Shoulder Harnesses and Seat Belts—Double Click for Safety

by Rob Freeman, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, Commercial Flight Standards, Standards Branch, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

Excerpt from a recent Transportation Safety Board report: “The pilot’s shoulder harness was found post accident tucked into a storage pouch behind the seat.”

If you are like most of us, you don’t even think about putting on your seat belt and shoulder harness when you get into your car. You just do it. It’s been a long time since people actively fought against the seat belt law in Canada. Yet years ago, it was commonly held that you were actually safer if you were ejected from the vehicle during a collision! Now it feels uncomfortable to move a car even a short distance without being strapped in. So it is a bit of a surprise to find that many of the same pilots who drive their vehicles to the airport while buckled and secured do not attach their shoulder harnesses when they go flying. 

We know that to be true because aircraft accident investigations often reveal the sad reality— survivable accidents aren’t survived, and the ever-present crew shoulder harnesses that are required to be installed on all aircraft manufactured after the dates specified below have been neatly tucked away or secured behind the now-deceased pilot’s seat. The FAA has estimated that roughly one third of all general aviation accidents with fatalities would have been survivable if the pilots had been using their shoulder harnesses.

For cars and aircraft, it is the secondary collision that kills. The dynamics of the deceleration sequence in a sudden-stop accident are straightforward and have been well understood for a long time. The vehicle (either car or aircraft) undergoes a sudden and complete deceleration during contact with an immovable surface (ground or water). The driver or pilot is still moving forward at the original velocity and now pivots from the waist, where he or she is secured only by the lap belt. No one is physically strong enough to prop themselves up against the high g-force deceleration that may occur during an accident sequence, so heads and arms strike the dashboard or instrument panel violently. 

These days drivers and their passengers may be saved by airbag deployment, but that is not the case in most aircraft. Pilots are often rendered unconscious or unable to extract themselves from the wreckage due to serious injuries or shock. Hypothermia, drowning or fire is often the second and final complication for the incapacitated crew and their trapped and panicked passengers.

The intent of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) is that pilots wear both the lap strap and shoulder harness where installed. Where there are two pilots, at least one must wear the safety belt (lap strap and shoulder harness) at all times while in flight.

Here are some excerpts from the CARs concerning the use of safety belts that apply specifically to pilots. Sections referring to other occupant restraint systems have been excluded for clarity and brevity.

Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs)


101.01 (1) In these Regulations:

"safety belt" means a personal restraint system consisting of either a lap strap or a lap strap combined with a shoulder harness; (ceinture de sécurité)

"crew member" means a person assigned to duty in an aircraft during flight time; (membre d'équipage)

"flight crew member" means a crew member assigned to act as pilot or flight engineer of an aircraft during flight time; (membre d'équipage de conduite)

Seat and Safety Belt Requirements

605.22 (1) …no person shall operate an aircraft other than a balloon unless it is equipped with a seat and safety belt for each person on board the aircraft other than an infant.

Shoulder Harness Requirements

605.24 (1) No person shall operate an aeroplane, other than a small aeroplane manufactured before July 18, 1978, unless each front seat or, if the aeroplane has a flight deck, each seat on the flight deck is equipped with a safety belt that includes a shoulder harness.

(4) No person shall operate a helicopter manufactured after September 16, 1992, the initial type certificate of which specifies that the helicopter is certified as belonging to the normal or transport category, unless each seat is equipped with a safety belt that includes a shoulder harness.

(5) No person operating an aircraft shall conduct any of the following flight operations unless the aircraft is equipped with a seat and a safety belt that includes a shoulder harness for each person on board the aircraft:

  • (a) aerobatic manoeuvres;
  • (b) class B, C or D external load operations conducted by a helicopter; and
  • (c) aerial application, or aerial inspection other than flight inspection for the purpose of calibrating electronic navigation aids, conducted at altitudes below 500 feet AGL.

Use of Crew Member Safety Belts

605.27 (1) Subject to subsection (2), the crew members on an aircraft shall be seated at their stations with their safety belts fastened

  • (a) during take-off and landing;
  • (b) at any time that the pilot-in-command directs; and…

(2) Where the pilot-in-command directs that safety belts be fastened by illuminating the safety belt sign, a crew member is not required to comply with paragraph (1)(b)

  • (c) if the crew member is occupying a crew rest facility during cruise flight and the restraint system for that facility is properly adjusted and securely fastened.

(3) The pilot-in-command shall ensure that at least one pilot is seated at the flight controls with safety belt fastened during flight time.

Note that the definition of safety belt includes a lap strap OR a lap strap AND shoulder harness, to address all aircraft, including those exempted from having shoulder harnesses due to their age and original basis of certification. The definition was not intended to provide an either/or choice to the flight crew. Unfortunately, that has become a common interpretation. It does not help that unlike automobiles, where both the lap strap and the shoulder harness are generally a combined unit that cannot be separated; aircraft systems normally permit lap straps and harnesses to be latched individually. This tends to reinforce the widespread misunderstanding of having a choice when strapping in.

