The History of Safety Cards, Part One: The Pioneer Years (1920s through 1945)

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By Fons Schaefers

This new series of articles covers the development over the years of airliner safety cards and will span almost a century. Safety cards include all those pamphlets, cards and other paper material that an airline makes available on aircraft to inform passengers about safety features available to them. This ranges from do’s and dont’s for each flight, like donning the safety belt and switching off electronics, to equipment and procedures only to be used in an emergency such as an evacuation.

The first six articles chronologically review the development of safety cards whilst the next six (or so) deal with different themes. Currently, I am thinking about the following themes, but if readers have other suggestions, I am happy to adapt: appearance/artwork/contents catalog/efficacy/makers/ special user groups/spin-off cards/unique aircraft.

The history of safety cards parallels that of cabin safety. Its continuous changes are driven by technological improvements, accident lessons, associated regulatory developments and, overarching, the increasing social recognition of safety. In each article, I will sketch the evolution of cabin safety as background to the development of the cards.

1924 – 1934, EUROPE

Not long after passengers were first carried by airplanes, pamphlets addressing passenger safety features appeared. But what were those features? As compared to today’s, they were primitive and largely borrowed from the marine world. Fire extinguishers, first-aid kits and flare pistols were installed in airplanes because they were on ships and considered a token necessity. For overwater flights, life vests were added. Unique to airplanes were safety belts, but these, particularly in America, initially were only installed to prevent persons falling out of open cockpits and not necessarily to restrain them in case of heavy impacts. Emergency exits were prescribed in the very first of airplane design regulations, but this was limited to how many were needed: initially only two, and that included the passenger entrance door. Only later, the nascent regulations got more specific as to how large they needed to be, the ease of operation, marking, lighting, etc.

Although forerunners of today’s safety cards, early passenger safety pamphlets barely meet the definition of a safety card. Imperial Airways, the predecessor of BOAC and thus British Airways, issued them around 1930. I show two examples. The first, coded IA/F/30, so presumably from 1930, explains ‘the normal movements of an Aeroplane in flight,’ ‘how to travel with the greatest comfort’ and ‘the precautions which are taken against and the action to be taken in an emergency.’ In the latter category fall a no-smoking rule, a means of communication with the pilot (‘through the aperture in the front of the cabin’) and instructions how to wear the ‘lifebelt.’ For traveling with comfort, the pamphlet recommends passengers ‘to place cotton wool in their ears to deaden the noise caused by the engines’. Windows could be opened or shut as desired, it further says, without explaining why this was needed at times. Contemporary reports suggest it was to let in fresh air and to remove the stench created by passengers suffering from airsickness and perhaps using the cuspidors that the pamphlet says are provided.

The 1930 sample, reproduced below, has two penciled annotations: ‘The channel looks rough’ and
‘I think Lindberg was a wonder, don’t you?’ For those passengers not trained in sign language, writing on the pamphlet may well have been the only way to communicate during flight, as the engine noise made voices inaudible.

Imperial Airways – probably 1930

A 1931 edition of the Imperial pamphlet adds information about emergency exits (‘provided in the roof of the cabins,’ ‘clearly marked’). It is well possible that this pamphlet was not handed out on board but rather already available at sales offices as it also includes information on how to book, dress and obtain foreign money. Note the chauvinist message on the last page: ‘Imperial aircraft and engines are of British design and manufacture and are flown by British pilots.’

