Cabin Safety Training Is Not Just for Crews

 - September 13, 2019, 12:45 PM
The Executive Emergency Training course at FlightSafety International's Teterboro location features water evacuation instruction in the facility's pool. Here, helicopter rescue hoist equipment and lift techniques are being demonstrated on the author. (Photo Judylyn LaGuardia)

While corporate and Part 135 flight crewmembers are typically required to take cabin emergency training on a periodic schedule—usually every two years for pilots and every year for flight attendants—for the past several years FlightSafety International has been offering a similar program to corporate executives and their assistants, as well as aircraft owners and their families. AIN was recently invited to participate in one of the classes.

The three-hour session was held at the company’s Teterboro, New Jersey training center, one of only five in its network (along with Savannah, Dallas, Long Beach, and Paris) to offer cabin safety training as part of its curriculum. According to Ronald Clements, the Teterboro center’s cabin safety program manager, the executive version of the course is given at his facility four or five times a year, with similar numbers at the other locations.

It begins in an upstairs classroom with a brief introduction, followed by an assessment of the various classifications of fires that might be encountered on board an aircraft and how to combat them. Typically, the course instructor will have made a visit to the company’s or individual’s flight department ahead of the scheduled course date, or at the very least spoken with its director of maintenance, to take an inventory of what specific emergency equipment their aircraft is stocked with. Armed with that information, examples of those particular items will be gathered from FlightSafety’s collection and will be on hand in the classroom to provide hands-on familiarity.

With the prevalence of personal electronic devices, dealing with rechargeable batteries in thermal runaway now merits its own close scrutiny, and Clements detailed how an immediate, aggressive response to this emergency is required, first by knocking down the flames, usually with a Halon fire extinguisher, and then cooling the device with liquid. If the aircraft is equipped with a fire containment bag or box, a similar example will be present in the classroom as the proper procedures for its use are explained.

Other equipment demonstrated included smoke hoods as approximately 40 percent of business jets are currently equipped with them and portable oxygen bottles for passengers.

Putting Learning to the Test

The next stop was downstairs to the cabin simulator. Made from the fuselage of a former Gulfstream GII, with video screens outside each window giving the illusion of flight (or a crash landing depending on the program selected), it is used for a variety of purposes, including teaching cabin service with real catering for flight attendants. But in this case its mission was emergency evacuation. It is equipped with overwing exits corresponding to those on Bombardier, Dassault and Gulfstream aircraft, and Clements demonstrated how the windows are removed in preparation for an emergency escape. On occasion, the course is taught at the customer’s home base, scheduled to coincide with inspections of the actual aircraft’s emergency exits, providing participants with the opportunity to remove the real window panels.

The simulator is equipped with functioning drop-down oxygen masks for decompression training, and each seat has an inactive inflatable life vest in its compartment underneath. During several scenarios, accompanied by appropriate imagery on the video screens, Clement played the role of crewmember, demonstrating the proper brace position for an emergency landing, and then had me wait for the signal to unbuckle, move to the window exits, scan for obstructions, remove the window, and exit. Also demonstrated was how to operate the main cabin door and airstairs. The training is particularly helpful for Part 91 passengers, where, depending on their personal or company preference, the pre-takeoff safety briefing is not required before every flight.

Clements explained the differences between a planned emergency landing and an unplanned crash, giving examples of the types of cabin preparation that can be done with advance warning, such as a ditching at sea. Valuable emergency supplies such as uneaten catering and water bottles can be gathered, along with emergency equipment such as flashlights, blankets, and the airplane’s medical kit. Given enough time, passengers are even told to change their clothing to garments made from natural fibers (if not wearing such already) as added protection in case of fire.

He then demonstrated the preparation of an inflatable life raft, showing where it is stored, how it is unpacked, and how it is fastened to the aircraft by a tether before being pushed out of the overwing exit and inflated.

In addition to providing familiarity with this equipment, the training also helps turn the course participants into “force multipliers,” allowing them to become a resource for the flight crew in case of emergency. “Another takeaway is encouraging a conversation between crew and passengers unique to that model aircraft,” said Clements, “unique to the captain’s preference for what their role can be in emergencies.” Before joining FlightSafety, Clements served as a flight crew member in the military, and he noted similarities in the unique dynamics that can occur in an aircraft environment during an emergency. While the flight crew may be considered employees and subordinates of the company CEO or high-net-worth individual they are transporting, the passengers, much like the high-ranking officers Clements was responsible for during his service days, must understand that they need to obey the instructions of the flight crew in an emergency.

