Gracie, a private pilot in Montana, writes: I took a flight with a fellow pilot the other day, and he took the time to give me the flight attendant speech. It got me wondering, why the stupid seat belt speech? I mean, I know it’s the law, but — really? — who doesn’t know how to unbuckle a seat belt?
Actually, more people than you’d expect.
It all comes down to the car you learned to drive in, and how old it was.
Because back in the day — this time “the day” being defined as between the end of World War II and 1965 — cars that had seat belts (not all did) used the Frank L. Davis-style lift-lever buckle. That’s the kind of seatbelt buckles we still use in airplanes big and small today.
Davis patented a number of versions of this iconic buckle from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, as well as a number of rapid freight handling systems, including ones that helped make the Berlin Airlift possible. He also founded Davis Aircraft Products, a company that still makes his signature airplane seat belt buckles and air cargo restraints to this day.
But then, over in the car biz, GM’s Robert C. Fisher came up with the push button-style seat belt buckle in 1965, and the auto industry never looked back.
So, all of that was a rather long-winded way of saying that the first time many people encounter an old-school lift-lever seat belt buckle is when they get into an airplane.
Latching it is no problem. All seat belt buckles latch the same way: Insert the tongue until it clicks. But getting back out of the damn thing is a different story altogether.
Now, if you’re parked at the gate getting ready to fetch your carry-on from the overhead bin, anyone with an IQ over 90 can figure out how to get the belt off in 90 seconds.
The problem is when you are not at the gate, but in a crashed airplane and you have only 90 seconds to get out of the smoldering airplane altogether, much less get yourself unbuckled. That’s the amount of time the FAA allows for complete airliner evacuation (for certification), because the airplane isn’t expected to survive any longer than that.
A related problem is that under stress, people tend to respond to their habit patterns which, for most people, means pushing, not pulling seat belt buckles.
Have people survived air crashes, then perished in their seats because they couldn’t work the seat belt buckle? Yeah.
Does the safety briefing help? That seems doubtful, as research shows the vast majority of passengers don’t listen to the briefings, and of the ones that do, most haven’t retained the bulk of the information two hours later — less time than the length of the average commercial flight. But, that said, there’s no harm in trying to educate people, right?
And of course, for us in our little airplanes — just like the big boys — we are compelled by law to tell people how the stupid seat belt buckle works, whether we think it’s a good idea or not, or whether our passengers are well educated in their use or not.
So where did these laws come from? Actually, the first airplane seat belt regulations are a lot older than most pilots realize, dating all the way back to the 1926 Air Commerce Act that established what is now known as the FAA.
That first rule required “safety belts or equivalent apparatus for pilots and passengers in open-cockpit airplanes carrying passengers for hire or reward.” And this was at a time when few cars had seat belts, and even the ones that did rarely saw use. By 1928 the regulations required seat belts in all airplanes, but there was no requirement for passengers to actually use them, much less be told how to use them.
Now, just for historical background, the first airplane that had a seat belt was Signal Corps Aeroplane No.1, a Wright Model A sometimes called the Wright Military Flyer. But the seat belt wasn’t invented by the inventive brothers. Instead it was an aftermarket add-on by a young Army officer, Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois.
Foulois is an interesting character. When the Army bought its first aeroplane, it really had no idea what to do with it, and through a rather long and convoluted path it ended up in Foulois’ lap. Which made some sense as he was the U.S. Army’s first military pilot, but the bulk of his flying experience was in another No. 1: Signal Corps Dirigible No.1.
He had little fixed-wing experience, but was ordered by Brig. General James Allen to “take plenty of spare parts and teach yourself to fly.”
So Foulois wrote to the Wright brothers, saying, “How do you operate this #$@&% thing?” Well… probably not. Those were more genteel times. He probably said, “would you gentlemen be so kind as to enlighten me as to the operation of your flying machine?”
In later years he joked he was the only aviator in history who learned to fly by correspondence course.
As to the seat belt, in a late-life interview he said that he came up with it as he was “getting tired” of being thrown out of Signal Corps Aeroplane No. 1 and hitting his head.
This might be why learning to fly by correspondence course never caught on.
But back to buckle-up laws. For general aviation, the wearing and briefing requirements are found in the General Operating & Flight Rules section, in 14 CFR 91.107, which is a surprisingly long regulation for such a short subject. It flows across two pages of the FAR/AIM, but basically says that — unless you are flying a balloon or vintage airship — you can’t lift off unless you tell your passengers how to operate their seat belts.
Well, okay, it doesn’t exactly say that. It says you can’t take off unless you, the pilot, “ensures that each person on board is briefed on how to fasten and unfasten that person’s safety belt.” And the shoulder belt if you have those, too. Those rules go back to the early 1970s.
Ensuring doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself. Your flight attendant, if you have one, can do it for you. Or I guess you could create a hilarious buckle-up video like Virgin Atlantic’s and play it on your iPhone before you fire up the engine.
Do you actually have to require your passengers to wear their belts? Well…that’s a gray area, at least for the GA pilot.
Section (a)(2) of this regulation only says that before your wheels start to roll, you have to “ensure” that each person on board has been “notified” to buckle up.
