Behind the Scenes: How an Emergency Airplane Evacuation Works
“You can smell the fear as you walk through.”
My guide during my visit to Virgin Atlantic’s headquarters in Crawley, England was taking me inside the airline’s cabin safety training rig. This hyper-realistic indoor mockup of a Virgin Atlantic passenger cabin is where flight attendants — trainees and veterans alike — practice how to handle emergency landings, water landings, on-board fires, and all those dreaded “unlikely events” they tell us passengers about during those pre-flight safety briefings.
Despite my host’s ominous statement about the smell of fear in the passenger safety rig, it looked very innocuous; there was no scary music, nor was there a sign imploring visitors to abandon all hope. It was simply a replica of one of the million airplane cabins I’ve been on (in fact, the Virgin Atlantic training area had several other replica cabins spread throughout the training floor where flight attendants can practice upper-cabin service, food service, and their other duties).
Virgin Atlantic’s cabin safety training rig at the airline’s headquarters in Crawley, England. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Still, my host’s dramatics were well-earned. For the cabin safety rig may not smell like fear, but it’s definitely where every flyers’ worst fears are realized.
I was there to experience that fear for myself. Every now and then, Virgin Atlantic takes visitors into the cabin safety rig to participate in an emergency landing and evacuation drill — just like the kind flight attendant trainees must master before they get their wings. On this day, I was allowed to climb aboard one of their drills. After donning a genuine Virgin Atlantic flight attendant uniform (when you’re in Rome, you dress as the Romans), I was on my way to the cabin safety training rig. On the way there, I kept thinking about what a friend who’d done such a drill told me before my trip to Crawley: “You should know,” she said. “It freaks some people out.”
Virgin Atlantic’s training facility has several cabin replicas to train flight attendants. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)
My friend wasn’t kidding. Apparently, some visitors who participate in this drill have been known to find the experience a little too much to handle. And it sometimes overwhelms them emotionally.
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“Even though they know it’s not real,” Virgin Atlantic safety training instructor Janine Beighton said, “you do get people who get a little bit…” Then she did a mock panic attack.
“We’re not here to make them even more scared,” Janine added. “We’re here to show them what our [flight attendants] can do, what they’re capable of in an emergency.”
Virgin Atlantic safety training instructor Janine Beighton was all smiles before the drill. But it was a different story during the mock emergency landing. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
As Janine, who was leading the drill alongside cabin safety training manager Matt Whipp, prepped me for the drill, I got warning after warning.
“If it gets too intense,” I’m told, “just get up and leave through the exit at the back of the mock cabin.” They then had me sign a waiver. Matt warned me that Janine, who would be playing the flight attendant during the drill, “will shout at you.” Then they told me again about the panic exit. For a second there, I was expecting them to ask me to pick a safe word (I was really hoping it was “Branson”).
Undaunted, I strapped myself into the seat across from Janine, who was seated in the jumpseat across from me next to an emergency exit. Matt took his spot in the back of the rig; as he was playing the part of the captain and the flight manager, he would be out of sight during the drill, making announcements over the PA.
Then, the “flight” began. The viewscreens that made up the windows in the safety rig switched on to show a scene of cloud-covered blue sky. The comfortable hum of the plane’s engines filled the interior. It had all the makings of a nice flight. Actually, it was the best flight ever; I had the plane all to myself, save for a delightful flight attendant chatting amiably across from me. It was all so real, so pleasant, that I all but reached for the menu to order a chicken salad wrap. All was well.
And then it wasn’t.
Matt’s voice suddenly boomed over the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” he said. “Some of you may be aware that we do have a situation with the aircraft. We have to make an emergency landing in approximately 12 minutes. Please listen to your cabin crew and follow their instructions.” Matt, switching roles to the plane’s flight manager, then got on the PA to warn us to fasten our seatbelts.
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That was when Janine took charge. The easygoing, quick-to-laugh person I’d been chatting and joking with during my HQ tour that day suddenly got as serious as a drill instructor as she started instructing us (or, more accurately, me) what to do once the plane was on the ground. Her first order surprised, and unnerved, me.
“Okay, now listen up!” she said in a clear, commanding voice that left no room for hesitation or debate. “If I am not okay the first thing you need to do is take me out of my harness and place me on the floor or the seat you’ve come out of.”
Janine yells instructions during the emergency landing drill. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Hearing her say that was jarring. The only thing scarier than a plane accident is the notion that the flight attendant — the one you’re probably going to rely on for life-saving instructions during a crash — could become incapacitated, or worse. Her order had the desired effect; I started listening closely, knowing I may not be able to rely on the flight attendant to tell me what to do once we were on the ground. It’s probably the only time one could accurately say “s— just got real” about a situation that, by definition, was not real.
