Why Don’t Commercial Airplanes Have Parachutes for Passengers?

BR522 asks: Why aren’t commercial airplanes have parachutes?

parachuteSeatbelts and airbags in cars save passengers lives. Parachutes save people who, for a variety of reasons, exit a plane in mid-flight. So why aren’t parachutes provided to passengers on commercial airline flights, in case of emergencies?

Because they almost certainly would not save anyone’s life.

Parachuting Basics

When your average daredevil skydives for fun, the plane is typically travelling at between 80 and 110 mph when the skydiver jumps. Tandem and accelerated free fall (AFF) jumps occur between 10,000 and 13,000 feet, while static jumps can be as low as 3,500 feet.

Student divers choosing the easiest, tandem jump, where the newbie is physically and securely attached to an experienced instructor, are still required to undergo “a half hour of basic ground instruction.”

Braver neophytes who wish to fly untethered will have to endure:

Four to five hours of intense ground instruction, including learning body flight maneuvers and hand signals that instructors use to coach the student as they fly alongside.

For an AFF jump, although not harnessed together, freshman flyers are accompanied by two instructors who “hold onto the student’s harness until” it’s deployed.

Those who choose a static line jump also have to take four + hours of training prior to the jump, although the parachute is deployed as the rookie flyer leaves the aircraft.

When skydivers leave a plane, they do it alone or in small groups. When successive groups will be jumping, they try to keep separated by anywhere between 500 and 1500 feet; this is often accomplished by waiting until the preceding group is “back under the tail to 45 degrees behind the airplane” or several seconds in between groups.

Experienced skydivers can make even riskier jumps, although when descents begin at higher than 15,000 feet, “the risk of hypoxia and being significantly affected by altitude” increases dramatically and divers are less able “to make effective safe decisions at critical times.” Therefore, divers who jump from 15,000 feet or higher carry supplemental oxygen.

Further, each parachute weighs around 40 pounds and the equipment is expensive. To be fully outfitted with “rig, main, reserve, ADD, altimeter, jumpsuit, helmet [and] goggles” can run between $5,900 and $9,000.

Commercial Airplane Basics

Perhaps the most popular commercial jetliner is the Boeing 737 family. Its 737-800 can carry nearly 200 people (including the crew).

Although speeds can vary slightly, the 737-800 travels at approximately 600 mph when at its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. Cruising altitudes are assigned by air traffic controllers and are usually up to 39,000 feet, except for longer flights that may fly higher.

Individual Parachutes Won’t Improve Passenger Safety

Doing the math . . .

Passenger Training

Since four hours of training just to board a plane is unrealistic, passengers would have to read and execute detailed skydiving instructions including how to properly strap the chute on in order to benefit from the parachute. Not everyone is good at following detailed, technical instructions even when time and stress aren’t a factor.  In a situation where the plane is going down and one has only a moment to get the parachute properly strapped on (likely while keeping an oxygen mask firmly attached and perhaps also needing to keep the seat belt on to keep from being thrown about in the cabin), it’s unlikely most would be able to even get this far.

Every Man for Himself

Unless passengers wanted to fly suited up and tethered for a static jump, parachuting from a commercial airplane will be an AFF jump; however, unlike the conditions that students get – training and trained instructors to assist, commercial passengers will just have to learn as they go.

In addition, they will have to keep calm and proceed in an orderly fashion, which will require most to patiently wait their turn to exit. This is not likely to happen.

Parachuting Equipment is Bulky

Adding just parachutes (not counting helmets, altimeters, etc.) for each passenger would add another 8,000 pounds or so to the flight’s weight. In addition, that equipment would take up space, that is already at a premium.

Parachuting Only Makes Sense if Something Happens in Mid-Flight

The only feasible time for people to jump from the plane is while it’s cruising. However, most fatal airline accidents occur on airplanes during takeoff and landing.

Consider that between 2003 and 2012, only 9% of all fatal accidents on commercial flights, seven total, occurred while the plane was cruising; moreover, at least one of those accidents happened as a result of wind shear or thunderstorm. This is a situation where parachuting is extremely dangerous even if you’re an expert.

So even if parachuting were feasible from a jetliner, the conditions in which parachutes could theoretically save lives are almost never apparent in fatal commercial accidents. But even if they were, it still wouldn’t be a good idea.

Jetliners Cruise Very High and Very Fast

At 35,000 feet (three times higher than a typical jump) every passenger would need high altitude equipment (HALO) that includes an oxygen tank, mask and regulator, flight suit, ballistic helmet and altimeter just to manage the thin air. Or they could just pass out from hypoxia and wake up later, hopefully when the parachute automatically deployed at under 15,000-20,000 feet.