Section (a)(3), on the other hand, requires any person aboard a U.S.-registered civil aircraft to wear seat belts while moving on the surface and during takeoff and landing operations — but what passenger would ever be expected to have read that? — and who is responsible for enforcing this regulation is not specified.
For commercial travel, of course, all passengers are required to wear seat belts under 14 CFR 121.317 (f) any time the fasten seat belt light is on. A separate federal law allows for a fine of up to $10,000 for breaking these laws. Plus, of course, we are also required to “obey all crew member instructions,” so there’s nothing gray about that.
The actual airline briefing requirement on seat belt operations for commercial air travel is found in a separate regulation, 14 CFR 135.117, which also requires air crews to give passengers the 4-1-1 on smoking, seat backs and tray tables, the location of emergency exits and survival equipment, oxygen use, and all the rest.
I’ve also noticed on my recent travels that airlines have added to the briefing that we should report any unwelcome behavior to a flight attendant. Yes, we are in un-genteel times for sure.
I always try to pay attention to the safety briefing when I fly commercially, and I fly commercial quite a bit. I mainly do it to be polite to the poor flight attendants — I know how to work the safety belt. It’s the same kind I have in my own airplane, and I’m pretty sure the car I learned to drive in had them, too.
Meanwhile, do I always give the flight attendant speech about how the seat belt buckle works in my little airplane when flying with fellow pilots? Sure. Absolutely. You bet.
It’s the LAW.
Lt. Colonel Chuck Stone says
The Civil air patrol takes safety very seriously, especially when it comes to flying young cadets. However, it’s been my observation giving Check rides to the observation pilots that their briefing might be a little bit intimidating to the young cadets. Sometimes I think it’s basically in interpreted as sit down, buckle your seatbelt and shut up! Meaning we have a sterile cockpit until above 1000 feet above the ground but I wish they would do is to tell these 12 year old cadets that if they see any hazards on the ground that would be a safety issue or if they should see a bird or other airplane or helicopter below 1000 feet, they should speak up and speak up loudly .
Ted K says
The Navy has a diabolical training device innocuously called “the helo dunker.” It is essentially a helo fuselage rigged to drop into a deep pool, roll over and sink. I had been thru the training a couple of times and was pretty complacent. I got in, buckled my seat belt without much thought, and put on the blackout googles. Did I mention diabolical? You do this blind folded, with fellow aviators, all wearing flight boots to kick you in the head under water.
Anyway, I was an old salt, been there done this. So…
The machine dropped into the water, flipped over and sank. I sat there nonchalantly, hanging in the straps, holding my breath and waiting for my colleagues to exit…so I wouldn’t get kicked in the head.
So…after a long count, I slid my right hand from left to right across my waist as I had may times before, to flip open the latch. Did I mention diabolical…you do this by feel, you’re blindfolded, holding you breath, underwater, in a sinking machine.
And I was still strapped to the damned machine. No latch. wtf. (f is the navy abbreviation for fudge)
So, I again, as I had many times before, slide my right hand from left to right, to trip the latch and be disconnected from the machine. Nothing! Still strapped in! Starting to run out of air. WTF!?!
Oh, as part of the training, they tell you not to release your other hand because that is the hand that has you oriented, until your other-other hand was found a new handhold. But I’m RUNNING OUT OF AIR in the damned sinking machine.
Well, after doing the Left to Right swipe across my waiste about six times without result…I let go of the helo with my left hand and used my left hand to slide from right to left across my waist to feel and trip the latch. And SUCCESS! The latch popped open and I was freed from the seat belt. Yeah, I still had to reorient myself, and figure my way out of this, did I mention diabolically awful machine, but I am hear to tell the story.
And from that point in 1986, I have always closely examined every seatbelt I have put on since, so I know precisely how to quickly pop it open, even if blindfolded and underwater.
Miami Mike says
Journey of a seat belt . . .
Originally, my 150 had the long belt that threaded though the buckle, one for each seat.
FAA advised belts had to be metal to metal, so I bought a set of those surplus, they were originally from Eastern Airlines. What a come-down from a 727 to a 150! Eventually replaced them with a proper harness in the 150.
Set the Eastern Airlines/C150 belts aside. (I don’t like to throw stuff out that is still usable.)
Neighbor bought an ultralight, it came without any belts or harness, so I lent him one of the set aside belts. Progression – 727 > C150 > 30 hp ultralight. Lower and slower each time, and this is one of the very few times when a C150 can be referred to as “the big iron”.
Eventually, he decided to get a proper harness and returned the belt to me.
It is now on my tractor – which is even slower and (hopefully) doesn’t even fly. It is, however, definitely big and definitely iron – and lots of it.
Maybe a skateboard or even a rocking chair next? I will say I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of them!
man, thanks for the many laughs on that one ! Your recounting was classic, please respond thusly to other issues in the future!
Mark Briggs says
I fly a lot of Young Eagles. During the Passenger Safety Briefing I ensure that I brief the safety features and then insist the passenger physically demonstrates knowledge. Yes, I make them open the door and I make them tighten and then release their seat belt.
I’ve noticed over the years that parents feel much more relaxed when they see a thorough safety briefing taking place and they see their child is a full and active participant in that briefing.
Take the extra few minutes to do a complete passenger safety briefing. Their lives, and yours, may depend on it.