By James Morrison, CPT

Crash2A British film crew, an elite 727 flight crew, and a team of scientists recently completed one of the most dangerous experiments in the history of aviation. For the first time, the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity series captured on camera what a plane crash looks like from inside the cabin. Fifteen crash test dummies, several G-meters, and video footage from inside the plane show what happens in a serious but survivable airline crash.

“It’s never been safer to fly, but we want to use this as an opportunity to provide scientific data that might help improve passenger safety in those extremely rare cases when a catastrophic aircraft accident does occur,” said Sanjay Singhal, the series’ executive producer. The project is detailed in these videos from the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity series: (you may have to tolerate an advertisement or two to get to the good stuff).

Crash1As described in Managing the Unexpected, by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, high reliability organizations (HROs) think and act differently. Reliability, in this context, is considered the ability to do the correct thing, consistently, over time, no matter who the individual players are.  HROs are generally described as organizations that have developed a culture, processes, and tools that help them have fewer than their fair share of incidents, even though they work in very dangerous environments.

HROs share these characteristics:

  • Continuous operation in complex, tightly coupled systems
  • Development and utilization of cutting-edge technologies
  • Hazardous, high-risk, or both workplaces
  • Commitment to continuous improvement
  • Far fewer than their fair share of events

Examples of HROs are the nuclear power industry, commercial aviation, specialized military units, and wilderness firefighting units. Industries working toward high reliability (at least the wiser ones among them) are health care, electrical power generation, the North American electrical grid, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, biomed, and banking.

In researching Managing the Unexpected (1), the authors found that HROs share five common traits:

  • Preoccupation with failure–a “chronic wariness” of the possibility of unexpected events, achieved by engaging in proactive and preemptive analysis and discussion
  • Sensitivity to operations–ongoing interaction and information sharing about the human and organizational factors that determine the health of a system as a whole
  • Reluctance to simplify–taking deliberate steps to question assumptions and received wisdom to create a more complete and nuanced picture of ongoing operations
  • Commitment to resilience–developing capabilities to detect, contain, and bounce back from errors that have already occurred, before they worsen and cause more serious harm
  • Deference to expertise–during high-tempo operations, decision-making authority migrates to the person or people with the most expertise with the problem at hand, regardless of rank

This $4 million, 300-person experiment was accomplished in the name of resilience, the ability to respond effectively to worst-case scenarios. Resilience is the mindfulness to realize when you are getting off track and having mechanisms in place to get back on track quickly. As Weick and Sutcliffe (2) put it, “HROs develop capabilities to detect, contain, and bounce back from those inevitable errors that are part of an indeterminate world.”

The crash was staged in a very flat part of the Sonoran Desert of Baja California near Mexicali, Mexico. The copilot and flight engineer bailed out via the 727’s rear air stairs about 30 minutes from impact, but the pilot parachuted out of the jet just three minutes before it crashed. The 120-ton plane, very light on fuel in an attempt to avoid fire, was then was flown by remote control from a small plane flying in close formation. The 727 crashed slightly nose down at 135 knots and did not catch fire–just what the 300-person team wanted. The front landing gear dug in, causing the whole cockpit to break away and fold under the fuselage. Both main landing gear sheared off, as they were designed to do, absorbing some of the impact. The fuselage skidded on and came to rest in three pieces.

It was determined that any of the flight crew not ejected from the cockpit would probably not have survived. Passengers forward of row 7 would have probably suffered fatal injuries. Although most of the fuselage was intact, the impact destroyed most of the roof panels, which sent wiring, cables, and structural debris into the cabin. The debris hazard would not only cause injuries but would also make it difficult to escape the aircraft.

Two of the instrumented crash test dummies were seated near each other, one upright and one in the recommended “brace” position. Video showed that the upright dummy was hit by several pieces of the interior as the aircraft disintegrated. The poor guy also suffered severe back and head damage from slamming into the seat in front of it. The braced dummy was better protected from flying debris and did much better, suffering only minor injuries. G-loading during the crash showed that, consistent with traditional wisdom, the greatest damage occurs in the front, the least in the rear. The forward third of the cabin experienced dangerous loads averaging about 12 Gs, while deceleration in the cabin over the wing was about 8 Gs. Crash loads aft were observed at a more survival 6 Gs.

The team looked at the difficulty of extracting the crash test dummies through the emergency exits and found that the best bet for survivability may be to sit within five rows of an emergency exit. Otherwise, debris, wiring, and unconscious passengers could make it difficult or impossible for you to escape.

One factor missing from the experiment was the hundred or so pieces of carry-on luggage that the typical airliner will carry. Luggage in the overhead compartments will most likely make all of the injuries even worse and make emergency egress even more difficult. Add the possibility of fire, and you see why the commercial aviation industry works hard to achieve and maintain high reliability.

So what? Commercial aviation is extremely safe. An MIT study of airline safety between 2000 and 2007 concluded that the odds of dying in a commercial aviation crash (in the United States anyway) is 1 in 14 million departures. If my math is correct, you would have to fly one flight a day for 38,000 years before you would be the crash test dummy. With that high reliability in mind, take full advantage of that first-class upgrade. If first class is not in the cards, you might consider booking a seat within five rows of the over-wing or aft exits. Whatever you do, take the “brace” position seriously.

Questions to consider:

  1. As a leader, have you clearly communicated to your organization the things that you specifically do not want to see occur? Do you demand feedback about things that are not going right?
  2. Does your organization regard near misses and precursor events as failures and try to learn why performance expectations were not met? Do you, your staff, and the organization as a whole learn as much as possible from mistakes?
  3. In the event of a worst-case scenario, will your organization survive? How many potential worst cases are out there? Odds are very good that the event you will see will be a scenario you have never considered–does your organization have capabilities for recovery, containment, fresh thinking, and creative solutions?

About the Author
James Morrison, CPT, is an internationally respected practitioner of human performance technology and accomplishment-based instructional design. He is a results-oriented professional with proven training, performance consulting, operations, acquisition, and program management expertise across increasingly complex projects.