An Air disaster is a disaster that involves one or more aircraft. Crashes of passenger aircraft qualify, obviously, but cargo aircraft can also land on things … and then there's the cargo… Also, when we say "aircraft" we think of heavier-than-air machines, but things like the Hindenburg burning at anchor or the R-101 plunging into that hill in France show that you can do it just as well with dirigibles.
As usual with disasters, acts of war and terrorism usually don't count and crime will usually only count if the air disaster wasn't a direct part of it. For example, if someone blows up an aircraft as an attempt to extort money from an airline, that's not an air disaster, it's a high magnitude crime. If a plane crashes because the airline was breaking safety regulations, that's an air disaster resulting from a crime.
During the Disaster
Our Explosive Decompression page discusses the effects of sudden depressurization of the cabin, as well as the effects on passengers during a slower pressure loss. In addition to what's presented on that page, here's a few other relevant notes on the environment and scenario immediately surrounding any air disaster or emergency landing:
If the cabin depressurizes, you've got about 20 seconds before the oxygen deprivation leaves you feeling stoned, and maybe double that before you pass out. While you're scrambling to get your oxygen mask on, the entire plane will be shaking violently and dropping several thousand feet per minute. (There's definitely going to be penalties on any die rolls your characters make during such an experience.)
The emergency exit doors weigh a good 40 pounds (more than 18 kg) on most modern airliners, and that mass could come smashing down on your head when opened if you're not prepared for the way they open. These doors are tightly sealed by air pressure when the plane is at cruising altitude, but can be opened with a single finger at sea level.
A significant portion of passengers in an airline emergency panic and behave irrationally. Many can't figure out how to get out of their seatbelts. Some forget there's a life vest under their seat. Those trying to evacuate often push others out of their way, including sometimes pushing out the doors the very flight crew that are trying to help them evacuate. It's a madhouse, I tell ya.
In the event of a water landing, you'll find a life vest under your seat. Unless someone else took it as a souvenir during an earlier flight that same day. This is apparently a frequent enough crime that airlines check every single seat for life vests before the first flight each day.
The danger doesn't end the moment you're out of the wreck. The ground around an emergency landing has a good chance of being spattered with flaming jet fuel, or at least extremely hot from the friction and force of the impact. As demonstrated memorably in Lost (as well as Firefly and Raiders of the Lost Ark), the massive engines of a large air vehicle at ground level can be quite deadly.
Game and Story Use
- This make good starts for adventures whether the PCs are passengers stranded by an air-crash, investigators looking into a disaster or random persons left to deal with the consequences when a plane lands on their neighbourhood.
- As the Poles and Rwandans both found out to their cost, these are also a great way of causing a change of government.
- They can also end an era in music.
- The demise of cargo aircraft can also release pretty much anything you like.
- If the PCs are aboard an aircraft during a disaster (provided it's not some sort of nasty TPK by GM Fiat), it's a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how they are bad-ass professionals, unlike all the scared sheeple around them. NPC passengers will tend to panic and behave irrationally, while the PCs retain their wits.
- Airline staff, such as the Flight Attendant, will be the NPCs best prepared to survive such an emergency - provided they aren't trampled by panicked passengers and don't sacrifice themselves trying to save "just one more" victim. They know the safety procedures by heart, and have built up muscle memory on the most critical actions during an emergency.
- Aside from all the athletics checks to get out of the wreck with minimal damage or delay, this is also a potential spotlight for characters with a more social- or mental- focus. Frequently these sorts of characters have to take the back seat during combat and similar tense scenes, but here's a life-or-death situation where the party's faceman or the healer could excel.
- Leadership checks (or other social rolls) to prevent a riot at the emergency exits.
- Alertness checks or wisdom rolls to figure out the best escape route in the smoke and confusion.
- First Aid checks to save the lives of the injured NPCs.
- As in the TV show Lost, you could start a campaign with some sort of air disaster, with the PCs being the dominant personalities of the cast of survivors now stranded in some remote or magical place.
- The movie Pitch Black applies a similar idea to a sci-fi setting. (By the way, Space Disasters come with their own set of complications due to the dangers of Space Exposure.)