Imperial Airways – 1931

KLM, the Dutch flag airline that was the first in the world to celebrate its centennial (in 2019), in its pioneer years issued ‘travelers suggestions.’ I reproduce a German version, coded ’4-34 7500,’ presumably issued in April 1934 in a stock of 7500. Like the Imperial Airways sample, it starts with an explanation of how an aeroplane takes off, how high it flies (typically 400 meters, about 1,300 ft) and that engine power is reduced for landing. It mentions that windows can be opened but warns not to throw anything out. Airsickness, it continues in a propagandistic stance, is predominantly imaginary and can be prevented by ‘freeing oneself from nervous thoughts,’ using a map to follow the airplane’s track or reading a book or magazine. The life vest is explained but, unlike Imperial Airways, only by using text, not graphics. It mentions the emergency exit in the roof as an alternative to the entrance door. The door between cabin and cockpit can be used to communicate with the pilot in case of an emergency. Like with Imperial Airways, this was through a hole in the door. A feature that will amaze today’s passengers is that wires (‘Drahtberichte’) could be sent and received by
passengers via the radiotelegraphist. This service was introduced in June 1933, so still new when this leaflet was produced.

KLM 1934

The airplane pictured looks like the 3-engined Fokker F.VII/3m, a type already in use, albeit with a single engine, since 1924. The fuselage was made of a steel tubular framework covered with linen. The wings were of wood as was the interior furnishing.

There are indications that KLM issued similar instructions in its home language (Dutch) much earlier than 1934, possibly even as early as 1924. In 1969, at the occasion of their half-century existence, KLM published a celebration book1. In it is a small reproduction of a concise pamphlet, ranked as being from 1924, that sums up, in Dutch, the safety essentials of the day:

Smoking is dangerous, so not allowed

Do not throw anything out the window as that may
cause fatal accidents

To contact the pilot in case of an emergency, hand a
note through the door

Passengers are requested to use safety belts for take-off
off and landing

Do not open the door until the engine has stopped

Leave via emergency exit when door is blocked

It is dangerous to touch the emergency
exit during flight

It is not known whether this leaflet was permanently onboard or handed out to passengers before flight. I am not aware of any other contemporary safety pamphlets, but it may well be that other airlines issued them as well, particularly in Europe, where the advent of regular passenger air transport preceded that in America by almost a decade.

1 Vlucht KL-50, Leonard de Vries, 1969

1935, OXYGEN

In 1934, KLM replaced on the main routes the Fokkers with the aluminum, higher performance Douglas DC-2.
This type was able to climb well higher and thus cross the Alps on the route to Italy. And so it did, flying at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters (about 16,400 feet). It was equipped with neither a pressurized cabin nor supplemental oxygen.

One day in July, 1935, KLM’s DC-2 Gaai (Jay), originating from Milan-Taliedo on its way to Frankfurt, flew at 5,000 metres when it went into trouble, got trapped in a valley in the southern Alps and crashed.

It’s possible a contributing factor was the pilot suffering from lack of oxygen, though the accident report does not mention this. KLM stopped flying that route until it had installed supplemental oxygen provisions for both crew and passengers. By that time it employed stewardesses, whose tasks included handing out a leaflet to passengers when to use oxygen. It does not explain how to use oxygen. I assume that the how was explained at the time of boarding. The leaflet is in five languages (Dutch, German, Italian, English, French) and reproduced adjacently2. It may be the first subject-specific passenger safety pamphlet.

Worldwide, very few routes were being operated at the time with supplemental oxygen. Panagra’s trans-Andean route was probably the single exception before KLM introduced it. In the USA, the Rocky Mountains were negotiated without it. In those days the effects of oxygen at altitude were not well understood. Only towards the end of the decade, Ross McFarland and others published their scientific research, which led to the introduction of oxygen rules for US airlines in 19413. These only prescribed oxygen provisions for crew. Oxygen regulations for passengers came much later, as we will see in the next article.

2 source: Schiphol uitstappen!, Hilda Bongertman, 1935
3 CAB, Federal Register February 6, 1941


The earliest mention of a US airline passenger safety pamphlet that I came across is in the 4 October 1943 edition of Aviation Week. It announces that Chicago and Southern Air Lines (which merged 10 years later with Delta) ponders about it, following a suggestion from a newspaper.

Based on that article, and searching for what likely triggered it, here is my version of the sequence of events.

