Thursday, May 5, 2016

Aeronautical Expansion Suits

I was one of the few who was invited onto a test flight.  The test was not for the aircraft itself, but for a piece of equipment that was being tested to save a person’s life in the event of an emergency while on an aircraft.  I can not mention the company name, nor when or where the event occurred.  But I will say that those of us who witnessed this test all had some personal connections to the people in the company who ran this test. 

I sat in the middle section of the Boeing 757 that I boarded.  My seat was on the aisle of that middle section.  What was being tested was a suit that a person could theoretically wear in the case of an air disaster.  It would not be used for things such as turbulence or for unscheduled landings, but rather, for catastrophic events such as complete depressurization from a side of a plane being sucked out of the fuselage and for complete structural break ups. 

The idea is that as a plane gets into trouble, this suit, which is made of a thick rubber like substance (the actual materials being unknown to this writer) covers the entire body with the exception of the passenger’s head, is either manually triggered, or automatically triggered via a guage that measures rapid loss in barometric pressure.  With the triggering of the suit, it immediately expands like a blow fish around the passenger, creating a large insulation of air around the person’s body.  The area around the neck is configured in a way to expand completely around the head with supplementary oxygen for maximum protection against forced trauma from flying objects and concussions with objects in the airplane, and with the plane walls, etc., itself.   

During the test that I was on, the man with the suit, who I believe was an employee of the manufacturing firm that created the device, wore the suit on the plane. He sat in a seat up ahead of me by about eight rows, positioning himself in the middle seat of the window row that he was in.  He also extended his tray table from the seat in front of him and was given an airplane meal so that he could be as relaxed and normally functioning as possible, just like any traveling passenger.  His luggage, one small sized rigid black carry-on suitcase, was stowed above his seating row as is typical for flights. 

For the actual moments of the test itself, there was obviously no way that the coordinators of the experiment were going to crash the plane or blow the plane up in mid air. Instead, they maneuvered the aircraft at twenty thousand feet in a way to jolt all of us passengers in a big way. It involved both a fast series of turns and a sudden drop in elevation.  As this occurred, the pit of my stomach dropped out like a bowling ball, especially with the steep but brief descent.  I am not one for turbulence, but once I was told that I could witness this test, I decided to man up and take a ride on a rollercoaster. 

At that very moment of the big drop in altitude, the man with the thick rubber test suit manually pressed a switch near his neck, and the suit expanded within the blink of an eye.  I guessed that the turns and the drop of the airplane were not enough to trigger the automated switch in the suit, and that that’s why he had to hit the switch himself.  The suit blew up to about four times the width of his body.  He looked like a pasty yellow version of Violet Beauregarde from, “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.”

The rubber of his suit was completely spherical and had expanded so quickly that it knocked the seats in front and behind the man, along with the storage units above his head, with such force that one of the seat backs was now slightly sideways, presumably from the forced bending of the supporting seat post below it having been impacted in the nearly Hubble rate of expansion.  I am being facetious right there, but after the test, I asked how quickly the suit was designed to expand, and was told that it is about 16,540 centimeters per second; about half of the speed of sound, or half of the speed that an average bullet travels at sea level.  Thus, anything impacted by the suit could be in harm’s way.  The result was not only bent seats, but also that his luggage, that small black suitcase he had stowed above him, had been shot like a missile through the side of the ceiling storage compartment.  It came to rest about half way out of the compartment wall, dangling over the aisle. 

The idea, of course, would be that if a catastrophic event were to happen while flying, all passengers who choose to have these suits on would expand at roughly the same time, especially if the event were significant enough for the suits to all be triggered automatically.  Should the plane then crash into the ground at a reasonably shallow angle, the passenger would have a better chance of surviving the event.  If the angle were perilously severe, say, more than fifteen degrees, then there are few circumstances in which a person’s physical body could survive a crash at three hundred plus miles per hour, presuming the plane would have slowed some from the lack of flying stability.  But at an angle of fewer degrees than whatever that death threshold might be, then the passengers with the expanded suits on might be able to have some of that forward energy diffused as these suit balls bounced around and took some of the inherent kinetic energy out of the equation. 

The other scenario would be if the airplane broke up in mid flight where passengers and belongings would simply fall out of the sky.  In this event, the makers of the suit propose that if the passenger wearing the suit, which would have been triggered to it’s full capacity with the break up of the airplane, were able to survive that first moment of being slowed from flying speed to sixty or seventy miles per hour, then they would have a reasonable chance of surviving the fall to earth since the spherical shape of the expanded suit would not be very aerodynamic and would basically fall to earth at that second speed.  Again, depending on what the land on, and where, would determine their final outcome of survivability.  And out of three hundred or so passengers with their suits on, falling like dropping silicon colored blow fish out of the sky, there is likely some percentage of them that would indeed survive the entire ordeal. 

