, that also means that it would be super heavy.
Besides, for a large plane, it would have to be not one parachute, but a system of chutes. And now picture this: a Boeing 747, which can carry about 400 passengers, would have to be equipped with 21 parachutes, and each of them would be the size of a football field! Unfortunately, that’s just totally unrealistic.
To cut down on the number of canopies, a plane could probably ditch some of its heaviest parts, such as the engines and wings, in case of an emergency. In this case, the parachutes would only save the passenger cabin. Interestingly, the idea of a detachable cabin was first suggested by Gleb Kotelnikov, a Russian inventor, in the 1920s.
He proposed a mechanism that, in case of a crash, would cut the wings with large blades and then separate the cabin into several parts, each attached to its own parachute. Such a design was not only supposed to reduce the speed of the fall, but also save lives during landing and take-off accidents. And guess what? This more than 9-decade-old plan is our best hope to ever equip airplanes with parachutes.
Not any time soon, but one day – definitely. Finally, a quick personal story. A long time ago before airport security, and even before back-packs, I used to go on vacations which included skydiving, and I would always wear my parachute into the cabin when boarding,rather than check it as baggage. They’re expensive you know.
Well you should have seen some of the looks I got from other passengers. And I would always respond the same way: “So I guess you haven’t flown this airline lately?” And they would always laugh. A little nervously. How about you?Would you dare to jump with a parachute? Or maybe you’ve already done it? Let me know down in the comments.