A pilot dispels travel’s darkest rumour.

If pandemic lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that extended downtime is the perfect festering petri dish for conspiracies: The vaccine is linked to 5G, Bill Gates is somehow involved, the whole thing was somehow engineered by the likes of Netflix to boost streaming customers.

Ironically enough in this era of restricted travel, another insidious flying whisper has re-emerged. Namely, that far from being designed to protect you in a crash, the brace position is actually intended to facilitate a quick clean death when the object in which you’re travelling collides with a mountain at 800km/h.

During the safety talk, we’ve all wondered whether leaning forwards with your hands on your head would be even mildly effective during a crash. It’s a fleeting thought for most but some see an ulterior motive.

Namely that the airlines would rather have fatalities than survivors – who may sue. Even more ghoulish is the rumour that having crash victims in neat little balls will make them easier to identify.

This is of course nonsense. All of it. It’s right up there with the urban legend that in-flight oxygen masks actually deprive passengers of oxygen so they pass out pre-mayday.

So why the brace? According to America’s Federal Aviation Administration, the position both reduces flailing and secondary impact (particularly to the head).

In terms of real life data, a report in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine analysed a 1989 English crash and found: “Of the initial 87 survivors of the East Midlands Boeing 737/400 aircraft, 77 sustained head and facial trauma during the crash, 45 of whom were rendered unconscious. There were 21 who received injuries to the back of their head, including five of the six severely head-injured adults. Those passengers who adopted the fully flexed ‘brace’ position for crash-landing achieved significant protection against head injury, concussion, and injuries from behind irrespective of local aircraft structural damage.”

Few are better qualified to put this furphy to bed than Nick Eades, author of The Self-Improver: A Pilot’s Journey and a pilot who has done more time behind the controls of a Boeing 747 than anyone else on the planet.

He told Lad Bible, “What you’re trying to do is to stop people breaking their necks in a big impact. You’re just trying to get the body into a position that’s going to suffer least damage. It’s like whiplash – you’re trying to avoid that sudden movement of the head, which can result in serious injury, if not death.”

So while the brace position itself seems set to remain an integral part of flying, Eades sees the term itself fading.

“Now, if you think about it, I would say at least half – probably three-quarters – of passengers on the aeroplane don’t speak English as a first language. And if you think about it, what does ‘brace’ mean,” Eades said.

“It took a long time for the aviation world to realise if you’re suddenly thrown into an emergency situation and people start shouting ‘brace’ at you, you might think, ‘What the hell do they mean?’”

He forecasts a clearer version that involves a repeated instruction such as ‘head down, hands over your head’. “At least that gives somebody in probably the most stressful position they’ll ever be in their lives something to do.”