Mitt Romney - not entirely wrong

Much fun has been had in the blogosphere with Mitt Romney's latest quote on aircraft safety:

When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no — and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It’s a real problem. So it’s very dangerous. And she was choking and rubbing her eyes.
The context for this was Mrs. (Ann) Romney's plane being forced to make an emergency landing after smoke filled the cabin.

Ok, so the idea of roll-down windows in a pressurised plane is ridiculous. Romney's a bit of an arse. But you know what? He's actually right - it is a real problem.

Case 1: the Manchester airport fire on British Airtours Flight 28M. The plane had an engine failure on takeoff which precipitated a fire. 54 of 131 passengers perished, many from smoke inhalation.

Case 2: Varig Flight 820 arriving at Orly, France. A fire started in a lavatory, likely because of a furtive smoker. The plane landed in a field short of the runway. 123 people (all the passengers except one) died out of 134, most due to smoke inhalation.

Case 3: Air Canada flight 797 inbound to Toronto. A fire started around the rear lavatory while in-flight. The pilot managed an emergency landing but 23 out of 41 passengers died when the fire had a flash-over, most as a result of smoke inhalation.

Smoke inhalation is a serious issue in aircraft fires. You're in a narrow tube adjacent to tanks of aviation fuel, breathing recirculated air. If a fire starts, you're breathing hot, thick, toxic smoke with no exit to fresh air available. For that reason, oil rig workers have smoke hoods but they are trained to use them; I guess the view was that smoke hoods would be worse than useless with panicking aircraft passengers. Having tried them out, I can report they are effective but require reasonable clarity of mind to fit and use; and if you're claustrophobic then you're sunk.

So Romney's not exactly wrong. It may not be practical to build a pressurised aircraft with windows that open, but the fact they don't open is indeed a real problem. I guess that actual facts don't matter this close to the election, however.

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