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A question on Travel (Are parachutes allowed on airplanes as cabin baggage?) got me to wondering: hypothetically, what items could the "über-paranoid" passenger or pilot bring on-board to potentially save their life in an emergency?

I.e. a parachute, oxygen, a portable smoke hood?

What are the technicalities? I.e. would a parachute be of any use above a certain altitude? What about with oxygen?

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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife I'm referring to all possible emergencies - what [hypothetically] could someone bring on-board? I'm particularly interested in something happening at high altitude, i.e. a mid-air collision or fire. To put it another way, presume you're in a mid-air collision and you've brought a parachute; will you live? $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett Jan 3 '14 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ Bringing oxygen on a plane is far more likely to cause an emergency than to help you escape one. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jan 3 '14 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ @yankeekilo Actually, parachutes are permitted in carry-on. Click the link in the question! The TSA have a section on their website specifically allowing them, as do a number of airlines. $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett Jan 3 '14 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ @DannyBeckett wow, I really never would have guessed that. Noted as my favorite factoid of the day! Even though HA(LO) gear looks quite bulky, so you´d pay extra :D $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Jan 3 '14 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DannyBeckett I think a question which simply asks whether or not it would be "possible or practical to parachute from a commercial airliner in an emergency" would be a more constructive and answerable question - since that seems to be the question you really want answered anyway. $\endgroup$ – Bret Copeland Jan 3 '14 at 20:34
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Most of the items you can bring with you to maximize your chances of surviving an in-flight emergency are items you're not going to be allowed to bring with you.
About the only things I could recommend bringing along on a commercial flight are your cellphone and a personal locator beacon (PLB) of some kind, but frankly if your airliner goes down ATC is going to know where you were when they lost contact, (and the plane has an Emergency Locator Transmitter already).

You should also wear sensible clothing -- natural fibers like wool or cotton are the order of the day if in-flight fire is a concern. Polyester or other synthetic fabrics will melt to your skin and cause you to have a Bad Time.


More directly addressing your question though, the items that spring immediately to my mind (and why you probably won't be taking them with you) are:

  • A parachute (what prompted your question)
    Sure, you can bring your parachute. It's kind of a useless security blanket though.
    From cruise flight you'd basically be executing a high-altitude jump (let's say a HALO jump, because you want to get down as quick as you can). You would require oxygen to remain conscious longer than about 30-45 seconds (though an automatic-opening chute may save you here), as well as protective clothing to survive the low temperatures while you're free-falling.
    Those concerns aside, remember that airliner cabins are pressurized and the doors are typically "plug doors" that open inward. No human is strong enough to open that door with the cabin pressurized, and if you've lost cabin pressure for some reason you're better off putting on that little drop-down oxygen mask like the nice flight attendant told you to in the safety briefing. You're not going to save yourself if you pass out from hypoxia while putting on your chute and trying to get to the door.

  • An oxygen mask / smoke hood can be useful in a fire.

    • Most airlines are not going to let you carry an oxygen cylinder onto the plane (as others pointed out in comments, oxygen and in-flight fires can cause more problems than it solves). That holds true for pretty much any kind of compressed gas because really, how do they know what's in that tank?
    • A smoke hood using a filter (or a sealed rebreather hood) with no compressed air supply may make it past security, but ask yourself honestly: "Am I proficient enough to use an emergency escape smoke hood in an in-flight emergency?" -- If you can't answer "yes" you're probably putting yourself (and others) in more danger wasting time donning the hood versus just getting out of the aircraft.
  • A life vest (if traveling over water)
    This is overkill on an airliner (though those of us that fly little planes should seriously consider flotation devices when flying over water).
    Your airline seat cushion really CAN be used as a flotation device. Those big yellow slides also detach from the plane and make marvelous floats. Frankly if you need any of these items you're in a situation where having your own Mae West isn't going to really enhance your chances of survival.

  • A utility knife capable of cutting your seatbelt
    This is incredibly useful for a bunch of reasons, not just cutting your way out of your seatbelt. In fact I keep one in my plane. Sharp and/or pointy things make airport security nervous though - if you try to take such an item on an airline flight it will likely be taken away from you before you get anywhere near the plane.