Of course, none of this would matter since the plane is moving so fast (600 mph), and it is so large, that many passengers would almost certainly smash into it and suffer debilitating if not fatal injuries.

Whole Plane Parachutes May Save Lives

There is hope, however. Over the past few years, many small planes have been equipped with whole-plane parachutes that slow the craft’s descent. As of late 2013, the largest planes equipped with these safety devices carry five people, but plans are in the works for putting them on larger crafts. As one manufacturer said, “There is no doubt that big commercial airlines of the future will be equipped with some kind of parachute recovery system.”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Airplane Crash Survival Tips:

  • Sit in the back with the cool kids. According to several studies, “passengers near the tail of the plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.”  The other advantage is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back.  So unless the plane is full, you might get the row of seats to yourself.
  • However, other research into surviving plane crashes indicated that “those [passengers] who sat more than six rows from an exit were found to be far less likely to survive.” So if the plane doesn’t have a rear exit, that’s something to be factored in.
  • If you do happen to fall out of a plane at 35,000 feet (without a parachute), Popular Mechanics has some advice on how to survive the fall:  “The concept you’ll be most interested in is terminal velocity. As gravity pulls you toward earth, you go faster. But . . . you [also] create drag . . . . and [eventually] acceleration stops. Depending on your size and weight, and [other] factors . . . your speed at that moment will be about 120 mph [this takes about 1,500 feet. At about 22,000 feet] You sputter into consciousness [hypoxia had knocked you out from shortly after you exited the plane]. . . . Take aim . . . . Glass hurts, but it gives. So does grass. Haystacks and bushes . . . and trees aren’t bad, though they tend to skewer. Snow? Absolutely. . . . Contrary to popular belief, water is an awful choice [to cushion the fall]. . . . With the target in mind, the next consideration is body position. To slow your descent. . . spread your arms and legs, present your chest to the ground, and arch your back and head upward. . . . Relax. This is not your landing pose. . . . . [To land, assume] the classic sky diver’s landing stance – feet together, heels up, flexed knees and hips.”
  • According to the Geneva-based Aircraft Crashes Record Office, between 1940 and 2008 there were 157 people who fell out of planes during a crash and without a parachute and lived to tell about it. A full 42 of those falls occurred at heights over 10,000 feet! One such incident involved a British Tail-gunner whose plane was shot down in 1944 during WWII. He fell over 18,000 feet without a parachute. His fall was broken by pine trees and soft snow.  After his “landing” he found himself completely fine, except for a sprained leg.  Things didn’t initially improve for him as he was quickly captured by the Germans. Apparently the Germans were more impressed by his near death experience than his nationality, because they released him the following May after having given him a certificate commemorating his fall and subsequent survival.
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  • but it is still better than waiting to die during crisis, even though the probability of survival is low, that you cannot argue.

  • this argument is Full of straw men. for suvival purposes a 12 pound rig is plenty. No one is suggesting exiting the plan at angels 39 and 600 mph. Breakup slows an airline to a third of that. Finally, it’s about money. No special training would be needed if the rig was engineered for automatic deployment. The cost benefit calculation even then would exceed the TSAs utility.

  • Why not equip the plane itself with a gigantic parachute so it lands slowly n safely. The parachute would be carrying the aircraft itself.

  • Shereen, do you even read the article? It’s in the works!

  • It is reassuring to know that others have also thought of the possibility of parachutes for either individual passengers or one for the whole aircraft. After reading the different dangers and difficulties of the parachute options, How about turning the whole jetliner into a giant glider? In case of an inevitable crash, more wing surface can be availed through a retractable mechanism as the pilot shuts down all the engines. This may significantly slow down the speed of the plane without sending it into a quick dive so that the plane can sort of soar / glide. At this point, the parachute option for either individual passengers or in groups or for the whole aircraft can be deployed. Is there any sense in this approach?

  • Instead of making a giant parachute for the whole plan, why not create like one or several lifeboat like cabins that can detach and have parachutes? That means the chute technology today might even suffice for such a system

    • Clever idea and maybe combined with airbags to be inflated on impact.
      But the airlines don’t want to improve safety at the expense of profit.

    • I’ve often considered this option also. As Adam suggested, airbags in deployment could help, but also consider this… At each corner of the “lifeboat” section of aircraft, you could utilise retrorockets/thrusters, as used on the Russian Soyuz return capsule, which whilst under a number of parachute canopies, engage/activate at 000m above ground level (not to be confused with sea level, as they may not engage at all if the landing zone is even 0.01m above sea level – the ground sensing radar of the capsule is THAT accurate).