CAR 605.27(3) requires one pilot to be fully restrained at all times when the aircraft is in flight. Where the aircraft is operated by a single pilot, then that obligation applies to him or her without exception.

Pilots of some aeroplanes have pointed out that the layout of the instrument panel and controls make it impossible to reach those controls when the shoulder harnesses are attached. Similarly, helicopter pilots involved in longline operations complain that twisting sideways to monitor the load is very uncomfortable or not manageable when the shoulder harness is attached. 

Operators, as part of their SMS programs for identifying hazards and for constant improvement, should be addressing these issues within their organizations to see what can be done. There are very few low-cost improvements that can be implemented so simply and have such a profound increase in safety and crew survivability as the constant use of pilot shoulder harnesses.

Aftermarket installation of inertia reel harnesses might be one solution for aircraft that do not have these devices; relocating switches or avionics control heads may be another. Some helicopter models can now be retrofitted with crew seats that have some swiveling capability specifically for longline operations. 

As a start, we strongly suggest that you include a line “shoulder harness – fastened” on your pre-flight and pre-landing checklist and keep it attached whenever the aircraft is in motion, particularly during takeoff and landing. If you have to unfasten your shoulder harness when it interferes with cockpit duties, get into the habit of reattaching it as soon as you can.

The risk remains that not attaching or removing your shoulder harness for whatever reason and continuing to fly without it will multiply the severity of any crash; perhaps, and most sadly, beyond the point of survival.

Invest a few minutes into your safe return home... reviewing the Civil Aviation Safety Alert (CASA) 2011-01, titled “SAFETY INFORMATION REGARDING GROUND AND AIRBORNE ICING”.The purpose of this CASA on ground and airborne icing is to highlight the fact that continued aircraft operations in icing conditions introduces additional risks. It’s time we

The Danger of Laser Strikes—Increasing in Power and Frequency


The following are a few vivid examples of both the increasing power and frequency of aviation laser strikes:

  • At 0323Z on April 18, 2013, a US Air Force C-17 was illuminated by a laser. Given that this is a global combat support aircraft, many may not consider this unusual—however the aircraft was overflying Rivière-du-Loup, Que., at 31 000 ft when the strike occurred. 
  • A Cathay Pacific Boeing 777 had to conduct a missed approach at Vancouver International Airport due to distractions from a laser strike on March 30, 2013. 
  • There have been media reports that the pilot of the Asiana Boeing 777 that crashed at San Francisco on July 6, 2013, was “blinded by a bright light”. While this has not been—and may never be—substantiated, the report starkly illustrates the potential danger of a laser strike to aircraft, particularly on short final approach through landing.  

Increasing power of handheld lasers

While advancement of laser technology has generated many positive benefits, the greatest danger to aviation may be the general public’s lack of understanding of the power and potential impact of handheld devices on pilots. Most people are still of the belief that all handheld lasers are toys and still associate these devices with the 1 milliwatt (mW) red laser pointers that many used to carry on their key chains. 

Today’s reality is significantly different; a handheld 1.4 W class IV laser (1 400 times brighter than your old 1 mW key chain pointer) can be purchased for under $400. This particular laser is visible up to 100 mi. away—quite literally observable from space and with a beam that is visible in daylight. The manufacturer describes this device as “strong enough to burn holes, pop balloons and start fires from across the room”. Such devices are far more than presentation pointers.

While there are some valid uses for handheld lasers, such as astronomy, those uses don’t require the high-power handheld lasers now available. In fact, some pilots wisely carry laser flares; however these devices do not create a focused beam and are expressly designed and approved for search and rescue purposes only.

Increasing frequency of laser strikes

In part due to the low cost and increasing availability of these devices, the number of laser strikes on aircraft is increasing rapidly.

 Reported Laser Attacks Total and % Increase
  Laser Attacks Total
2011-2012* (46% )
2012-2013* (34%)

Actions being taken by various aviation agencies

To mitigate the increasing risk to aviation, coordinated actions have been formalized between many NAV CANADA ATS units, law enforcement agencies, police dispatchers and Transport Canada enforcement officials to rapidly react to aviation laser strikes. As an example, in the Vancouver FIR, the following process has been put in place:

  • A pilot reports a laser illumination to ATS personnel.
  • ATS personnel notify police dispatch and, when possible, provide updates on the position of the laser emissions.
  • Police are quickly dispatched—using air services where available—to attempt to locate the emission source and apprehend the individual(s) involved.
  • In the case of CYVR, the RCMP makes every effort to meet the impacted flight crew and take their statements to further support prosecution.

