The Romney In-Flight Fire Scare: Cut Mitt Some Slack

(See update below -- Mitt Romney was apparently joking about rolling the windows down. I count this as support for the "cut him some slack" approach.)

As promised, here is your handy one-stop primer on Mitt Romney's seeming wonderment, after an emergency landing by his wife's plane, why airplane windows can't be opened during flight.

1) Cut Mitt some slack. His wife had been through an upsetting and potentially dangerous episode. However stressed she was, he might have felt even worse -- because he wasn't there, and because of reason #3 below. I'm on record as saying that Mitt Romney is rhetorically at his weakest when forced to improvise or handle unexpected questions or situations. But this one shouldn't count. Any of us, if filmed and recorded 24/7 and especially during stressful situations, could and would say things as inapt.

2) In case you were wondering, in-flight fires really can be bad news. An electrical fire is bad because it can destroy navigation, communication, or control systems, plus producing toxic fumes. Fires in the engine, the fuel system, the wing, or wherever are bad too. Apart from the smoke, you never want to have open flames in vehicles that are, essentially, flying metal tubes full of kerosene. After a multi-fatality Air Canada fire nearly 30 years ago, all sorts of safety regulations were tightened to reduce the risk of fire and to contain the effects if one breaks out. Even for small aircraft, part of pilot training is to memorize the various emergency procedures and work through the checklists involved in coping with a fire.

3) People are afraid of different things, and the reasons aren't purely logical. Some people are afraid of dogs -- or snakes or spiders or rats, or the big needles a doctor uses to give a shot. I don't mind any of those, but (like many people who fly airplanes) I'm a little queasy with heights. I also get nervous in very tight spaces, and I have an irrational fear and dislike of horses -- even though many members of my family were avid riders. It's beyond our rational control. We can be brave in some circumstances and terrified in others, for reasons that have no connection to the objective "danger" involved. Thus John Madden, famous tough guy, would never call Pro Bowl games because the bus he relied on for travel couldn't get him all the way to Hawaii.
Here's why I mention this. I have heard over the years, within the flying world, that Mitt Romney views airplanes more or less the way I view horses. He is (I have heard) not a happy or comfortable flyer, and one who can always imagine things going wrong. Fortunately I don't actually have to ride horses -- but he has no choice but to fly, white-knuckled, from one stop to the next. Someone with this outlook would naturally be all the more rattled by an emergency landing. So cut him all the more slack.

3A) Somehow the preceding point makes me think of this classic Twilight Zone moment. Thanks to Capt. David Ryan for the link:

4) How airplanes actually work. Gov. Romney's comments revealed factual confusion in two areas: Why you can't get fresh air into an airliner by opening its windows in flight, and where the oxygen inside the plane comes from. I mentioned before that Patrick Smith, of Ask The Pilot, might address these issues on his site. Even better, he just sent me an email with the answers. I turn the floor over to him:

Yes, the windows in an airplane don't "roll down" because, for one, the plane is pressurized, and introducing a suddenly opened window would be somewhere between extremely inconvenient and catastrophically dangerous.

And because, at higher altitudes, there is not enough oxygen to breathe.

The reason a plane is pressurized is to SUPPLY that oxygen.  Oxygen doesn't come from an on-board tank, as many people believe.  It comes from the air itself, which, once the jet is aloft, is drawn in from outside and squeezed back together -- i.e. pressurized -- to replicate conditions close to sea level.  

If there's a loss of cabin pressure, then, yes, you use supplemental onboard oxygen.  Passengers and crew both have separate supplies.

In the case of onboard smoke or fire, introducing oxygen can make a bad situation worse.  Because of this, the cabin masks won't necessarily be deployed, even if heavy smoke is present.  For the pilots, the task is to isolate the SOURCE of the smoke or fire, and deal with it directly, and/or to ventilate the cabin via the pressurization outflow valves or other plumbing.  This varies aircraft to aicraft, procedure to procedure, situation to situation.  It depends.   We have checklists to guide us in such situations, and they can be quite long and involved.

You would THINK, considering how much time Mitt Romney must have spent on planes thus far in his lifetime, that he would have at least a vague grasp of where the oxygen in a plane's cabin comes from, and why the windows don't open.

Or not.  Pressurization is one of those things that few folks understand and that many are afraid of.  Something about the word "pressurization" makes people envision the upper altitudes as a kind of barometric hell.  I've been asked, "If the plane wasn't pressurized, would my eyes pop out?"  Cruising in an airplane is not the same as dropping to the Marianas Trench in a deep-sea diving bell.  

If a malfunction arises, tie on your mask and breathe normally, just as the flight attendants tell you. Those masks are a source of angst, I know, but should they spring from the ceiling, try to resist shrieking or falling into cardiac arrest.  Nothing terrible is going to happen.

Update: And it appears that Romney was making a joke about the whole thing.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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