  • Food and Water
    Useful if you have to make an emergency landing in a remote area, but frankly airliners already have beverages (some may even still have food).
    If you're carrying a light snack you're as set as you're going to be in this department.

  • Emergency Blankets
    Nice to have, but most commercial aircraft already have shock blankets on board (and much like food/water, this is really only useful if you have an otherwise uneventful landing in a remote area).
    If it makes you feel better to have your own blanket you can get pre-packed ones that can fit in basically any carry-on for about $5-10.

  • Signal flares
    Again, mainly useful if you have an emergency landing in a remote area (and your PLB and the plane's ELT don't work for some reason). Flares are good both for signaling rescuers and for starting fires to keep warm.
    I don't know if rescue flares are still routinely carried on commercial airliners, but I can say with reasonable certainty that you will not be allowed to carry on your own. They don't let you smoke on most airlines these days - they're certainly not going to let you carry on a self-igniting flare!

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that oxygen is also provided by the airline ("if the overhead masks should deploy...."). Since smoke fumes and fire kill the most people, I would vote for the smoke hood and a nomex fire suit. :-) $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 4 '14 at 5:06
  • $\begingroup$ @lnafziger This is true (and in fact as others have pointed out oxygen-dependent patients may be allowed to fly with an oxygen bottle as long as the oxygen supply is not deemed to be a hazard). The on-board oxygen masks are a special case though - they're usually connected to either a central oxygen tank or to chemical oxygen generators, both which are not without their own hazards in the event of an in-flight fire (chemical oxygen generators feature prominently in at least one NTSB report), but the risks are known & designed for. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 4 '14 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ Yup; when my plane crashes in a swamp and I'm knee deep in kerosene with 80 other desperate survivors, remind me to run like hell before that one guy gets excited and fires his signal flare. $\endgroup$ – Jason C Mar 14 '14 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ "but frankly if your airliner goes down ATC is going to know where you were when they lost contact" One certainly would have thought so, but recent events suggest that this is not as dependable as one would have assumed in certain parts of the world. $\endgroup$ – reirab Mar 20 '14 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ A life vest will be already on board on any flight over significant body of water and many other flights (in Europe it usually is there even if you don't fly anywhere near any water, because they just have standard equipment in their fleet, but I believe regional airlines that never fly across water may not have them). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jan 18 '15 at 21:51
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The two most important things you can bring on board that are likely to save your life in an emergency are a physically fit body and a ticket to a seat in an exit row.

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    $\begingroup$ Paying attention to that safety briefing is also a good way to maximize your chances of survival. If your don't know where the nearest exits are you'll have a tough time getting to them in an emergency. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 3 '14 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ Add common sense & a tendency not to panic in high-stress situations. $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Jan 3 '14 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ Although this technically answers the question, it isn't quite what I'm looking for. I'm wondering what outside items you could bring on-board to maximise your chance of survival. $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett Jan 3 '14 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DannyBeckett - If there was some item that could measurably increase occupant safety, don't you think it would already be required equipment? $\endgroup$ – Steve V. Jan 3 '14 at 23:56
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I would like to add a thunderer whistle to the list.

A thunderer whistle is an essential survival tool not only after a plane crash. It enables you to be heard miles away when rescue teams are looking for you. It helps them find you quicker, and if you're capable to, you can also morse. Finally, a thunderer whistle is small and light. I have one in my flight bag.

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I've seen it suggested many times that those seated near the rear of aircraft seem to have higher survival rates in crashes than those seated near the front.

Diagram of aircraft survival rates in different aircraft areas

Survival rates for various parts of the passenger cabin, based on an analysis of all commercial jet crashes in the United States since 1971 where detailed seating charts were available. (Illustration by Gil Ahn. Diagram Courtesy of seatguru.com.)

Source: Safest Seat on a Plane: PM Investigates How to Survive a Crash on Popular Mechanics

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer, but it isn't quite what I'm looking for. Essentially, I'm wondering how you might be able to survive a high altitude emergency, i.e. by jumping out of the plane. $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett Jan 3 '14 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Notice that the worst seat in the house is in the cockpit.... $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 4 '14 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ ...followed by first class. $\endgroup$ – Cameron MacFarland Jan 28 '14 at 5:32
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I am aware about the railway disaster where a passenger train hit a fuel cistern (1975, Žąsliai, Lithuania).

