#2. Helicopter Rotors are Like Giant Swords Waiting to Chop You to Pieces in a Crash
Helicopters are one of the steepest risk-reward propositions available to humans. The reward is that you get to ride around inside a metal dragonfly with wings that are giant, whirring swords. The risk is that your chances of surviving a helicopter crash are about as good as your chances of winning an egg toss when your partner is an industrial blender on high. They're called choppers for a reason. If you've seen the movie The Last Boy Scout, you know that the blades of a helicopter can turn a screaming man into a fine pink mist without the aircraft so much as changing course. And if you've seen 28 Days Later, you know that helicopters are really just a poor excuse to turn a lawn mower inside out and convert zombies into restaurant style salsa. Apparently, that sword hat is itching to fly off its handle, and when it does, it's going to chew up anything or anybody that gets in its way, unless it falls apart, in which case you'll be treated to a giant sword-throwing display.
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And that's why when they land, the blades can be shot off at crowds as a mass "control device."
Due to the fact that they often happen low to the ground, at speeds that would get you shouted at on the highway, helicopter crashes are actually fatal less often than airplane crashes. But what about the deadly parade of giant, gravel-chewing swords that go flying everywhere in a crash?
It turns out chopper is a slightly overdramatic nickname, since helicopters are not built to chop through anything but air. Another name for a helicopter is "rotary-wing aircraft." The helicopter's "blades" are actually just wings. They aren't swords made to slice through skulls. They're made to slice through the air, which happens to be far less dense than the half-inch of stone helmet currently protecting your think pudding.
The fancier version has bubblegum in the center.
Notice that it's mostly made of things like "foam" and "honeycomb" instead of "adamantium razor blades." That "stainless steel erosion shield" is for protection against things like dust and sand, which can actually do a number on helicopter blades to the point of needing to be replaced. Because a rotor blade is the helicopter's wing, it's made to be a specific shape that generates lift.
The metal is surprisingly pliable, and whacking through dozens of zombie skulls or an adult human body will bend the rotor out of its optimal shape, into something more akin to a dented baseball bat -- not known for its aerodynamic properties. So while we wouldn't recommend sticking your head close to one, you probably don't need to worry that a loose helicopter blade is going to chase you down and chew through the concrete wall you're hiding behind.
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Well, that is unless you're being purposely stalked by one.
#1. Plane Crash = Plummeting to Certain Death Inside a Zero Gravity Chamber of Horrors
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According to Fight Club, the reason planes come equipped with oxygen masks is because "Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate." According to stand-up comedians and the stupid people who quote them, assuming the crash position is only good for kissing your own ass goodbye. Conspiracy theorists have even suggested that the posture is intended to only protect your teeth so that your body is easy to identify.
While you may not believe that, the stupid and cynical get away with such statements because of our shared assumption that plane crashes are as hopelessly fatal and terrifyingly violent as they look in every movie ever.
Onscreen plane crashes tend to follow a loose three-act structure. At some point when the plane is high above the Earth, the air starts violently jump kicking everything, a bag or two falls out of its overhead compartment, the oxygen masks fall down, and a bunch of extras get to put their acting lessons to use.
Up next, gravity is going to fail. A few people will be sucked to the roof and slammed to the ground like they're being manhandled by an invisible wrestler ...
We wish there was a way to spell a sort of sucking sound.
If you're lucky, a fireball will sweep backward through the cabin, granting you and your fellow passengers a quick death in an orderly, front to back fashion ...
If you watch the news, you probably suspect crashes that look like the ones in movies are happening all the time. Perhaps you saw this terrifying footage of a 747 plummeting out of the sky on takeoff.
Holy bazookas, that's exactly what you always feared was going to happen. It's like whatever rules of physics you've been coasting along on for every flight you've ever taken just suddenly decide to stop working, and the plane falls from the sky like a stone.
Movies create impossible crashes because most of them (80 percent) happen during takeoff and landing and just aren't terrifying looking enough to keep you glued to your seat. The news isn't allowed to completely make stuff up, but they can use terrifying footage out of context. For instance, the plane that fell out of the air in Afghanistan in that terrifying video was transporting heavy duty military vehicles. One of the 18-ton vehicles came loose and rolled to the back of the plane, causing it to pitch upward until it couldn't fly anymore. Terrifying video, horrible tragedy, completely unrelated to any flight that isn't transporting something that weighs 18 tons.
Perhaps the most dangerous myth that movies perpetuate is the idea that you're completely screwed no matter what you do in a plane crash. In Fearless, the movie's hero leaves his seat during an emergency landing to walk around the cabin and spread his Zen-like acceptance of death to the rest of the passengers. In reality, most plane crashes are totally survivable as long as you do exactly what the flight attendants advised during that speech you slept through. We've covered before that 95 percent of people survive plane crashes, and one of the main reasons is that "kiss your ass goodbye" landing position. In Australia, a plane crashed while the 16 passengers aboard were sleeping. The only survivor was the one who woke up and assumed the emergency crash position.
Between December 2001 and June 2013, if you were on a commercial airliner like the ones you see in any of the above movies, your chances of dying in a fatal crash were zero. Not virtually zero. Literally zero. The crash landing of the Air Asiana flight that killed three people in San Francisco to end that streak was a horrifying tragedy. But it was also the first fatal accident in North America involving a major airline since 2001. Guess which aspect was endlessly covered by the national media!
Maybe you've seen articles like this one from AOL Travel.com, with the headline "Qantas Flight Loses Pressure, Drops 26,000 Feet." A different title reporting the same incident declared "Passenger terror as another Qantas jet fault causes plane to plummet 25,000ft mid-flight." That makes it sound like, in the middle of a flight, the plane just up and went into free fall. The writer of that headline doesn't want you to know that the story is actually about an air conditioner failure. The 26,000 feet were "dropped" on purpose by the pilots, as part of a controlled descent to get the plane to lower, more breathable air. By those standards, every flight you've ever taken has "dropped" at least that many feet. You're a survivor!
"This is your captain speaking. If you'll look out the left side of the plane, you'll see your eminent demise."
The truth is commercial airplanes like the ones movies always show plummeting out of the sky like a stone are pretty much incapable of doing that. Their bodies are designed to have a gliding ratio of 15 to 1, which means they will glide 15 feet forward for every one foot they fall, even without anything pushing them but the air over their wings. Even if your plane tried falling out of the air in mid-flight, the aerodynamics of its carefully designed body would cause the air it was falling through to pass over its wings and keep it flying.
This isn't a hypothetical design feature. Pilots have glided completely full commercial airliners over 100 miles to safe landings. It's called a "dead-stick" landing, as opposed to emergency landings that still have at least one engine working, which are referred to as "precautionary landings." That's right, if three of your four engines flame out on takeoff, and the pilot decides to turn around and land the plane, he's considered "precautionary."
Carl is a full-time military pilot and a part-time smart ass. He occasionally says something worthwhile on Twitter and writes for non-dick-joke publications such as Small Wars Journal and the Marine Corps Gazette, among others.
Related Reading: For a list of planes just as deadly as Hollywood wants every 747 to be, click this link. That crash in World War Z won't seem so bad once you've read about the plane that MELTED PEOPLE'S FACES. Next, lighten things up and read about the time a fist fight between the pilot, co-pilot and crew left a flight unmanned for ten minutes. Close out your study in aviation with this look at the most badass pilots in history.
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