The results to date are encouraging—as of May 2013 (the first 10 months of this coordinated action), there were:

  • 16 reported laser strikes,
  • 13 police responses,
  • 4 arrests, and
  • 1 conviction (with more prosecutions proceeding through the legal system).

 Actions for pilots receiving laser illumination

  • If you are struck by a laser—don’t overreact: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.
  • Give your eyesight some time to readjust and follow your company’s procedures.
  • If you are able to locate the source of the laser without further endangering yourself, pass that information along to ATS personnel who will coordinate with law enforcement.

Visit the Transport Canada’s “Use Laser Pointers Safely and Legally” Web page, where you will find how to submit a Directed Bright Light (DBL) report.

Finally, Transport Canada has an excellent guide on preparing for a laser strike, including actions to take in the event of receiving a laser illumination, which can be found here:

Risks in Aviation

by Jean-Gabriel Charrier

Below you will find a translation of a chapter from Jean-Gabriel Charrier’s fine book L’intelligence du pilote. Further extracts from the book will appear in forthcoming issues of the Aviation Safety Letter.

The reality of risk for pilots

As a pilot, you are more vulnerable if you are not aware of the hazards that you face, and prevention starts with information. Light aviation is about 50 times more dangerous per hr than driving; depending on the country, the number of deaths varies between 2 and 5 per 100 000 flying hr. Some types of aircraft, such as helicopters and antique planes, are more prone to accidents than others.

If you fail to keep risk present in your mind, then all the regulations, training and safety instructions will serve little purpose, and any precautions you have taken will probably not be sufficient to keep you safe.

Accidents are not inevitable

German pilot Bruno Gantenbrink, former world glider champion in the mid-1990s, had this to say, based on his many years of experience:

Gliding is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in my life. So why don’t I stop? Good question. I don’t stop because gliding gives me more joy and pleasure than anything else I can think of as an alternative.

However there is also a second reason, which is why I’m writing this. I do not think gliding is intrinsically dangerous. It could be much less dangerous if we were aware of the hazards and acted accordingly. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Being myself very aware of the hazards, I take care to act on this knowledge, and as a result, I hope to be able to beat the statistics. Without that hope, if gliding were as dangerous for me as the statistics seem to suggest, I would stop at once.

Almost all the friends I’ve lost in flight succumbed to human error or pilot error. They made ridiculously small mistakes and neglected the simplest things, with fatal consequences. They died because, at that vital moment, something other than safety was more important in their minds. If gliding is to become less dangerous, it won’t be enough to take this or that action. Instead there needs to be a basic shift in attitude. And that won’t happen unless we make a realistic assessment of the hazards we are facing on an almost routine basis.

Gantenbrink’s thoughts should be pondered by all pilots involved in light aviation.

Your safety depends first and foremost on you, on your attitude.

Concepts of risk

An accident is a confrontation with risk that goes wrong: a poorly executed landing in a crosswind; loss of control under demanding flying conditions. Pilots need to avoid these accident-producing situations. And one way to do that is to improve your perception of the risks related to the type of flying you do. Here are some concepts that will give you a better understanding of risk.

Risk or hazard?

Before looking at the concept of risk, we need to talk about hazards, because in aviation, risk arises from a confrontation with or exposure to some hazardous phenomenon, i.e. a physical threat.

If you are aware of the hazards, you can avoid them. So for example if you are unfamiliar with downdrafts, you should avoid flying over mountains when winds are high as this will generate downdrafts. In some cases, it is fine to confront a hazard, but only if you know how to deal with the phenomenon in question: the risk of carburetor icing can be controlled by a knowledge of the conditions under which it occurs and of how to use carburetor heat.

Seriousness and likelihood

Risk is thus a confrontation with a hazard which you do not know how to control and which may lead (with some degree of likelihood) to an accident (of some degree of seriousness). Taking off without doing certain routine checks is liable to create a risk. Failing to read NOTAMs increases the probability of an accident, though this may be less serious than failing to top up your tank. The more likely and the more serious a risk, the more critical it is. If you fly all the time (high degree of likelihood) without checking a vital aspect of your aircraft (high degree of seriousness), the risk becomes critical.

Avoiding, mitigating and accepting risk

When you notice a big squall cloud ahead of you en route, you are identifying a hazard. There are three courses of action open to you: avoid the risk, limit it, or accept it. If you go around, you will not confront the hazard and thus you will not be taking a risk. If you decide to fly on the side of the cloud that seems least active, rather than under it, then you are mitigating the risk. Finally, you can continue on your present heading if you think the risk is acceptable.

For pilots, especially recreational pilots, the prime tool for managing risk is avoiding hazards.

Ignorance of hazards as a risk factor

The degree of risk, as we’ve seen, is measured by multiplying seriousness by likelihood, but a third factor commonly mentioned is failure to detect the hazard. If, through ignorance, the hazard is not identified, then the probability of being confronted by it becomes much greater. For example, a pilot enters a valley without noticing that it rises and narrows, and he continues despite signs of deteriorating weather which he does not understand.