In this disaster, it was the synthetic clothing that burned and melted easily that significantly reduced chances of successfully escaping from the burning coaches.

This experience probably is applicable for some aircraft disasters as well.

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I read once a book about survival which I can't find now. Basically it was an investigation from a journalist about how different people dealt with situations where their life was at stake.

One of the situations was obviously a plane crash. The one thing that I took from that book is that in the case of an emergency, you simply act by reflexes; you don't have time to think. Therefore it is very important that you memorize the safety instructions at the beginning of the flight.

Yes, those silly instructions that you ignore while checking Facebook can save your life. So know where your nearest exit is, how to use the oxygen mask and where the life vest is.

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The vast majority of airline accidents are survivable. Obviously then, the vast majority of airline accidents end with a stationary aircraft on the ground. It may be bent or broken or on fire, but it's on the ground and it's not moving.

Some things about flying as a passenger are within your control and many are not. Putting aside any factors of age, fitness, gender, or where exactly you are sitting, there are a couple of things that you can do to maximize your odds of getting out alive.

  1. Pay attention to where you are sitting relative to the exits. Count the number of rows between you and the nearest exit, and the nearest exit in the opposite direction. Say these numbers to yourself in your head.
  2. Fasten your seat belt as tight as you can low down across your hips/upper thighs. You can loosen it up later after you're airborne or clear of the runway, but for the actual takeoff roll and landing rollout, be willing to be slightly uncomfortable because of how tight your seat belt is.
  3. Pay attention. During the takeoff roll and landing, don't have your head down looking at anything. Look up and pay attention to the sounds of the aircraft and the movements. If something goes wrong, you'll be much better prepared to take quick action if you need to if you're paying attention.
  4. If the landing or takeoff end badly and you know it, take action as soon as the aircraft stops moving. There's a strong tendency for people to wait for directions after an accident, so be the one who gives them. It doesn't matter particularly what you say as long as it's along the lines of "get up, hurry, move, go that way!"
  5. Wear shoes. At least for takeoff and landing, wear actual shoes that cover your feet and can't come off easily. When I was a flight attendant, we were told unofficially that wearing shoes was a huge predictor of who got off a wrecked, burning aircraft alive. If you do all of the 4 previous things right and are barefoot, your odds go down dramatically. And it's amazing how violent a crash can be to the point that flip flops and loafers are often missing from victim's feet.

As far as the OP, goes, I guess the answer is 1. your head full of correct thinking and 2. shoes.

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Get a smoke hood...Its an extreme No Brainer: read on. In a special program Sixty Minutes I believe, it was explained that most fatalities occur on the ground...Fires, smoke, and were survivable. that is if you could see, breathe, and your hair was not on fire. You can always use the smoke hood in your hotel as well. There are a few approved "passive" types that cover your head completely, seal at the neck, and have filtration to give you a couple of minutes to evacuate. The hood portion is Kapton fire retardant material so the dripping flaming plastic from the ceiling will be less likely to set your hair on fire. The acidic fumes will not get to your eyes so you will be better equipped to find the door in the dense smoke. better to have and not need than to need and not have.

From Canada's TSB Aviation Safety Study SA9501:

2.3 The Cabin Environment

The presence of fire, smoke, or toxic fumes created evacuation difficulties in 11 of the evacuations reviewed. (This issue is discussed further in Section 3.)

In 3 of these 11 evacuations, there were 89 deaths and 25 serious injuries.

Visibility was severely restricted or totally obscured in four evacuations where a cabin fire existed.

The combination of fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes was lethal in three of four occurrences where fatalities were incurred.

3.0 FIRE, SMOKE, AND TOXIC FUMES

Fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes were present in three of four fatal accidents examined in this study and caused serious injuries to many of the survivors.

The following excerpts from the report of the occurrence at Calgary help to illustrate the severe conditions that can exist during an evacuation when fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes are present.

