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These 10 Things Can Save Your Life in a Plane Crash Gallery

These 10 Things Can Save Your Life in a Plane Crash Gallery

Your best shot at survival if the worst happens

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These 10 Things Can Save Your Life in a Plane Crash

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Travel can be nerve-wracking, what with the difficulty of finding affordable flights, and figuring out how to get a good hotel deal. You also have to figure out what to pack and how to navigate airport security, as well as worry about saving time and money throughout your trip. To top it all off, news stories about air disasters don’t help — there’s often a worry when flying of what to do if the worst happens.

Air travel, however, is a lot safer than one would think from watching the news and all of its wild airplane stories. The National Transportation and Safety Board — the U.S. federal agency that investigates civil aviation accidents — did a study of aviation statistics from 1983 through 2000, and found that a total of 53,487 people were involved in such accidents. The study found that 95.7 percent, or 51,207 people, survived. Not only are the odds of being in a plane crash just one in 11 million, but the odds of not surviving a crash are even lower: one in 29.4 million. That’s a far lower risk than death from a car accident, which has a rate of one in 5,000.

We do understand, however, that numbers don’t exactly make anxieties go away. And as any aviation safety expert will tell you, there’s no harm in being cautious. Being on an airplane can be truly scary, and we’ve found some tips that you can remember just in case. If worse comes to worst, you can use these 10 things to save your life in a plane crash.

A Bigger Plane

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The Federal Aviation Administration has found that larger planes have a better survival rate in crashes, possibly due to greater energy absorption and less deadly force upon impact. This means you should try to fly in as large a plane as possible whenever possible if you’re nervous about a crash. You’re also less likely to have to deal with turbulence.

Brace Position

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As soon as you know the plane is going to crash, you should make sure that not only are you in your seat, but that it is in the upright position with any loose items, such as electronics, stowed away. Make sure your layers are zippered up and your shoes are tied tightly and assume one of the standard brace positions as detailed on your safety card. Both positions require that you have your feet flat on the floor and further back than your knees, placing them as far back under your seat as you can so that you’re less likely to receive any injuries to your legs and feet. If you have a seat in front of you that is close enough, put one hand on its back and cross the other over the first, lacing your fingers and resting your forehead against the back of your hands. Some airlines will recommend that you put your head directly against the seat and lace your fingers behind your head instead, tucking your arms down against the sides of your head to protect it. If there’s no seat in front of you that’s close in enough, you can also bend forward with your chest on your thighs and keep your head between your knees as your cross your wrists in front of your calves and grab your ankles.

Getting Out in 90 Seconds

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Flight crew are trained to evacuate a plane in 90 seconds or less, so many of their instructions (such as lowering your window shade before takeoff or landing) are meant to help you do so. In fact, one of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s requirements for airplane manufacturers is that they prove an aircraft can be evacuated within 90 seconds using just half of the available exits. This is because flashover, the moment when the interior of the cabin rapidly becomes engulfed in flames, occurs at around 210 seconds after impact.

Life Jacket

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Make sure you know where your life jacket is stowed in case your plane crashes in water. In the case of such an event, you should take it out and put it on — but don’t inflate it until you’re outside of the plane. Get out of the plane, holding your breath and swimming if needed, and then inflate the jacket. If you do so while still inside and the plane starts to fill with water, this can cause you to float to the cabin ceiling, making it difficult for you to swim out.

The ‘Plus 3, Minus 8’ Rule

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According to American journalist Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, 80 percent of plane crashes occur either in the first three minutes or the last eight scheduled minutes of a flight. During this time, you should stay vigilant. Make sure you’re awake, keep your shoes on and your headphones off, and make sure that your seat belt is securely fastened in the proper position. We also suggest you don’t drink during the flight for this very reason, especially since it’s easier to get drunk at a higher altitude.

Protecting Yourself From Smoke

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Smoke inhalation has caused many deaths not only because of the toxicity of breathing it in, but also because it can cause loss of consciousness, impeding your escape. Use a handkerchief or other piece of material or cover your nose and mouth, ideally wetting it with water or even urine — it sounds gross but it’s worth it to save your life. If the plane is visibly filled with smoke, you should also try to keep your head down, staying on two feet so that you can quickly evacuate while avoiding as much smoke as possible.

Safety Card

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Don’t assume you know everything there is to know in case of an emergency. Airlines and aircraft can vary in their safety procedures, so the safety card tucked into the seat back pocket in front of you is a valuable source of information. Go over it to ensure you know the right instructions in case something goes wrong, and make sure you listen to the preflight safety demonstration as well — flight attendants hate it when you ignore their directions, and for good reason.

