• Wed. May 11th, 2022

How The Airline Industry Became Wise About Seat Belts Story

Charles N. Monteith, chief engineer of the Boeing Airplane Company, was optimistic when he made his presentation at the May 1929 aeronautical meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He suggested that airplane passenger cabins would soon offer the same amenities as train travel. The comfort of a Pullman-style saloon car was the aesthetic that aircraft designers hoped to emulate.

With prophetic certainty, Monteith proclaimed that “… a bedroom, smoking rooms, viewing platform, and provision for serving meals” would soon be standard features in commercial air travel. The engineer assured his audience that safety was also at the top of Boeing’s agenda. Parachutes, once envisioned for passengers, were rejected, the proposal rejected by US and European carriers. “Regarding seat belts,” he said, “British and Dutch opinion is against their installation. Most of the transports operating in the United States today do not provide seat belts for passengers. , but it is quickly shown that they are sometimes very necessary.

Monteith stressed the risk of injury that arose if passengers were tossed around, not in an accident, but in turbulent air or “just before landing”. The cordon was intended to prevent travelers from becoming human projectiles in the cabin, and not as a strategy to survive a crash. Although in 1929 passenger seat belts were considered optional, men like Monteith thought seat belts were common sense – only the next crash was far from mandatory equipment.

During World War I, Hugh DeHaven saw crew members die from injuries caused by the huge buckles of their seat belts. Security would become his life’s work.

(New York Presbyterian Medical Center Archives / Weill Cornell)

Twenty years later, seat belts were so prevalent that they made a sort of cameo in the 1950 film. All about Eve. In the lead role, a gravely voiced Bette Davis as spoiled diva Margo Channing, starts up a flight of stairs, stops, turns to her guests and issues a caustic warning: “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s gonna be a rough night. The reference revealed how used the public to buckle up in an airliner seat. Seat belts had become commonplace, but their use was not a settled affair with the flying public, despite Margo Channing’s famous command.

By 1950, a lot of money and brains had been invested in American aeronautical research thanks to World War II. The Aviation Medicine Committee, a group of scientists and engineers concerned with flight and human physiology, had been created in the fall of 1940 by the National Research Council. The committee’s objective was simple and urgent: to improve the efficiency of aircraft operating in war conditions and the survival rate of their crews. Cornell Medical College faculty member Dr Eugene DuBois led the effort. Cornell’s involvement deepened in 1942 when DuBois colleague Hugh DeHaven established the Crash Injury Research (CIR) project at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. DeHaven, who was Director and Principal Investigator at CIR for a dozen years, has done pioneering work in the field of aviation safety. He was the lead investigator on several high-profile reports that advocated the benefits of safety devices like seat belts in reducing serious or fatal injuries to passengers and crew.

simulated plane

In 1942, DeHaven and a lone assistant started the Accidental Injury Research Project at Cornell University. The project simulated crashes, to learn more about fatal and survivable injuries.


But in 1947, debates raged over the safety of seat belts. In one New York Times Article published on November 20, DeHaven ridiculed the rumor that the lap belts were not secure. He called this misconception, which was still spreading in the public, “dangerous”, the result of “ignorance and superstition”. He claimed that “… the false belief that the use of seat belts would cause internal injuries in an accident” had cost lives. Following DeHaven’s comments, thanks to public education campaigns, significant gains were made in dismantling the lingering belief that seat belts cause internal injuries.

Then, on October 31, 1950, less than three weeks after the public first heard Margo Channing’s endorsement of the belts, a tragedy seemed to upset the wisdom of her words. That Halloween night, of the 30 people who boarded a Vickers VC-1 aircraft, dubbed the Lord Saint VincentOn a regular trip from Paris to London, 28 perished in a macabre accident. The British European Airways flight took off from Paris Le Bourget airport at 6:39 pm for Northolt in London. As the twin-engine aircraft approached London, the fog approached. At 1925, the pilot, Captain Clayton, reported to Uxbridge air traffic control and was advised that the visibility at Northolt was less than 50 meters. Clayton chose to forgo a landing. He diverted to Heathrow and, after clearance from ground control, began the descent of the aircraft en route to runway 28.

