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Training to survive a plane crash

A British Airways safety course participant tries out

A British Airways safety course participant tries out an escape slide during a class near London Heathrow Airport. Credit: AP / Matt Dunham

LONDON - They raced down the slide, one by one, like children on a playground. At the bottom, smartphone photos were snapped and high-fives exchanged.

The frequent fliers were all smiling and laughing -- and quietly hoping to never use an evacuation slide again. Doing so would mean their plane had just crashed.

The slide demonstration was part of a half-day safety course that encourages passengers to be aware of their surroundings and familiarize themselves with what happens in an emergency. The two dozen participants learned the best way to brace for a crash, how to open aircraft doors and why to wait until exiting a plane to inflate life vests.

"In this day and age, everybody is so comfortable with flying, they get on planes and don't consider safety," said Andy Clubb, a safety instructor at British Airways' flight training center.

Started as a training exercise for oil company employees who routinely flew to remote locations, the course is now open to frequent fliers willing to pay $265, although most participants are still sent by their companies.

The class begins inside a Boeing 737 cabin simulator. Airplane seats are selected. Seat belts are buckled. The safety demonstration starts. Just like on a real flight, nobody pays attention -- and these are passengers who know there is going to be a crash.

Soon theatrical smoke fills the cabin and the flight attendants shout "Brace. Brace. Brace." Everybody's head goes down until the evacuation order is given.

It's a scramble to the nearest exit. Some passengers fare better than others. Seat belts aren't snapped off quickly enough. One woman struggles to open the emergency exit over the wing.

When the smoke clears, the group sits back down and learns that six to eight passengers can go through the door in the time it takes one passenger to go through the tiny over-wing exit. Seconds count. In the simulator, anyone who hesitates gets a stern lecture. In real life, they're pushed out the door, down the slide by a flight attendant.

Clubb explained that the key to survival is getting into the proper brace position: Bend forward as far as possible, keep your head down. Place your feet flat on the floor and slide them back.

Your dominant hand goes on the back of your head. Protect that hand by placing the other hand over it. Do not interlock fingers. The goal is to ensure that the bones in the stronger hand aren't broken so you can eventually unbuckle the seat belt.

Will members of the class ever use the training? Each day, 8.3 million people around the globe step aboard some 93,500 flights. They almost always land safely. In the past decade, there have only been 138 crashes worldwide that had fatalities, according to aviation consultancy Ascend.

"The likelihood is that you are never going to have to do it in a real life situation. But knowing now that you could do it, just gives you a bit more confidence," said participant Sarah Barnett, who frequently flies in her job marketing vacation destinations.

Among the other safety tidbits dispensed that day: Always inflate life vests outside the plane; they can limit mobility in a tight space and if water fills the cabin, passengers with inflated vests can be pressed up against the ceiling, unable to swim down to the door.

A bit of knowledge that, if you're lucky, you won't ever need.

"Fingers crossed, this afternoon has been a complete, utter waste of time," Clubb said.

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