If you're taking a long-haul international flight, you hope to god that it goes smoothly and nothing untoward happens. And it barely ever does, to be fair, with the odds of a fatal airline accident being something one in 10 million. But every airline crew goes through extensive training to ensure that if anything happens, you'll be able to escape safely through emergency exits and evacuation slides.
It's actually possible to evacuate the 450-plus passengers of an average Airbus A380 in less than 90 seconds; in 2006 the plane was certified to carry a full 853 souls after an evacuation test where that many passengers plus 20 crew escaped a test A380, with 8 of its 16 emergency exits arbitrarily blocked, in 78 seconds. Skip to 2:00 for the good stuff:
The largest A380 customer in the world is Emirates, and has a massive 140 in total with 59 flying and 81 on order — a long way ahead of the next largest customer, Singapore Airlines with 19 flying and 5 on order. Since each A380 needs 20 or more crew members, Emirates employs a lot of cabin crew, almost 11,000 at the moment, and all of those go through training at the Emirates Crew Training and Aviation College at the airline's home base in Dubai.
A lot goes on in the crew training college — cabin crew and flight crew alike are instructed in cabin service for economy, business and first class, etiquette and deportment, the Emirates look, and trained in the everyday tasks of running an aircraft with more than 450 passengers both in the air and on the ground. There's a lot to remember over the seven weeks of initial training that all staff get.
But if you've listened to pilot announcements or the safety demonstrations at the start of any flight, you'll notice that the staff always mention that your safety is their first priority — and that means that above all else, crew are trained to get you out of the airplane as quickly as possible in the case of an emergency. And that means they have to be certified in evacuating an airplane, the process of which happens in the airline's own custom-built facility.
At the heart of the evacuation training centre is a massive partial mock-up of an Airbus A380, standing almost 25 metres off the ground at its highest point. That simulator is flanked on one side by a swimming pool cooled to 2 degrees Celsius, into which cabin crew have to swim as part of their certification, mimicking the near-freezing temperatures of the ocean. On the other side, three massive evacuation slides are permanently attached — and it's these that you'll have to jump from.
Stand up at the top of the slide on the upper deck of an Emirates A380 — where the business class and first class passenger seats are — and it looks like a long way down to the ground, even with the slide already ejected and extended, a process that takes only a couple of seconds thanks to some super-high-pressure carbon dioxide tanks hidden away in the plane's belly.
Every Emirates cabin crew and flight crew member has to jump down that slide, as well as going through the procedure of opening the explosive-loaded emergency exit door and scanning outside for danger, as part of their flight training. Even with the luxury of taking your time, psyching yourself up, and letting other people go first, it's not a hugely attractive proposition — especially if you're not a fan of heights. But, still, if you're offered the opportunity, it'd be silly to say no. So I did.
You're actually instructed not to touch the slide at all, if at all possible. Not even the sides, to steady yourself if you're falling off-centre. The rubberised, coated canvas will give you some serious carpet burns within seconds Basically all you can do is sit down, stick your arms out and hope for the best. But it works.
Once you're out on the slide up the top, you're instructed — with some urgency by a crew member, if it's an actual emergency situation — to sit down with your legs facing forward and your feet outstretched (ideally with no shoes or high heels). Your arms go in front of you, stretched out like a zombie, rather than crossed over your chest like you'd expect. Sitting upright, nudge yourself along and down the slide, and you're away.
Of course, none of this will happen as slowly and surely as it did for me when you're in the real world. A lot of the finesse probably goes out the window. But as long as you're on the slide and not in the plane, that's the important thing. Those black strips at the bottom of the slide wash off a lot of your speed, but you're still moving at a rate of knots when you come to the end of the slide.
At the end of the slide, you hit the ground pretty fast — and that means you go sprawling, despite those speed-reducing black strips. It's more than easy to trip over as you come off and end up the wrong way up. When you're on soft foam mats like I was, you're fine. But I'm not at all surprised that you hear about a few broken ankles and wrists any time an airplane has to deploy its emergency slides, even if it's on flat ground like airport tarmac.
But it's surprisingly straightforward. Stand up the top, jump off, and you're on the ground before you can think. It's really reassuring, too, to know that each and every Emirates cabin crew member knows exactly what to do in case of an emergency. And to know just how well designed the Airbus A380 really is. Stay tuned for more behind the scenes exploration of how Emirates maintains its massive A380 fleet in Dubai, including the process of completely overhauling an A380 both inside and outside during a routine safety inspection.
Campbell Simpson traveled to Dubai as a guest of Emirates. This article is part of a feature series looking behind the scenes at Emirates' base of operations in its home city, exploring its engineering, catering and network flight control facilities.