By James D. Lakin PhD MD FACP CFI
CFII MEI Airline Transport Pilot FAA Senior Medical Examiner 

Seat Belts and Shoulder Harnesses: Use 'em!


October 1, 2020

The NHTSA isn't the only federal agency that has fun crashing things! Our own FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) in Oklahoma City has blasted a number of perfectly good airplanes to smithereens in the interest of aviation safety. One thing they have found is that both seatbelts and shoulder harnesses are pretty darn good things to have around-around you the pilot! None of us plan on having an accident or an incident. Yet we all know that in spite of our best planning and precautions they can happen. Studies of serious accidents have shown that the proper use of shoulder harnesses along with seat belts reduce major injuries by 88% and fatalities by 20%. The FAA recognized the value of both seatbelt and shoulder harness quite some time ago and they have been required for all seats in small airplanes manufactured since December 12, 1986. If your airplane is not equipped with shoulder harnesses, you can get a kit for installing them from the manufacturer.

For this equipment to do its job, however, it has to be used properly. You all know that they must be worn during taxi, takeoff and landings. You further know that its nuts to not wear them during the rest of the flight. The tops of those buildups can really bounce you around! Another thing to be mindful of is any slack in the restraint system. Testing has shown that in an impact your body keeps moving until the slack is taken out of the restraint. Then you come to an abrupt halt as you 'catch up' with the airplane. That can lead to some really sore muscles, internal injuries or pelvic fractures. Therefore, adjust seat belt and harness to fit as tightly as possible without cutting off the circulation!

Placement of the belts is also critical. Your seat belt should be placed low on your hipbones (pelvis). This is a strong hunk of bone and best suited to take the impact of a crash. If the belt is high, over the abdomen it could cause internal organ injuries in an abrupt stop. If the belt is over your thighs, obviously it can't stop your upper body forward motion. That's the job of the shoulder harness. It should fit snugly but not rub against your head or neck. If you have a single shoulder belt rather than the newer dual setup, make sure that the belt crosses over the center of your chest. If it's off to the side your torso might roll out of the shoulder belt during an impact. Then you go flying into the air shield! Also check that both the seat and shoulder belts release when you unlatch. They should unlatch without interference from the armrest, aircraft controls or the interior wall of the airplane. If you are using one of the newer dual shoulder belt setups, make sure the seat belt doesn't creep up over your abdomen. You want it over your hip bones.

If you have children among your passengers there are a few more things to think about. Smaller kids should be in a "child safety seat" just as in automobile travel. The seat should be placed in a rear airplane seat but not near an entry door or an emergency exit. If the configuration of your airplane dictates placing the child seat in the front, make sure that it cannot interfere with the airplane controls or limit your access to the radios or flight instruments. Also make sure the kiddo can't grab any of the controls. You might not want junior to help leaning the engine at 10,000 msl! Also, don't forget to take into account the weight of the kid and the car seat when you're doing your weight and balance. Some of these child seats are pretty hefty.

OK. Everybody belted in? Throttle full forward. Put in a little right rudder and off you go!

Fly wisely. See you next month.


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