When most people talk about an airline crash, you hear a lot of words like “fate” and “no control” being tossed around. That this is how some people will inevitably die and there is nothing they can do about it. If the plane goes down, then it’s best to thank God for the ride and close your eyes.
I’m not sure why this myth is perpetuated, but it’s absolutely wrong. In 95% of airplane crashes, you do have the chance of surviving. I promise. First let’s take a quick look at what, how and when.
Take Off and Landing:
This is where the vast majority of all accidents will occur. It will happen within the first 10-15 minutes of a take-off and in the last 30 minutes before touchdown. The reason is fairly simple: an aircraft was designed for air and not so much the ground. In both of these instances, we see the machine making a transition with an environment it wasn’t made for. Take off and landing, despite what you may hear in the media, is not a simple operation the airplane can do “by itself.” It requires a series of checks and measurements that ensures safety. Pilots, naturally, are well trained in this so for 99% of flights, take off and landing go quite smoothly.
About an hour into your flight you are in one of the safest environments you’ll ever experience: cruise altitude on an aircraft. Almost no airplanes are lost at this point. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. The most recent AirFrance crash occurred in this stage. But for the most part, only 5% of crashes happen at this time. In addition, if an error does occur, you have a greater chance of recovery. Such was the case with a China Airlines flight #006 headed form Taipei towards LAX.
During flight at 41,000 feet an engine flamed out. The air is very thin at 41,000 and so the difference between a stall (where the planes moves too slow to keep flying) and normal flight is a matter of a few knots. The instruction calls for a descent to 35,000 feet, where the air is much more stable, prior to fixing the engine problem. This really shouldn’t be disaster territory. All airplanes are designed to fly on one engine. But the pilots of China Air did not descend. Thus, in the too-thin air the airplane started to roll. Its roll continued until nosed down and flipped over and entered a spiral dive towards the Pacific.
At just under 10,000 feet the pilots broke the clouds and were able to orient themselves. They pulled out of the dive and diverted safely to San Francisco Airport. The airplane’s tail was missing a section, the landing gear doors had blown off and the wings were bent a good three inches up from where they should be. But the plane still flew and there were only 2 injuries reported.
It’s hard to believe but even if an airplane flips over mid flight, it is recoverable and yet it really is. Just, ya know, wear your seat belt while seated.
What airplanes should I avoid?
This is tricky. Most modern airplanes flying today are not worth avoiding, still there are some facts worth noting.
1. Smaller airplanes crash twice as often as larger airplanes. This still makes them safer than your Toyota. But a Bombardier q400 is much less safe, statistically, than your 777. If I’m flying from Seattle to Portland, I’m going to do what I can to make sure I’m in a 737 instead of a smaller commuter aircraft.
2. Look at the company. Does it do mechanic work in-house? Do they export it? Have there been mergers or financial woes? Airlines that scrimp on training to make up for a lost CEO bonus might be worth avoiding.
3. Most models of aircraft in use today have crashed at least once. But, what steps have been taken to prevent future crashes? Take the DC-10. The cargo door, to save valuable space, opened outwards. Most doors on airplanes open inwards. By being a bit larger than the frame the door serves as a plug when the cabin is pressurized, hence why it’s impossible to open a door at high altitude. With doors that open outward, you must counteract the pressurization force with locks. If those locks fail, and they have more than once in a DC-10, you get what is known as a explosive decompression.
Now, explosive decompression should be survivable. In fact, airplanes are built with this in mind and even in extreme cases, violently decompressed aircraft have made safe landings. But the cargo door on a DC-10 is located in the front bottom of the airplane so when the door goes, so does the floor. This means seats are sucked out and hydraulic lines are severed. Has the DC-10 fixed their cargo door? Yes. They made modifications and since then there have been no more crashes involving the cargo door. Would I ride on one today? You know, I probably would not. If only because they knew about the safety risks its hydraulic and cargo doors posed and didn’t do anything to fix it until over 400 people had died.
Safest Part of the Airplane:
To speak technically, there is no “safest” part of an airplane because it depends on what kind of crash you experience. In some crashes, the nose breaks off and goes flying, in others, the tail hits first. However, it is well known that the area above the wings is the strongest part of the airplane. The wings are a solid mass that shoot through the undercarriage of the craft. In many crashes, this will be the part that is able to absorb the most impact without distributing it to you. It is also the area with the least amount of turbulence, so it’s a good place for nervous fliers to sit.
It’s Seriously Going Down! What Should I Do?
It seems from survival testimony there are two types of crashes. There is the type of crash that just happens; “I suddenly found myself outside of the airplane,” is a common statement. Then there is the type of crash where the crew either warns the passengers, much like the Hudson River landing, or the passengers know something has gone terribly wrong. So what should you do?
Do You Have a Plan?
Make a plan before the airplane takes off. I know that sounds morbid but if you already have a plan you don’t have to think about it should something happen. Those seconds spent thinking about where the exit is can and will kill you.
