How do pilots control an emergency evacuation?

Commanding an emergency evacuation is one of the most serious decisions we can make as a pilot. It is also one of the most stressful. Invariably it has come about from an unexpected event, for example, an engine fire on the takeoff run. The key to a successful outcome is to be able to think calmly and clearly, deciding if an evacuation is indeed the best option for the situation.

In the flight deck

The decision to evacuate an aircraft is not as straightforward as it may seem. Ultimately it comes down to whether the captain deems it is safer to remain inside the cabin or outside on the ground.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the evacuation, some people will get injured. It’s not uncommon to have several people with sprained ankles and broken arms as they move away from the aircraft. In addition, the outside environment must also be considered.

Departing at night in the middle of the Canadian winter, evacuated passengers may have to wait some time in the freezing weather before they are returned to the terminal building. Less than ideal when most people are probably not dressed for the occasion.

As a result, we must weigh up the pros and cons of both options.

“This is an emergency. Evacuate. Evacuate.”

More often than not, the situation leading to a potential evacuation would be unexpected. Meaning that it is most likely to have come from a rejected takeoff or a problem as part of a normal landing. As a result, the flight attendants will be as surprised as the passengers.

To alert the crew to the potential need for an evacuation, we will make an announcement on the PA system, the exact wording will be airline specific. “Flight attendants! At doors!”, for example.

Importantly, this is not an instruction for the crew to begin evacuation but to alert them that one may be necessary. This alert call gives them time to prepare, checking that the door is in the automatic mode, making sure that the escape route is clear and looking through the window for any hazards such as a fire.

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