Sitting Within Five Rows of an Emergency Exit

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Using information from the Aircraft Accident Statistics and Knowledge Database, an analysis done by a group of professors at the University of Greenwich found that those passengers who were sitting within five rows of an emergency exit were far more likely to survive a plane crash than those who weren’t. The study looked at 105 plane crashes and spoke to over 2,000 passengers who survived. Those sitting next to or just one row away from a working exit had far greater numbers of survival than fatalities, and those sitting two to five rows from the exit were still more likely to survive as well. Those sitting six or more rows away from the exit were more likely to perish than survive. So try to get a seat in the exit row — it means more legroom anyway, which is great for sleeping on an overnight flight!

Your Oxygen Mask

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If you’ve flown before, you’ve heard it before. If the oxygen masks in front of your seat deploy, you should absolutely ensure that you wear one yourself before helping anyone else with theirs, even small children. If your flight cabin really has been compromised at a high altitude, you have about 15 seconds at most to put your oxygen mask before you fall unconscious. Needless to say, if you’re passed out, you aren’t much of a help to anyone. You should also keep in mind that if someone is unconscious, putting an oxygen mask on them can still save their life.

Your Seat Belt

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What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.


What Airlines Won't Tell You During The Safety Demonstration

Have you ever wondered exactly why airlines dim the lights upon landing, making you grope to find the overhead light just as you were about to finish your Sudoku? (Hint: It's not to save electricity. Read the answer at the end of this article.) Or why it's so important to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? Or what's it like jumping onto a 737's inflatable emergency slide? And just how heavy are those over-wing exit doors?

If you're a bit of an airline nerd like me (I said a bit, by the way, I'm not one of those planespotter types), then you might have been curious. Or maybe you're the cautious kind, the kind who wants to have every possible advantage the next time there's a "Miracle on the Hudson" or if you're landing at one of the scariest U.S. airports.

Well, British Airways has just the thing: the BA Flight Safety Awareness Course, a modified version of the same training that flight crews go through after they're hired and then once a year thereafter. Even if you're not the pessimistic or overly cautious type, it's a fascinating way to spend a day in London.

You get to jump down an emergency slide! And if you've ever wanted to pull the inflation cord on one of those airplane life vests, well this is your chance. You also get to evacuate a cabin filled with "smoke" (it's the kind used in a theater or rock concert, but does the trick). You'll practice the fine points of the "brace position." And best of all, you understand why some of those more obscure procedures and safety warnings are part of the flight experience.

Check those life vests
One thing they don't tell you in the safety demo: people take those life jackets, located under or between your seat, as souvenirs. It's a vile and punishable offense, and while airlines do check each seat at the start of every day, a plane could make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could steal a life vest. So, I learned, it's a good idea to check if the life jacket is indeed there. Not that it may much matter anyway. Only a small fraction of the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 bothered to grab their life vests when Captain Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 into the Hudson River.

Put yours on first
You've heard it over and over: put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. But the safety demos never tell you why that's so important. The reason? You might only have 15 or 20 seconds in the event of a cabin decompression, during which all oxygen would be sucked out of the plane (and your lungs), before you'd experience confusion and a euphoric "stoned" state, at which point you might forget everything you heard during the safety demo (if in fact you even listened, which you probably didn't).

In 30 to 45 seconds you'd probably pass out. So it's important to act quickly. (I think that if the standard safety announcement explained some of these fine points then people might put down their newspapers.) Andy and Diane, our instructors, also explained what else to expect during a sudden decompression: a burning smell from the oxygen canisters, severe vibration, a rapid descent (typically a drop of 20,000 feet in just three or four minutes), and an automated announcement telling you what to expect (because, obviously, the crew would have their own masks on and wouldn't be able to communicate with passengers).

The proper brace position
Some of the finer points of flight safety may seem particularly arcane and even anal, but there's a reason for every detail. If you've ever bothered, for example, to look at the safety card in the seat back pocket, you may have noticed that the correct brace position is to put your hands on your head, but not in just any slipshod fashion (and definitely not with the fingers locked together). See how the illustration shows one hand over the other? Is that just arbitrary? No as it turns out. Should something fall on you during a crash landing, you want to protect at least one hand (preferably the one you write with) because you'll need it to unbuckle your seat belt when it's safe to do so. Your other hand is in that position to provide some protection to your "strong" hand, which will be doing the unbuckling.