      They activate at ground level, and slow the capsule to a slow “bump” on landing, and has been used for decades now as a safe means of deceleration. They are so reliable and efficient, the concept has been used by NASA to land probes on Titan, Mars, and Mercury. A number of aerospace companies have also integrated them into their current capsules being used to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS under NASA contract, and will/are also being utilised on Blue Origins New Glenn capsule for reentry and landing purposes (they will be utilising a land based landing, as opposed to a sea landing/splash down, as it is a tourism venture, and customers will take off, enter suborbital space, reenter, and land, all within a tight launch/landing area).

      It is certainly an achievable concept, and has been considered by a number or regional airlines here in Australia (under design contract with our team).

  • as i see it, they intend us to die in a plane crash, cuz the solutions are plenty and very simple

  • Good article!

  • Guys,I have come up with a practical idea to prevent the aircraft from crashing during take-off,landing and while in the air,I have already drawn a prototype,I believe it could be done,if presented to the aviation engineers and scientists they might be able able to make this idea become a reality and prevent any air disaster in the future.does anyone have an idea as to how I would go about suggesting this idea to the right people?

    • I’d just send a whole load of e-mails to all the aeronautical companies you can find on google. Give an idea of your plans, but don’t give anything more away unless the agree to speak with you! Even then, be careful of idea-stealing – it’s inherent to the business unfortunately

  • This article makes you wonder if the author works for a commercial airline company.

    Nobody would need to jump out at 30,000 feet…there is often a chance to go to a lower altitude.
    Parachutes can be bought for US$2000 and altimeters (if needed) cost $50 to $400.
    Even if some passengers escape in the likely panic then its a success and would educate future safety trainers and passengers.

    The faster the plane is traveling the greater the gap between each person as they exit the plane.

    The articles even states that 147 people have fallen out of planes over the past 74 years without chutes and SURVIVED. This is even more reason to use a parachute.

    Freefalling at 120MPH = 120 feet per second which means you descend 1000 feet in 8.3 seconds. So theres a decent chance of getting to an altitude with oxygen.

    This article is too defeatist overall.

    Some passengers would already be trained to use a parachute.
    All passengers could receive a basic 5 minute intro at least. (beats dying when all engines are gone)

  • If its about the cost lets the the Airlines give it on rent per Seat. Let the person have the last chance to save his life if all the engines crash in Mid Air.

  • This article was copies from Gizmodo…..

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Jackson: No, Gizmodo republishes our stuff (with permission), as you’ll note if you go check out who they list as the author 😉

  • this is not enough. There is now enough technology to make every passenger seat into an automatic survival capsule capable of autolanding. I mean look at the google self driving car. If you ask me somebody is happy to see people dying. My country lost over ten people on a small flying jet recently.
    Those deaths were totally needless.

  • Who cares if there is risk of injury or death jumping out when there’s a 100% chance of death when “landing” in a plane with one wing or whatever?

  • Stupid article, even if only 10 people make it that’s still better than everyone dying parachutes are not as hard as people make it out to be to use… Moreover there is no reason the plane will remain crusing at Max altitude and Max speed if the engines are failing or have failed so the argument that the plane is functioning ideally at Max stats is retarded. Moreover, imagine the plane explodes mid air and passagers have been thrown out there is a realistic chance of survival with parachute regardless if hypoxia unless the person has serious health issues they should snap back into reality at 22,000 feet. With more than enough time to use a parachute roughly 2 minutes. Whoever wrote this article needs to be more educated. You can learn to use a parachute in less than 15 minutes… As long as you don’t freeze in panic which is not related to knowledge anyways.

  • Several years ago while brainstorming ideas about how to save passengers on commercial flights should the plane be in trouble and most likely crash, I thought about the parachute concept, parachutes located everywhere (the fuselage, wings, cockpit, tail) and able to handle the weight of the jet plus the passengers and cargo. I’m not an engineer, of course, but those who are aeronautical engineers would know how to design this safety feature. I figured with all our technology, there has to be a way to do this. I looked it up online and like this article stated, it said there already was this type of safety but only on lightweight crafts and it said it would be impossible for large commercial planes. I still believed whoever wrote the article wasn’t right and surely, they could figure out a way to make it happen. If so, that would be phenomenal and the passengers and crew would have that added safety net should an emergency occur. Reading some ideas of others here, I think what you came up with is great.

    Also, after the tragedy of 9/11 and those poor people stuck in the building’s upper floors, I thought why not put parachutes in all skyscrapers. They would at least give people a fighting chance at survival, much better than having to leap to certain death. Not that there’s going to be commercial jets flying into buildings on a regular basis but just to have a back up way to save lives for whatever scenario arises where parachutes would come in handy.