1. In July 1943, an American DC-3 on its way from Louisville, KY to Memphis, TN via Nashville, TN, crashed in the dark near Trammel, KY. Of 20 occupants, only two survived. From their testimony, it appeared that the crash was survivable in the cabin, as opposed to the cockpit. The stewardess apparently had trouble opening the entrance door from the inside. She and most of the passengers were later found dead near that door. The culprit, it was determined, was a safety catch that had to be released before the door could be opened, although the door itself may have been distorted by the impact and therefore did not open. Only one passenger tried to open emergency exits (only the third attempt was successful) and survived. He stated that earlier in flight, he had explained the exit handle to another passenger, who was apparently unaware that he sat next to an emergency exit. That passenger did not survive. The other survivor could crawl out of the airplane via a hole in the front.

2. Late in October, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, forerunner of the FAA) issued a rule that exits be marked as such and illuminated4. Such a rule did not exist at the time. In addition, it proposed a rule to ensure that exits could be opened by the operation of one handle only5.

3. Somewhat earlier, a Memphis newspaper ran an editorial ‘pointing out that passengers are not aware of the auxiliary exits and are unfamiliar with their operation.‘

4. Memphis-based Chicago and Southern Airlines picked this up and, according to the October 4 article, proposed exit marking and lighting improvements and ‘make further effort to tell passengers how to use them in event of emergency.’ The latter would include a pamphlet in the seat pocket.

I do not know whether Chicago and Southern actually did make such a pamphlet. Perhaps a reader knows? But if they did, it might well have been the first safety card by a US airline.

4CAB, Amendment 61-13, published in the Federal Register on October 28, 1943
5 CAB, Draft Release no. 43, issued November 8, 1943

1944, RAF

Toward the latter years of World War II, the British Royal Air Force had set up air transport services to ferry staff, mostly pilots, across the North Atlantic as well as to other destinations where they were needed for the war.

Equipment included the Dakota (the name that the British gave to the Douglas C-47) and the Consolidated Liberator. As most of these services went over water, the risk of a ditching was high. The RAF provided safety pamphlets to instruct passengers about the ditching and dinghy drill.

I reproduce leaflets for both types in full. The Dakota one is fairly large (36 * 72 cm/14.2 * 38.4 inch, unfolded), the Liberator’s is smaller (25 * 50 cm/ 10 * 20 inch, unfolded). Both show similar artwork, but the Dakota’s was made by ‘F.&C. LTD’ whereas the Liberator’s says ‘W.R.R. & Sons Ltd.’, so were made by different companies. Perhaps the artwork style was en vogue in those days. The codes on both pamphlets include the number 51, but I do not think that refers to the year they were made. Based on internet research about when there was a peak in military air transport using Dakotas and particularly Liberators, I conclude they stem from around 1944.

Both pamphlets have a lot of graphics, with text supporting it, rather than the opposite. The texts are identical, save for airplane type specific elements, so will have been specified by the Air Ministry that ordered the pamphlets. Both show the aircraft cabin with passengers. In the Liberator there are 18 males in a 2 abreast forward seating layout. The Dakota leaflet is less precise in number and has a mix of male and female passengers in a 2 abreast ‘armchair type’ forward facing seating layout, but it also shows the sideward facing ‘metal bucket’ seating.

The leaflets prescribe the ditching drill in quite some detail and in several steps. On the preparatory pages, the safety belt and the impact posture are shown, plus the flotation devices: the dinghy (life raft) and the individual life vest. The Royal Air Force called the latter a Mae West, after the full-bosomed American actress. According to a letter that she sent to the service, she was quite pleased that her name was used for this purpose.

It is a pleasure to study these nice pamphlets and see them as precursors to the many civilian safety cards that would follow.

In the next article in this series, I will focus on the period 1946 – 1950s, in which ditchings continue to be seen as a serious menace the effects of which can be mitigated, at least to some extent, by means of safety cards.

Photographs courtesy of the author’s collection.

November 2021

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