We then ventured forward to the simulator’s cockpit. He demonstrated how, in the case a pilot becomes incapacitated, passengers can assist by allowing the remaining pilot to concentrate on flying the airplane, while they help by securing the ill pilot’s harness and applying the easy-don oxygen mask.

Using an oxygen tank equipped with such a mask, Clements demonstrated what breathing supplemental oxygen is like at altitude during a decompression event, and explained that flight crew members may not be able to speak to issue instructions under those circumstances.

Clements presented those scenarios to introduce the customers to the concept of crew resource management, which he describes as “adults playing well together under duress in expensive confined space with limited time and resources.”

Last, for some in-cabin fire fighting practice, I was handed a simulated fire extinguisher. When activated, it emitted a laser-pointer-like beam, which interacted with a device that was hidden somewhere in the cabin. On cue from Clements, smoke began issuing from a floor-level storage cabinet at the back of the fuselage, along with flickering orange and red lights. I grabbed the extinguisher, pulled the pin as shown, and headed back fight to the mock blaze. Once the laser beam made contact with the sensor at the base of the device for the prescribed amount of time, it “extinguished” itself.

In the parking lot behind the building, I got a taste of the real thing, using a water-filled extinguisher to fight a propane–fueled fire, while keeping the mantra of PASS (pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep) in mind. This part of the training falls under the heading of what Clements described as life skills; abilities that could be of use outside of the aircraft as well.

Preparing for a Water Landing

The Teterboro facility is one of only two in the company’s system with its own swimming pool (the other locations that provide cabin safety training will contract with outside pools), and that was our next destination for water landing and rescue drills. I was given a jumpsuit and directed into the well-equipped locker room to change. On one side of the pool area was a display of the various survival items to be found in a life raft, again augmented by the inventory of the customer’s actual aircraft. Clements demonstrated the use of emergency equipment such as signaling mirrors, water desalinators, and one of the newer additions to the survival equipment roster, laser flares, which are less dangerous and longer-lasting than the former pyrotechnic variety.

FlightSafety uses Winslow life rafts, and according to Clements, the company has an upwards of 80 percent market share in the corporate aviation market. For the first task, he placed an inflated 12-person raft upside down in the water and explained how to right it. I braced my feet on one of the loops hanging off the side of the raft and grabbed a similar loop on the underside of the raft and leaned back, using my body as a counterweight to flip the raft.

We then moved to the “ditcher.” Meant to resemble an aircraft fuselage, it is actually a large fiberglass storage tank, suspended at both ends above the pool on a lift similar to those found in an auto repair shop. Exits and windows are cut into the sides, and several boat chairs are bolted to the floor. It looked rather benign as I entered it, donned an inflatable life vest and took a seat, but as the simulation started, things became real when water began flowing up through the floor and swirled around my legs as the simulator settled into the water. When Clements gave the evacuation order, I stepped out onto the wing platform, and as previously advised, inflated my life vest by pulling down on the handle.

The pool area had changed. The bright overhead lights were now dark and sprays of water from sprinklers added to the illusion of a ditching at sea. I jumped off the platform, and unaccustomed to the sensation of wearing a tight, highly-inflated life vest, awkwardly followed the umbilical strap to the tethered life raft.

I will admit I encountered some unexpected difficulties hoisting myself up from the water and over the two-foot-high side of the raft, even with the rope ladder. Some due to the encumbrance of the vest, some due to my groping to find a proper handhold amidst the spray, and some to being tangled in the umbilical strap (which would remain tethered to the aircraft until subject to 500 pounds of pressure, or manually cut), but I eventually flopped over into the raft like a landed fish. Clements soon joined me and described the safety features of the raft, and where survival equipment would be stored.

For the last part of the training, a hoist suspended over the pool is used to simulate helicopter rescues. I swam away from the raft and entered a metal lift basket attached to the cable, after being shown the proper position. I was then lifted out of the water and lowered back down. That process was repeated two more times, each time demonstrating different lifting equipment that might be encountered on the end of the rescue helicopter’s hook, such as a sling or a lifting chair.

After changing back into street clothes, I finished the program with a brief recap. One of Clements's biggest surprises in his six years of instructing is seeing the differences in how people learn. He recalled how one CEO seemed utterly disinterested in the classroom lesson, to the point that he ordered the instructor to click swiftly through the slide portion, yet he became a highly enthusiastic participant in the hands-on portions, such as the cabin simulator. While some executives attend the course with no intention of getting wet, Clements said they usually have a change of heart when they see the ditcher, and the company keeps spare bathing suits on hand for just such occasions.

Watch AIN video of cabin safety training for how to survive an emergency and how flight attendants prepare for emergencies.