Four hundred meters further on, the captain radioed to the tower that he was passing the landing. But the machine was too low to come out. The landing gear retracted, the aircraft touched down at an angle of 20 degrees with an estimated speed of 80 to 120 knots. It skidded over 100 feet, bounced back, took off again for half a mile, and finally fell back to earth before igniting. Only one flight attendant and one passenger survived.

When official investigations began, Dr Donald Teare, the point of reference for autopsy examinations in celebrity deaths and high-profile transportation accidents, was asked to lead the team. His report to the public, in the September 22, 1951 issue of British medical journal, included a statement that astonished the scientific community and fueled public skepticism about passenger restraints. “The immediate cause of death,” Teare wrote, “in more than half of the victims was acute flexion of the body above the seat belt. “

ruined cabin of an airliner

The ruined cabin of an airliner contributed to the work of the Crash Injury Research project to reduce the number of fatalities in aircraft crashes. The project received Aviation week‘s 1949 Distinguished Service Award for Flight Safety.


Teare’s article, “Post-mortem Examinations of Air Crash Victims,” went viral the old-fashioned way when it was summarized in other professional journals. In December 1951 he had migrated to American scientist in a summary titled “The Dangerous Seat Belt”, with a bold opening sentence: “When a plane crashes, the seat belt … can become a mortal danger”. Teare’s astonishing analysis of how the Lord Saint Vincent accident victims who died has circulated widely in the United States. It didn’t take long for Americans to be wary of wearing seat belts, an alarming development for Crash Injury Research researchers. Convinced that Teare’s discovery was in error, IRC staff members took it upon themselves to suppress his bizarre notion of cause of death.

The IRC’s response to the seat belt allegations was drafted by DuBois, the former chair of the Committee on Aviation Medicine and, at that time, Emeritus Professor of Physiology at Cornell Medical College. “Seat belts are not dangerous”, which debuted in the September 27, 1952 issue of the British medical journal, was a polite but firm rebuke of Teare’s charges of duress death.

DuBois pointed out that the Lord Saint VincentThe “first glance” of the runway likely did not strain the passengers’ lap belts, which could withstand 1,300 pounds of stress. However, “the main impact of the crash on the right wing must have thrown the passengers heavily onto the right side,” where the stiff, taller armrests of the seats likely caused liver and spleen injuries. However, what sealed the fate of the 28 victims was the violent force of the falling and sliding plane, which knocked the seats and seat belts out of their anchors. People were catapulted into flying debris, ricocheting off hard surfaces and sharp objects that inflicted fractures as well as ruptured aortas. The sharp flexion on a belt was not a problem.

New York City Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr Milton Helpern concurred with the IRC’s findings. Among the injuries reported by Teare, there were none to the bladder, abdomen or stomach, in other words, “no sign of damage from the seat belts.”

Responding to several high-profile accidents during the first decade of the 1950s, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. The legislation initiated the government’s regulatory march towards better safety requirements in commercial aircraft. America’s next big seat belt battle erupted over their use in automobiles. Consumer lawyer Ralph Nader, whose popular 1965 book, Dangerous at any speed, was a blunt indictment of the auto industry’s safety record, based much of its arguments on DeHaven’s work. In 1953, DeHaven and Elmer Paul of the Indiana State Police founded the Auto Accident Injury Research Project (ACIR). DeHaven then partnered with Dr William Haddon in 1966 to create the National Safety Bureau. Finally, under another act of Congress, Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety Standard came into effect on January 1, 1968. Federal law required that all vehicles, at the with the exception of buses, are fitted with seat belts in all designated seating positions. The struggle for effective state enforcement, let alone garnering public support and compliance, would take another 30 years.

Aviation requirements for basic safety devices, including passenger seat belts, were codified in 1972 with occasional updates since. Beyond a little change in the fabric used for the lap belts, these passive fasteners with their archaic lever-lift buckles have remained the same for decades.

Jan Bridgeford Smith (janbridgefordsmith.com) lives and writes near Ithaca, New York. His work has been featured in national magazines and literary journals.