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Janine continued, instructing me to check for fire, smoke, and debris before opening the door and telling me how to manually inflate the slide should it fail to do so automatically. She then assigned jobs for the first four people off the plane, again in the event that she’s incapacitated. The first two people off were to take her with them to the bottom of the slide, and then stay there and help the subsequent escapees off the slide. The second two people off the plane were to keep running away from the slide until they reached a safe distance, and beckon escaping passengers to safety.
Then, Janine spoke loudly for the benefit of the other passengers. Turns out, Matt had been right about his warning; Janine shouted so loud, I had a feeling she’d still be heard if the roof were to fly off the top of a plane. “REMOVE ANY HIGH-HEELED SHOES AND TIGHT CLOTHING! REMOVE GLASSES AND HEADSETS AND PUT THEM IN THE SEAT POCKET IN FRONT OF YOU! PRACTICE YOUR BRACE POSITION! MAKE SURE YOUR SEATBELT IS TIGHT!”
Then Matt came over the PA with the announcement no flyer ever wants to hear: “BRACE! BRACE!”
Janine somehow yelled even louder. “HEADS DOWN, FEET BACK! HEADS DOWN, FEET BACK!” She kept saying it over and over in anticipation of the fake impact. “HEADS DOWN, FEET BACK!!!”
The writer braces for impact. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
I braced for the pretend impact, trying not to think about how terrifying this must have been for anyone who’s lived through this experience.
At the moment of impact, the viewscreens that had been showing blue skies now showed us on the ground.
“This is an emergency!” came Matt over the PA. “Evacuate! Evacuate!”
Janine — who, fortunately for the purposes of this drill, was not injured — sprang up, opened the emergency door. “OPEN SEAT BELTS! GET OUT! LEAVE EVERYTHING BEHIND! OPEN SEAT BELTS! GET OUT! LEAVE EVERYTHING BEHIND! "she yelled repeatedly. She ordered me down the emergency slide (which was just a mat positioned on the floor outside the rig). I "slid” down and, as I was told, ran down the length of the cavernous Virgin Atlantic safety facility, waving the invisible other passengers toward me. The drill was over and, weirdly, part of me was happy to be alive, although I wasn’t in any danger.
It was an intense experience, and it’s one flight attendants must master. Not only do Virgin Atlantic flight attendant trainees undergo this training, veteran flight attendants must also return to Crawley every year for a two-day cabin safety refresher they have to score an 88 percent or above in their evaluations to continue flying. And this isn’t just a Virgin Atlantic thing; flight attendant training facilities at other major airlines worldwide are just as strict.
All flight attendants, trainees, and veterans, spend a lot of time practicing emergency procedures. (Photo: Getty Images)
“We say to the instructors, ‘If you feel that you can’t sit on the jump seat next to that crew member and [feel that] if you were unconscious they could save your life, then you don’t sign them off,” Whipp said in our post-drill briefing. “Sometimes it’s difficult to say.”
Of course, some prospective flight attendants don’t master the safety procedures and don’t become flight attendants. Interestingly enough, some of them wash out because they can’t do what Janine did so effectively during our simulation: take charge of the cabin during an emergency.
“I had one person who got to day four of our course and say to me, 'I realize that we we’re here for safety but I didn’t think I’d have to shout at anybody,” remembers Janine. “She said, 'I don’t think I can shout at people.’ She left at the end of the day. You’ve got to be able to command an evacuation and get the attention of 450 people, and she just decided it wasn’t for her.”
“We have to be assertive,” Matt says. “If we just stand at the door and say 'I’m so sorry, it’s all gone a bit wrong, can you leave the aircraft? Thanks for flying Virgin Atlantic,’ people aren’t going to go anywhere. That’s why we become assertive.”
Virgin Atlantic cabin safety training manager Matt Whipp. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
When you think about it, it might seem odd for an otherwise great flight attendant not to be allowed to fly because they fail to master the one skill that — given the astronomical odds against a plane accident — they likely will never, ever have to use.
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“On the people side, on the customer experience side, there have been a couple of [trainees] who would have been absolutely fantastic,” Matt said about some of the wannabe flight attendants who didn’t make the cut. He then pointed to the cabin safety training rig and added, “but if they can’t get people off of that, then they’re not for us.”
Personally, after enduring this drill, I’m hoping that the “customer experience side” Matt referred to is the only side of flight attendants I ever see. Yes, flight attendants bring drinks, serve food, and greet you cheerfully as you board. But nervous flyers can take comfort in knowing that that other side — the one that knows what to do when things go wrong — is an emergency, and a loud shout, away.
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