Why not fly backward?
And speaking of the brace position, wouldn't it be entirely unnecessary, I asked Andy and Diane, if airlines oriented their seats so that everyone was flying backwards? After all, in the event of a crash landing or controlled emergency landing, there'd be no need to assume the brace position if the seats didn't face forward. Isn't that why flight attendants face backward in their jump seats? "People equate rear-facing seats with trains," Andy answered. "We'd be out of business in a week," said Diane. And why not have three- or four-point harnesses rather than seatbelts, such as those worn by flight attendants, one of my classmates asked? Aren't they safer? You've probably guessed the answer: airlines recommend keeping your seatbelt fastened whenever seated, and no one would want to wear such an uncomfortable contraption during the flight.

"Touch drills" and "muscle memory"
While your pilots are waiting for take off, it may surprise you that they're probably doing a safety drill. What if this or that should go wrong on take off, which buttons would we push or steps would we take? So they actually go through the motions of various procedures, touching and even moving the actual controls. They call these touch drills, and Andy and Diane suggest that passengers do the same thing just before take off, perhaps buckling and unbuckling their seat belts three times.

Sounds daft? "It's muscle memory," said Diane. "In an emergency, people panic. They think they're in their cars, and try to release the seatbelt by pushing a button rather than lifting a flap." Indeed, as the final report of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted following the crash of US Airways flight 405, which landed in the water after take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport resulting in loss of life, "Some passengers tried to move from their seats while their seatbelts were still buckled, and other passengers had difficulty locating and releasing their seatbelt buckles because of disorientation."

Why does "red" mean "go"?
And what's with that escape path lighting along the floor? Why would red lights indicate an exit? Shouldn't they be green (as in "go") instead? Ever see taillights along the motorway in a fog, Andy explained? They're red because they show up better in a smoke filled cabin. And indeed, it's true, as we learned when our "cabin" became a soupy fog.

Those doors are heavy
And what about those emergency over-wing exit doors? How heavy are they exactly, and how easy are they to open and toss? Well, we practiced on a Boeing 737. The answer? Even for me, a fairly strapping six-footer who goes to the gym regularly, they're pretty heavy (40 lbs. to be exact).

It's not just the weight, but maneuvering them while sitting down that's an awkward challenge. Tip: sit way back in your seat or you'll konk yourself on the head when the door swings down. Another tip: use your knee to rest the door and then swing it out and throw it on the wing (don't worry, you won't be sued for damages). I was surprised that the actual latch mechanism is so easy to engage you can do it with one finger. Even though, according to our instructors, it's been 27 years since an over-wing exit door has had to be opened on a British Airways plane (other than in this cavernous training hangar, that is), I still feel safer now that I've done it.

The bad news is that half the people (probably more) who I see sitting in those exit rows wouldn't have the strength to manage the door. Airlines should not sell these seats to anyone merely because they can pay the fee for the extra legroom. But don't worry if some nut tries to open the doors in flight. They're impossible to open owing to air pressure being much higher inside the plane than outside.

Ever notice those "grab" handles by the door?
Next time you get on a plane, take note of the handles by the door, just inside the plane. What on earth are those for? Correct, they're grab handles, but why? Well, in a panicked emergency evacuation, when the flight attendants are manning the exit door, passengers, in their mad rush to get off, have a tendency to push them out of the way, sometimes all the way down the slide. The handles are there to make sure that the flight attendants stay on the plane if that's what they need to do.

Why don't airlines tell us all this?
I left the course thinking that more passengers would listen to the pre-flight safety demo if airlines shared some of this insider information before each flight, maybe mixing it up from time to time so that the demo doesn't get overly long and cause more people to tune out. On one flight, the demo might include the finer points of opening the over-wing exits. On another flight, more information about why it's so important to put your oxygen mask on first (and quickly) before helping others. More passengers would probably do what they're told in an emergency if they knew the reasons behind these rules (and time and time again, in emergencies, passengers do not listen, do the wrong thing and become victims).

Speaking of the whys, just why do airlines dim the cabin lights during nighttime take offs and landings? You guessed it: to help adjust your eyes to the dark (either inside a smoke filled cabin or on a darkened runway). And why do some airlines ask that you keep your shoes on (except high heels, which can tear the slide) when taking off and landing? Because the runway might be burning hot after you jump down the slide.

And while it's doubtful that airlines will ever add these extra details to their pre-flight safety drills, the main thing I left the course with was a better respect for the thought that has gone into airline safety over the years, as each crash and emergency landing contributes to collective knowledge. And I have even more respect for flight attendants who, as we all know, are primarily there for no other reason than our safety.

Related read: You'll need to watch the safety demo if you ever fly with these 10 horrible airline pilots.