Experience and risk management

Risk perception will grow with experience, which will improve your judgment and the quality of your decisions. You will find it easier to notice risky conditions, such as fog which may obscure the horizon when you are flying over water or arrival at an unknown airport when there is a lot of traffic. With experience, you will be able to identify these conditions, which previously had no meaning for you. However, experience should not lead you to take greater risks, to “take things to the next level”, under the assumption that you are in control of the situation. This widespread tendency to keep “pushing your limits” is contrary to the objective of any flight, which is to get the aircraft, its passengers and its crew safely home.

Prevention versus precaution

Risk prevention is based on knowledge: knowledge of the environment (hazardous phenomena, low fuel, heavy traffic), of your aircraft and of your own limitations. A precautionary approach is different but complementary: you take precautions when you lack precise knowledge of hazards or suspected risks, or there is doubt about whether you can control them. Taking precautions means increasing your safety margin in the face of a perceived or probable hazard: wait until visibility increases; go around a Terminal Area, taking a longer route; request a different runway; or just cancel your flight if you don’t have a good feel for the situation or just want to be safe rather than sorry!

Objective versus subjective risk

There is a difference between real (objective) risk and perceived (subjective) risk. The source of this difference is ignorance, inexperience or overconfidence. Also, there is a tendency to underestimate risks which you yourself are taking. If you are taking an action yourself, you have a (subjective) feeling of controlling risks, though this may not be the case. A good deal of the content of training courses as well as information for pilots is directed at reducing the gap between subjective and objective risk.

Risk and regulations

In the world of aviation, regulations are mainly a way of managing risk. However, regulations need to be adapted to numerous special cases. Often a compromise is made that leaves the door open to risk. For example, 15 min after sunset, it will be dark in a valley if the sky is overcast, whereas it will be bright over flat land if skies are clear. Unlike the case with commercial passenger aviation, where nothing is left to chance, in recreational aviation things are much more “open”, much less regulated. You need to be aware of this, because it means that the hazards are more numerous. You need to know about them, and associate with them a risk assessment that is as objective as possible. Most accidents occur even though there is full compliance with the regulations.

Acceptability of risk varies with the pilot

Every pilot has his own perception of risks, and this will determine their acceptability. Perception and acceptance of risk will be influenced by your training, experience, education, personality and beliefs. These factors will affect your reasoning and your attitude. Also to be noted is the problem of rash behaviour, especially among young pilots who are trying to find out how far they can go.

The importance of humility

As a pilot, your thinking needs to be based not only on your knowledge but on being aware that there is much you do not know. That recognition will encourage you to be careful. Humility is essential for a pilot.  

Key points

In light aviation, most accidents are due to a lack of caution. Be wary of the insidious and dangerous feeling of invulnerability.

  • Ignorance or underestimation of risk leads many pilots to go beyond their limits, whether unconsciously or deliberately. The risk then becomes more serious and more probable.
  • Compliance with regulations does avoid some risks, but does not guarantee safety.
  • While light aviation may be a recreational activity, it calls for the strictest of attention at all times.
  • Accidents don’t happen by chance. If the factors that may lead to an accident are analysed before the flight, the likelihood of an accident can be greatly reduced. Many accidents result from ignorance, and sometimes from contempt for elementary rules.
  • If you have any doubts about your ability to handle a situation, then avoid trouble: it’s better to turn back or to cancel the flight than to take pointless risks. Your ego will recover!

TC AIM Snapshot: Contaminated Runway Operations

At Canadian civil aerodromes where snow removal and ice control operations are conducted, assessment and mitigation procedures are carried out to the extent that is practicable in order to provide movement surfaces that will permit safe operational use.

Pilots who are confronted with conditions produced by the changing Canadian climate must be familiar with and anticipate the overall effect of contaminated runways on aircraft handling characteristics in order to take any corrective actions considered necessary for flight safety.

In general terms, whenever a contaminant such as water, snow or ice is introduced onto the runway surface, the effective coefficient of friction between the aircraft tire and runway is reduced. However, the accelerate/stop distance, landing distance and crosswind limitations contained in aircraft flight manuals are demonstrated in accordance with specified
performance criteria on bare and dry runways during the aircraft certification flight test program, and are thus valid only when the runway is bare and dry.

As a result, the stop portion of the accelerate/stop distance will increase, the landing distance will increase and a crosswind will present directional control difficulties. 

It is therefore expected that pilots will take all necessary action, including the application of any appropriate adjustment factor to calculate stopping distances for their aircraft as may be required based on the runway surface condition and Canadian Runway Friction Index (CRFI) information. 

(Ref: Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual (TC AIM), Section AGA 1.1.5)

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