As I might have mentioned from time to time, I’m old. You want to know how old I am? I’m so old that back in my day we didn’t wear seat belts. Not just while riding in cars mind you but also while flying in airplanes. Seatbelts? They’re for pussys! I had bright red station wagon in high school that wouldn’t start unless you had your seatbelt fastened. So of course my friends and I would lift our butts off the seat to fool the car into thinking there was nobody in the front seat instead of just putting our belts on. That was just the culture back then.
When I started skydiving in the mid 80’s it was the same thing. Nobody wore seatbelts in the plane on takeoff. In fact most of the jump planes I flew in didn’t even have seatbelts for the passengers. The pilot had one but that was it. Everyone’s theory was that if the plane had an issue they’d want to get the hell out of it. And if they were wearing seatbelts taking them off might cost them a few precious seconds that they didn’t have.
That all changed in 1992 when a Twin Otter full of skydivers crashed in Perris valley california killing 16 jumpers and seriously injuring 6 more, including a good friend of mine. Apparently the skydiving school had just cleaned out their fuel truck with some sort of cleaning fluid to take care of a fungus problem they had. They drained the tank, did a good visual inspection of the tank, filled it back up with Jet A, and put it back into service fueling their jump planes.
Unfortunately they forgot about the truck’s long fuel hose which still had 18 gallons of cleaning fluid in it. The first plane to be refueled was a Twin Otter, which only made it to 500 feet before one of the engines died when the cleaning fluid reached it. Normally even a full a Twin Otter should have no problem climbing out on one engine but instead of feathering the dead engine the pilot accidently pulled the good engine into reverse. The Otter immediately rolled inverted and crashed nose first.
The nose of the airplane was crushed killing the pilot and front seat passenger, (who was a pilot as well and some suspect was actually flying that day). But the main cabin and fuselage remained intact. Unfortunately none of the skydivers were wearing seatbelts and when the plane nosed in they were all thrown forward. The only survivors were in the rear of the plane. Investigators concluded that almost everyone would have survived if they’d been wearing seatbelts.
That accident changed the skydiving community overnight. Seatbelts magically appeared in almost every jump plane and people started using them. Then we began thinking about the other unsecured danger in the cabin. Helmets. We realized that a helmet sitting on someone’s lap not only wasn’t doing anyone any good but in the event of a crash would become a lethal object. New rule, either wear your helmet or strap it to your seatbelt.
Since this complete change in jumper’s attitudes things have gotten much safer. There have been a number of crashes involving jump planes and I know for a fact that a lot of my friends are alive solely because they were wearing their seatbelts.
Yes, it’s important for passengers to wear seatbelts in case there’s a crash. But what about the pilot? Does it really matter? I mean they’re usually the first to the scene of the crash aren’t they? Of course a pilot should wear his or her seatbelt snugly for takeoff and landing, that’s when crashes occur. But go ahead and get comfortable up at altitude. In the jet we usually take off our shoulder straps somewhere around 15,000 feet.
But I learned a long time ago to keep the lap belt snug.
That lesson was learned on a day shortly after I made my first solo flight. My flight instructor wasn’t able to make it for my lesson but he said that if I still wanted to fly I could. His only restriction was that I was supposed to remain in the landing pattern. So of course the first thing I did after takeoff was to leave the pattern and enjoy the freedom of the skies!
It was amazing! I was a pilot! I could go wherever I wanted! I could roam the skies in my metal sky beast! Fences, boundaries, and restrictions could no longer hold me back. I was free!
so of course I was bored in minutes. What to do????? “I know! Let’s try some aerobatics! I know I only have one total hour of solo time but I’m a natural! What could go wrong?”
I thought I’d start out slow, I wasn’t a complete idiot, with just some steep climbs and dives. Pushed on the yoke, nosed over and picked up some speed. “That’s cool!” pulled back and used the speed to zoom climb the little Cessna 152 to an almost vertical attitude. “Yeah baby! That’s awesome!” Push the nose back, do a little zero gee maneuver like the jump pilots I rode with do sometimes. Things in the cockpit, including me started floating up. “OH SHIT! TOO MUCH!” After a brief second or two of floating towards the ceiling everything loose in the cockpit fell forward violently. Including me.
Because, as you might have guessed by now dear reader, while I was wearing my seatbelt, it wasn’t very tight.
I fell forward onto the yoke pushing the nose of the Cessna forward even more, which in turn made things even worse. And because my chest and arms were smashed up against the yoke and instrument panel I could pull out of the dive I was in. It was a rather uncomfortable situation let me tell you. I was able to push myself back into my seat with one hand and tighten my seatbelt with the other and then pull out of the dive just as things in Minnesota countryside started getting kind of big. I didn’t wear my seat belt loose much after that.