First, if you are able to pick your seats the night before, make sure you are seated or request a seat in or next to an exit row. People who sit within six seats of an exit row are 80% more likely to survive a crash than those seated further away.
Still, regardless of where you are seated it is important to count the seat backs to an exit row in both directions. I count by putting my hand on the backs of the seats starting at the exit row, that way I have a physical memory of how far away it is.
What will you do when smoke fills the cabin? A pilot who had survived an accident in the ’60s once told me that he always travels with a smoke hood and he makes his family travel with smoke hoods. When you look into the situation deeper you’ll see that there have been numerous recommendations to airlines to install smoke hoods for passengers. For whatever reason (read: cost) these recommendations have gone unheeded. Do yourself a favor: buy a twenty dollar smoke hood. If there is a fire in your home, a hotel, or in an airplane they will give you 5-20 minutes of breathable air. Those extra minutes would have saved countless lives in numerous airplane disasters.
Whatchu Wearin Baby?
Hopefully they are light and natural fabrics in layers. The same pilot who explained smoke hoods to me also explained how his hand no longer works thanks to the poly-blend glove that melted into it. If you wear comfortable, natural layers, not only is the flight immeasurably more comfortable, but if there is a fire or high heat, your burns won’t have bits of melted plastic fused into them. If you have a leather jacket this will also protect you from fire. I always bring my leather
trench on a flight. If nothing else, it makes an excellent blanket.
Work Your Body:
Do you know how much force the human body can withstand? A fuck ton. That’s scientifically speaking. In fact, if you look at many crashes you’ll see that even in AirFrance’s recent disaster, it appears some people survived the initial impact and died from drowning.
But there is a difference between surviving the impact, and surviving with your all your agencies. We want to try for the latter. So what should you do?
Brace! Learn to adopt a brace position and use whatever you can to aid the deceleration of your body.
In the crash your limbs and torso will flail forwards, just like a crash test dummy in a Subaru. What you want to do in the brace position is get those limbs and torso forward already, so the area in which they can flail is reduced. That should mean fewer broken bones. Use your forearms to brace you against the seat and interlock your hands behind your head to protect it from whiplash and luggage that may be thrown about the cabin. If there is a video screen in front of you, put your head below it, or if you cannot bend that far down, put it above it. Just not directly on it.
Seats must be strong. There are new requirements on all seats being manufactured to be able to withstand a copious amount of G-forces. But what keeps those seats bolted to the floor and stable can really fuck you up.
Next flight you take, gently kick your feet forward and you’ll most likely find your shin reaching a metal bar. That metal bar keeps the seat stable. But that metal bar has also been known to snap shin bones in the event of a rapid deceleration.
Protect your shins. If you know you are going to crash and you are able to adopt a brace position then if you have a coat or pillow or bag or anything you can use to keep that shin/bar impact at a minimum then use it. Also remember when bracing to keep your legs slightly behind your knees. That way as your legs travel towards the metal bar they will loose velocity.
Same goes for the back of the seat. Tray tables and rings turn into bricks and bullets in a high-speed crash. Take off your rings. Use a pillow, use many pillows, use a pillow and a sweatshirt and a blanket. Cover the back of your head with your hands. Whatever you need to stay padded. Your seat belt should be buckled around your pelvis, not your stomach. The less you are able to move about during a crash, the better off you will be.
The Airplane Crashed, I’m Alive. What Now?
Get out. That is your only priority. If you linger there is, of course the danger of fire, of smoke and explosion. There is also the danger that other passengers could trample you.
First, orient yourself. Is the plane right side up? Then look down and remember this: Your seatbelt buckle is in the middle. People smirk when they hear the flight attendants say over and over again, “lift the lever on the buckle in the center of your lap.” but there is a reason why they drill this into you. It has been shown in many instances, perfectly normal, intelligent people die in an airplane crash because they panic and forget where the seat belt buckle is.
I’m not making this up.
In an emergency your brain goes into overdrive and anything you shouldn’t have to think about is swept under the conscious rug. People who drive are so used to buckling their seat belt on the left side of their body that in an airplane crash they forget it’s a lever system in the center.
So now that you are aware of your space and unbuckled what should you do? If there is thick smoke and you cannot see the exits, look down. Strip lighting should show you where they are. And another quick example of why orientation is important: if you’re upside down, remember for the strip lighting you need to look up. When the strip light changes color, that’s an exit. Go towards it and feel for a lever or if the exit is already open, jump and tuck your chin.
What About a Water Landing?
True story, lots of people have survived a ditching in the water. Here is the nitty gritty:
Under no circumstance inflate your life vest before leaving the airplane. There was a ditching of an Ethiopian jet in the Indian Ocean after a hijacking. People who inflated their life vest before exiting found themselves trapped by the water rising in the cabin. Most people survived impact only to drown.
