The public has a fascination with aircraft crashes. I understand why commercial airline crashes attract attention, but have no theory as to why many other aircraft crashes get the publicity they do.
As someone working in the aviation industry I am interested in crashes from the analytical/investigative side. It’s useful to note the chain of events that is always present leading up to an aircraft/aviation accident(s) in order to prevent future incidents. Over time this approach has obviously enhanced aviation safety.
The latest crash to make the headlines was a Cessna Citation I crash in England that occurred on Sunday in which five died. The accident itself wasn’t that notable or odd, but I immediately noted the following in the CNN headline story (with my emphasis):
Shocked residents gathered in the streets nearby after the crash. Gary Walcraft, 16, said the pilot steered the plane away from the field where he was playing football with friends.
“The plane was coming down with its landing gear down as if to make an emergency landing on the field,” he said. “I could see someone in the plane waving frantically out of the window at us to get out of the way.
This immediately reminded me of another accident years ago involving a Boeing B737 at Colorado Springs in 1991 in which 25 died. A Google search resulted in the return of the story I remembered (my emphasis again).
Some residents of the Kokomo, the two-story apartment building nearby, said they could see horrified passengers clawing at the windows as the plane veered wildly. “You could see people knocking on windows, trying to get out,” said one resident, Mark Duggan.
Aviation accident investigators routinely note statements of eyewitnesses to accidents. However it’s also commonly known that these statements tend to be unreliable. This is because the human brain instinctly fills in details of both rapidly occurring and traumatic events.
For instance, many eyewitness reports tend to include an aircraft on fire before it crashes even though subsequent investigations show no signs of pre-impact fire. This is because many people assume (subconsciously) that if an aircraft crashes that it must have been on fire before and their brains subconsciously add that information to their recollection.
So these reports aren’t necessarily people fabricating stories to get on the news although I’m sure that happens too.
The largest window or section of windows on either aircraft is the cockpit windows. The passenger windows are probably around 12 inches by 12 inches on both.
It’s highly unlikely based on the window size itself that eyewitnesses on the ground some distance away from the aircraft would be able to see passengers “clawing at the windows” as claimed in the Colorado Springs accident.
For starters it’s assumed ground eyewitnesses would be some distance away from the aircraft (at least several hundred yards or more).
Also, the largest perspective viewing angle for the passenger windows would be directly from the side of the aircraft or 90 degrees perpendicular to the aircraft’s flight path. Any other viewing angle would present a much smaller window viewing perspective. Additionally the aircraft window system and fuselage walls are fairly thick, so any viewing angle off of directly from the side would make it even harder to see anyone inside.
So I think it’s easy to discount the possibility of anyone seeing people at the passenger windows. That leaves the cockpit windows.
However, in the cockpit windows case the largest viewing size comes from directly in front of the aircraft. That would mean the aircraft would need to be coming directly at the eyewitness to have the best viewing angle. Clearly this is not an ideal position for the observer viewing a crashing aircraft.
Regardless I have watched landing commercial aircraft from several hundred yards away and been unable to see the flight crew through the cockpit windows as they are seated some distance back from windows. I have been able to see crews through the cockpit windows from in the airport terminal from some 50 to 100 feet away but keep in mind that these aircraft are motionless; not moving at landing speeds of 100 mph or faster.
The Citation cockpit window viewed from the side is fairly large however as shown in the photograph (in fact the pilot is visible in this photo). So it would be easier to see someone inside the cockpit of a Citation at reasonable viewing distances from the side.
But the problem with the eyewitness accounts is that in an emergency the flight crew is trying to fly the aircraft and do everything they can to not die; not waving wildly in front of the windows to try to get people hundreds of yards away to get out of the flight/crash path (a crap-shoot anyway for an object moving that fast).
I think it’s fairly obvious that these eyewitness accounts of seeing people through windows of crashing aircraft are highly unlikely.