BETTER PILOT / SAFETY WIRE
A lifesaving investment
THE AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY RECOGNIZED the value of shoulder harnesses as a potential
lifesaving element long before the general aviation (GA) industry. Beginning in 1971, all
newly manufactured automobiles in the United States were required to have shoulder har-
Meanwhile, only lap belts were required in general aviation aircraft until July 1978;
then the FAA mandated that shoulder harnesses be installed on the front seats of all newly
In the early 1980s the National Transportation Safety Board (N TSB) conducted a study
of more than 500 general aviation accidents. One of the study’s goals was to determine
what proportion of the occupants would have benefited from the use of shoulder harnesses. Unrestrained at impact, the upper torsos of pilots and passengers were thrown
forward, causing injuries to their chests, faces, and heads, striking instrument panels,
glare shields, and windshields. The NTSB projected that the use of shoulder harnesses
could have reduced fatalities by 20 percent and serious injuries by 88 percent.
The FAA added “all seats” to the shoulder harness requirement for newly manufactured
aircraft beginning in December 1986. Although the N TSB recommends installing shoulder
harness retrofit kits on all seats of all “in-service” aircraft, the FAA continues to allow it to
be voluntary for pre-1986 aircraft.
1, 111 Total Occupants (500 Accidents)
without harness 800
(projected) with harness 637
without harness 229
(projected) with harness 27
To read the full NTSB article
referenced in this story visit
ILLUSTRATION BY GARY COX
Retrofit shoulder harness kits with a supplemental type certificate are available from several
manufacturers and distributors for most pre-1986
aircraft. The cost of these kits for two-place aircraft
ranges between several hundred dollars to more
than a thousand dollars. Installation time can take
as little as one hour, depending on the type of
restraint system and whether any aircraft structural reinforcement is needed. It’s possible for
some installations to be done by the aircraft
owner, but only under the supervision of a certificated airframe and powerplant mechanic who
would be responsible for handling the paperwork
and appropriate aircraft logbook entry.
The most common shoulder harness found in
today’s general aviation aircraft is a 2-inch commercial system that uses a lift-lid style buckle.
These are manufactured in three-, four-, or five-point harnesses. Shoulder harnesses are available
as a single anchor diagonal strap (such as those
installed in most new GA aircraft), a “V” or a “Y”
style harness, and a double anchor “H” style harness. Except for the diagonal style, shoulder
harness systems can accommodate a crotch strap
for additional security to prevent the lap belt from
being pulled upward during impact, which could
cause lower abdomen internal injuries.
For maximum benefit and safety, the shoulder
harness straps and lap belt should be snugged as
tightly as comfort permits. If a shoulder harness
interferes with the pilot’s need to bend forward or
sideways, an inertia-type shoulder harness system
should be considered. Although a bit more costly,
inertia-type harnesses allow upper torso freedom
of movement until an abrupt forward motion
(such as impact) locks the shoulder straps in place.
Many owners of pre-1986 aircraft have recog-
nized the value of shoulder harnesses as one of
the best lifesaving, injury-reducing insurance poli-
cies available, for them and their loved ones.
Robert O’Quinn, EAA 742434, is a part-time CFI whose
primary focus is on tailwheel training. He enjoys sharing those skills and other pilot improvement techniques
through newsletter articles and presentations to his local
EAA Chapter 790 in Barrington, Illinois.