As the flight leveled off during our test run, we were allowed to unbuckle our seat belts and walk over to the site of the test passenger’s location.  As I made my way up the few rows, along with about fifteen other passengers, some of them standing mid row since not all of us could fit into the aisle, we looked at the test passenger’s discharged suit, still fully blown up, and basically stuck between the two rows of seats and the overhead storage compartment above him.  He was positioned at an angle within the spherical suit and when he spoke, for people asked him if he was okay, he said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” in response.  However, his voice was muted to a great degree because as indicated earlier in this writing, the top of the suit, which does not start out enclosed in any way, does become itself enclosed around the passenger’s head with the small oxygen delivery system included.  So, pragmatically, his head was at this point completely enclosed and protected. 

The coordinators of the test let him stay put because one other feature kicks in at about the seven minute mark.  The suit begins a slow deflation process as the small oxygen supply nears it’s empty point.  With this deflation, we saw the passenger’s head become free to open air as the rubber around the top of his head receded away.  Wishing about two minutes, the passenger’s suit was about two thirds deflated, which is where it remained.  At that point, the passenger was able to simply take the suit off.  I supposed that after the great trauma of a mid air event, and after possibly falling thirty or forty thousand feet, that a passenger might not be in any condition to remove such a suit from his or her body themselves.  However, from what I could see, the person would presumably be lying on the ground with a suit that would eventually deflate to just one third of its full expansion, and therefore, the suit would provide some comfortable padding for a person who had just experienced some catastrophe and was now lying on the ground awaiting help. 

When the test passenger removed himself from his suit, several of us asked him what it was like to experience such a quick expansion within his test suit.  He said that aside from moving his hand to his neck to hit the manual inflation switch, it was so fast that he was unaware of he process.  He just suddenly found himself lodged between the seats and the ceiling storage compartment, and that he was basically comfortable.  He said that the air he was breathing through the oxygen delivery system kind of stunk a little, like that of the coils in one’s freezer, but that he was able to breathe fine. 

I walked away from this test with a lot of things in my mind.  Again, let me emphasize that I was only a witness; an observer who did not know the complete details of test and all of it’s parameters.  But I formulated an opinion that the expansion suit was a bit of a crude way to deal with a severe catastrophe (I suppose that any catastrophe is severe, isn’t it?), and yet, that it was a step in the right direction for passengers who are completely at the mercy of a flying machine operating correctly.  When our automobiles’ engines suddenly die as we are driving, we don’t fall thirty-five thousand feet out of the sky.  So, having something that a passenger can either have or wear individual that protects them instantly is maybe a good plan.  However, I am sure that I don’t have to state that obvious, but I will.

The suit, in it’s pre-emergency form, being worn by a passenger on a flight, just looks ridiculous.  It’s like a man or a women is wearing a full body condom with sleeves and legs.  I’m sure, though I didn’t ask the test passenger, that it doesn’t breath well and would be akin to wearing leather pants and a leather long sleeved shirt for an entire flight.  And it’s comfort level much be at a minimum with some amount of movability restriction.  And when the apparatus inflates, it again looks ridiculous.  That is probably not such a worry since anyone wearing it wouldn’t be thinking about vanity as their airplane is crashing.

 But the other obvious problem is that with a plane load of these suits expanding, there is going to be such an additional set of concussions on board from the suits all opening at the same time and knocking into seat, ceilings, and into each other, that there would be such a forceful ricochet of blown up six foot condom balls, that if the plane had not already suffered structural damage, I could see it happening after all of the suits expanded.  If the plane had broken up in mid air, this would not be a problem.  But if the plane had some, let’s say, mid-level catastrophic problem, such as a side wall or door being sucked out of the plane, then the expansion suits all firing at once could further complicate the integrity of the airliner. 

The last issue that I could think of that day is that if there were a mid air complete break up of an airplane, such as TWA Flight 800 with the suit deploying to full expansion, the immediate slowing of a person’s body from flight speed to non-aerodynamic spherical ball falling speed is such a contrast, that it seems difficult to think that there wouldn’t be major injuries and deaths during this part of the event, and especially with falling metal debris of every kind mixed in.  Again, some people surviving is better than none, but I simply don’t know how one gets around such a rapid slowing of speed, the number of G’s I don’t know, but are probably too severe for most people to survive. 

It was something special to witness though.  I personally have always liked seeing innovation up close, and we all enjoyed watching a company trying to make the world a little safer in some way.