If the airplane is still in one peice, head towards the wing or open the exit door and that inflatable slide doubles as a raft, feel free to climb aboard, but do not stay inside the cabin. In some water landings, occupants are thrust out of the cabin and into the water. Look for light and swim for that. A quick word of caution: if you break the surface and take a deep gulp of air immediately you run the risk of inhaling hot jet fuel. This will burn your lungs and you will most likely die from it. When you surface, sweep the water back when your arms to clear the surface of the water of any fuel and use caution before a large inhalation.
If the water is icy, do not jump in unless it is the last resort. If that means hanging out on a piece of aircraft, a wing or a life raft, you do what you have to do. If you happen to have no choice but to enter the icy water, keep moving. Keep breathing regulated. Try to swim for thick ice or shore. If nobody can see you and it is night, there is a whistle and light attached to your life vest. Use those so others can locate you.
Lastly, Follow the Guts You’ve Been Given:
I do not care if you’ve never been in a survival situation before: your survival instinct exists. Now there are a few well-documented reactions to an extraordinary event you have never experienced before. They are worth taking note of:
1. Flee to Safety: These people will run, disobey orders and do whatever they have to so they get away from a threat. These people are in the minority. However, if that person is you, you are the most likely to survive.
2. Go About Business As Usual: Some people, having no prior plan and no idea what to do, just behave normally. Rescuers see this example often in hotels. There will be a fire in the building and people will continue to act as though everything is normal. They will use the elevators and even walk towards the flames in an attempt to go about their business. If this happens during an aircraft disaster, try to snap out of it. Unless the airplane is in one piece and there is no threat of explosion, you should not wait around for someone to tell you what to do.
3. The Freeze Up: This will always happen to a certain number of people. One man who survived Singapore Airlines crash said he saw people just sitting there blinking and on fire. Not moving and not struggling. Sometimes when the brain is assaulted with an unbelievable scenario people just stop functioning. If this happens to you, do what you try to repeat the mantra “move, move, move” to yourself. But if it happens to a loved one seated next to you, use simple phrases and assertive direction: “We are going to leave the aircraft now. There has been an accident. We are leaving now.” It’s been shown that assertive direction can dramatically increase the number of survivors.
This is, of course, why creating a plan beforehand is so important. If you aknowledge the possibility of a crash, there’s a better chance your brain won’t go into overload when something occurs.
So if you’re on a runway and the plane isn’t really lifting the way it should or you’re landing and the plane is sliding off of the runway, and you know something is about to happen remember:
95% of crashes have survivors. Those are really great odds. Make them work for you by learning the brace position, protecting your head, learning how to open an emergency exit, paying attention during the safety briefing, being assertive, buying a smoke hood, and learning to quickly orient yourself.
The chances of being in an airplane disaster are very slim indeed, but they still exist. We learn stop, drop, and roll as children even though very few of us actually caught fire. It’s about time the public learned how to be proactive and even assert control in the face of an airplane crash.
12 replies on “How To Survive An Airplane Crash (for realsies)”
For anyone who enjoyed this article, I recommend reading The Survivors Club by Ben Sherman. I also recommend not worrying about this stuff-frankly, you’re more likely to die of a heart attack or in a car accident. But the book is oddly interesting-thanks to my morbid mother for recommending it to me!
Great article, and good tip about the smoke hood! I was actually looking for where to buy one, but it’s very confusing (and they seem to be a lot more than $20…). Any tips on where to buy?
I dont have a fear of flying: I call it a healthy dose of skepticism. I’m not sure I’m glad I read this.
Excellent article. The advice about take off & landing being the most dangerous times always makes me regret buying a house under a flight path , though.
Interesting article, though I must say I was surprised at just how thorough it was. I’m flying on Wednesday, so this is all quite timely.
This was amazing. Thank you. I’ll be traveling a lot coming up and this gives me comfort.
I remember the best thing about the plane landing on the Hudson (besides everyone surviving) was that in the immediate aftermath there was much discussion about how to respond to an emergency aboard a plane. Reminders are great.
Thank you for this – great read and strangely comforting. Ok, not really strange since “the more you know” and all that, but it does make me feel not so helpless. I do wonder how I’d react but I’m going to try and train myself to be one of the “run the hell away from danger” types.
I choose to persist in my belief that I will magically grow wings.
Although reading this put a knot in my stomach and made my palms sweat, I appreciate it. I fly Southwest a lot, so I get to choose my own seat. I’ve always avoided the wing seats because they seem to be louder, and because the wings block my view of the scenery below. I also hate being near the emergency exit because it gets really cold. But no more! Wing seats/exit rows, here I come. I will bundle up and bring headphones.
This? Is amazing!
I am obsessed with plane crashes (that sounds worse than I mean), and I’d never seen a well-researched, complete Plane Disaster Survival guide until today. I’m saving this forever and always.
I’ve only been in one near-death disaster, and I’m in the small minority of people who run the fuck out and trample people along the way. I want to preemptively apologize to any of my fellow passengers I may push out of the way in the pursuit of self-preservation.
This was a very written and researched post! I had a panic attack while I was reading it, but most people probably won’t.
Great, informative and assertive article. I feel better now about the teasing I get from family members about my flying routines.