Shortly after the evacuation commenced, fire melted windows along the left side of the aircraft. When the windows melted through, heat and smoke entered the aircraft, and the cabin environment quickly deteriorated. Substantial quantities of smoke also entered through the right over-wing exit and right rear service door.

Those passengers who had been seated beside the windows nearest the fire experienced some singeing of hair and clothing. Smoke obscured visibility almost totally during the latter stages of the evacuation.

Smoke conditions were worse in the aft section of the cabin. Passengers who exited via the rear exit reported that they were unable to see the exit and were required to follow the person ahead to locate it. By the time most had reached this exit, the smoke had lowered to about knee height. The bottom portion of the door and the slide were all that was visible. The passenger who was the last one to exit via the over-wing exit reported he had to drop to his knees to breathe fresh air before he was able to reach the exit. Only when he neared the exit, did it become visible through the smoke. (A84H0003)

The presence of fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes presented the greatest risk to a successful evacuation by restricting visibility, limiting communications, reducing the number of available exits, affecting passenger behaviour, and decreasing occupants' mental and physical capacities. Fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes were identified as hazards in 11 evacuations and were present in three of four fatal occurrences.

Thick black smoke severely restricted or totally obscured visibility in four occurrences where a cabin fire existed. As a result, passengers were unable to see the exits. In Cincinnati, the location of two passengers' bodies indicated that, in their attempt to get out of the aircraft, they had unknowingly passed an available exit.5

In the same occurrence, cabin attendants who were exposed to smoke and toxic fumes experienced great difficulty communicating orally. As a result, some passengers were unable to hear the emergency briefing.

A reduction in the number of available exits was recorded in nine occurrences. Fire and smoke also blocked egress in those occurrences where breaks in the fuselage were avenues of escape.

In three occurrences, it was found that burns and inhalation of smoke and toxic fumes limited passengers' mental and physical abilities, thereby obstructing or prohibiting their attempts to reach, operate, and negotiate emergency exits or egress through breaks in the fuselage.

Existing Risk Mitigation

There are several regulatory provisions which are designed to protect aircraft occupants from the risks associated with the presence of fire, smoke, and toxic fumes and thus increase the chances for a successful evacuation. As well, the industry has developed operating procedures to reduce or eliminate the effects of these hazards to crew and passengers. In the light of the high risks associated with the presence of fire and smoke as evidenced by the Canadian experience, the Board examined two areas of risk mitigation related to fire, smoke, and toxic fumes, namely protective breathing equipment for both crew members and passengers, and fire hardening of aircraft interiors. These areas were examined in the context of their potential to limit the risks encountered during the evacuation process.

3.1 Protective Breathing Equipment

She [the flight attendant] saw light grey smoke had filled the lavatory from the floor to the ceiling, but she saw no flames. The flight attendant closed the door but not before she had become dizzy from inhaling the smoke. (A83F0006)

Twenty-three passengers died from smoke and toxic fume inhalation as a result of an in-flight fire in the rear lavatory of a DC-9. (A83F0006) The lavatory was completely filled with smoke that severely restricted visibility and impaired breathing. As a result, the cabin attendant in-charge was unable to locate the source and exact nature of the fire or to fight it effectively. In the investigation report of this occurrence, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated;

"... had an oxygen bottle with a full-face smoke mask been available and used, it might have encouraged and enabled him to take immediate and aggressive actions to fight the fire, as set forth in the company manual."6

Canadian Industry Practice

In addition to the protective breathing equipment (PBE) provided for the flight crew, some air carriers provide at least one portable PBE unit for crew members who may be required to fight cabin fires on non-combi aircraft. Such units are normally located on the flight deck. Portable PBE is carried either to fulfil operating requirements, as specified in the type certification of some aircraft, or as a result of a particular carrier's desire to enhance cabin attendants' capabilities to fight fires. The TSB has been advised that some air carriers do carry PBE units in the cabin.

Regulations in the United States and United Kingdom

PBE for flight crews has been a mandatory requirement in the United States for over 45 years. In 1987, partly as a result of the DC-9 occurrence at Cincinnati, the FAA amended Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 121-337, Protective Breathing Equipment, such that air carriers operating transport category aircraft must provide PBE, not only to flight crew, but also to other crew members who are responsible for fighting fires on board the aircraft. One portable PBE unit is required at each hand-held extinguisher station. There is no requirement to provide passengers with any form of PBE; indeed, there are regulations which specifically prohibit passengers from bringing PBE which contains compressed oxygen on board air transport aircraft.

In the United Kingdom, PBE is mandatory for both flight and cabin crew. Such equipment must be provided for each cabin attendant required to be carried under safety regulations and must be readily accessible to them at their assigned stations. Supernumerary cabin attendants would not figure in the number of PBE units required. PBE is not required for passengers.

Transport Canada Regulations

ANO Series II, No. 9, the Oxygen Equipment Order, stipulates PBE requirements for operation of large commercial aircraft. PBE is defined in the Order as "... equipment to cover the eyes, nose and mouth, or the nose and mouth if accessory equipment is provided to protect the eyes, that will protect the wearer from the effects of smoke, carbon dioxide or other harmful gases." In accordance with the Order, air carriers operating pressurized aircraft in a commercial air service must provide "each flight crew member on duty at his station protective breathing equipment." There is no regulatory requirement to provide cabin attendants, other than those working on combi aircraft, with PBE.7 Nevertheless, ANO Series VII No. 2, Section 45, "Emergency Procedures Training" clearly implies that all cabin attendants are expected to fight cabin fire.

Similarly, there is no regulatory requirement to provide passengers with PBE. Several years ago, Transport Canada participated in an international feasibility study addressing the safety benefit of providing "smoke hoods"8 for passengers. The results of the study were published by the CAA in 1987.9 It was concluded that the number of lives saved by smoke hoods each year would be "modest" (179 lives over 20 years, or approximately 9 lives per year world-wide) and that the time required to don the apparatus might increase the time required to evacuate an aircraft, thereby causing a greater loss of life. Mandatory carriage of smoke hoods as passenger safety equipment was not recommended. Neither Transport Canada nor any of the other countries who participated in the study (United Kingdom, United States and France) have subsequently proposed any regulatory amendments to require PBE for passengers.10

There remains the question of voluntary carriage of passenger PBE, by carriers

or by individuals. In accordance with The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, passengers travelling on Canadian commercial air carriers are prohibited from bringing on board passenger transport aircraft those smoke hoods which provide oxygen from a cylinder of compressed gas. Introduction of oxygen into the cabin environment, other than the oxygen found in the emergency overhead oxygen-mask system, which is designed for passenger use during an in-flight depressurization, is currently viewed as a hazard in the event of an in-flight fire. However, small, gaseous oxygen or air cylinders required by passengers for medical use are accepted as carry-on baggage or, with the operator's approval, as checked baggage. Canada has recently asked ICAO to examine, from a dangerous goods perspective, the issue of smoke hoods containing a cylinder of compressed gas.

Passengers are permitted to carry filtration-type smoke hoods on board Canadian aircraft but current filtration-type smoke hoods would not be as effective as smoke hoods which have a self-contained source of breathable oxygen.

Recommendations

In the context of the actual evacuation process, there is no direct evidence that a lack of PBE for cabin crew resulted in fatalities or injuries during evacuations. Yet, there is a paradox in that cabin attendants are expected to fight cabin fires, but, in many cases, they are not provided with PBE in the aircraft cabin. Ready access to portable PBE could improve their ability to fight fires and have the effect of reducing the risks faced by occupants during an evacuation. Therefore, the Board recommends that:

The Department of Transport require that sufficient portable protective breathing equipment units with full-face masks be carried in the passenger cabins of transport aircraft for cabin crew. A95-01

In the light of the number of fatalities that occur when fire, smoke, and/or toxic fumes are present, the Board believes that further research is required to determine whether passengers should be given the opportunity to carry appropriate protective breathing equipment. Accordingly, the Board recommends that:

The Department of Transport re-evaluate research regarding protective breathing equipment (PBE) for passengers with a view to determining the feasibility of the carriage of appropriate protective breathing equipment, on a voluntary basis. A95-02

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    $\begingroup$ You should summarize your source rather than just pasting it all verbatim into your answer. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Bosboom Aug 27 '15 at 5:00

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