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96% of passengers in US plane crashes between 1983-2000 survived.  Even in the most extreme crashes, more than half the passengers and crew survived.

But don't allow this to lull you into complacency.  Most people live, but some people die.

The simple precautionary steps suggested in this article will help ensure that, if the worst comes to the worst, you too will be a survivor rather than a casualty.

 
 
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How to Survive a Plane Crash part 1

Good News - The Odds are in Your Favor
 

The first fatal plane crash, pictured here, was on 17 September 1908 in Fort Myer, VA, when a plane piloted by Orville Wright dropped 100 ft, injuring Orville and killing his passenger.

The 50% survivor rate of that first crash has definitely improved since then.

Part one of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations

 

 

While some plane crashes clearly aren't survivable, most are survivable, and in most cases, most passengers do indeed survive.

There are a few things you can do which might further tilt the odds in your favor, while requiring no unusual degree of preparation or inconvenience for what is hopefully a lifetime of safe plane journeys with never any need to use the information below.

But, because the points below are simple, and because they just might save your life, why not at least read through the article.

Disclaimer :  This article series contains things which are subjective opinions rather than provable repeatable facts, and deals with probabilities rather than certainties.

Different experts sometimes have differing opinions on the optimum strategies for surviving a plane crash.  I'm not an expert or an aviation lawyer, and my selective endorsement of some opinions over others may or may not be correct.

You are best advised to read what follows with an open mind, then supplement it with your own research, and adopt what you feel comfortable with, adapt what you're not so comfortable with, and improve as best you can to fit your needs and your emergency situation.

Good luck.  Let me know, afterwards, what worked for you!

What Are Your Chances of Having a Problem - and Surviving It?

Air travel is the absolutely safest form of transportation when measured in terms of accidents per mile traveled, and very much safer than traveling by road.

In the last two years (2007 and 2008) there have been no passenger fatalities in any US plane crashes.  During those same two years, there were 17 million domestic flights in the US, with 1.5 billion passengers carried.

Various statistics suggest your odds of dying on your next flight are somewhere between one in 9 million and one in 60 million.  Whether it is one in 9 million or one in 60 million, either which way, the chances are overwhelming that you'll be walking off the plane upon its safe completion, just as you hope to.  Indeed, taking the least favorable safety statistic (one in 9 million), you could fly two flights every day from the day you were born until you turned 80 (ie 58,400 flights in total), and your total chance of being killed in a plane crash is still only one in 154.

Put it another way - the biggest killer among professional pilots and cabin crew is old age rather than air related fatalities.

So, overall, your chance of dying while flying is minimal.  But it isn't zero.  And you've an appreciably greater chance of actually being in a plane accident (the chance of this is harder to calculate as it depends on what you define as an accident) which will call on your survival skills.

Fortunately, and as mentioned at the top, a National Transportation Safety Board study looked at all US accidents between 1983 and 2000, and found that of the 53,487 passengers involved in these unfortunate events, 51,207 of them survived - 95.7%.

They also refined the statistics to consider only at major and serious crashes, and found the survival rate still remained over 50%.

Lastly, they again studied only at serious major crashes, but took out the very worst crashes where no-one had any chance of surviving (like 9/11 or the Pam Am 103 Lockerbie bombing) and this improved the odds so that 75% of passengers survived.

One more statistic, and this one is the most nebulous of all.  Various experts estimate that as many as 30% of the passengers who died in airplane accidents could have survived if they'd responded better to the emergency when it occurred.

So, our bottom line is simple - you'll probably never be in an air accident of any kind, and you'll probably be just fine if you are.

But you might not be fine, and if you adopt the best possible response, you can improve your odds of surviving by a massive 30%.

Why are these statistics so much better than I thought?

Most people have a very inaccurate and apocalyptic perception of air plane crashes.  They have pictures in their mind involving massive fireballs, clouds of smoke, and scarred earth.  For sure, a really bad airplane crash (like the Air France Concorde at take-off - lots of videos of this on Youtube, including this documentary piece) is visually spectacular and memorable.

But not all visually spectacular crashes are 100% fatal.  Indeed, one of the more spectacular ones was an Air France A-340 that crashed upon landing in Toronto in 2005 - it overshot the runway, broke up and caught fire (pictured on the left).  But everyone on board - all 309 passengers and crew survived.

The moral of that particular story is two-fold.  First, 'it ain't over 'till it's over' - passengers on board started clapping once the plane had landed, thinking their flight had safely concluded.  15 seconds or so later, things started to go horribly wrong.  So stay tense and alert until after the plane has completed its landing roll and has slowed down to taxiing speed.

Second, don't give up.  Keep your spirits high and tell yourself 'I can survive and I will survive' and then do all you positively can to ensure you do, no matter how scary the situation is or how certain it might seem that death is staring you in the face.  Maybe death is staring you in the face - but look back resolutely and unblinkingly.

One last comment about this crash.  Some of the passengers attempted to, or indeed did take their carryon items with them.  Don't do this.  Don't pause for an instant when getting off the plane - carry on items will slow you down, and all the other people behind you.  And, if someone in front of you is trying to get their carry-on, be assertively insistent that they don't, or, at the very least, push on past them.  Which would you rather have - your laptop or your life?

(More information on this particular crash on this Youtube video.)

One more answer to why the reality of air crash survivability statistics are much better than most people perceive them to be.  That is that we as people are not completely rational - we tend to mis-understand the risks involved with various things and to allow some risks to seem more extreme than others.  An obvious example of this is the difference in comfort levels between a person driving a motorcycle, and a pillion passenger riding behind them on the same bike.  The driver - the person in control - doubtless feels much safer than the passenger.  And it is the lack of control and lack of understanding of air transport that causes many people to be more fearful of that than they are of, eg, much more dangerous travel by private car.

How Long Does it Take to Evacuate a Plane

This is a very relevant question.  The FAA requires a plane to be capable of being emptied in 90 seconds, and requires airplane manufacturers to prove that by simulating an emergency evacuation, in near darkness, and with pillows and blankets randomly obstructing the aisles, and only half the emergency exits working.

Some people believe this test is still too easy and unrealistic, and they're probably correct.  Having a plane full of volunteers doing a drill, on a stable plane with no real danger, is very different to having a plane that has broken in two, is lurching at an improbable angle, is filling with smoke, and with panic stricken and injured passengers screaming and shouting.

The ninety second target evacuation time is not a mere coincidence.  Many experts estimate that there is less than a two minutes window to get out of a plane after a crash before bad things happen.  Flames and smoke are the two most pressing issues after a crash, as also might be sinking in the event of a water landing.

On the other hand, the number of passengers that can exit a plane under FAA test conditions is usually considerably greater than the number of passengers typically on a plane.  For example, the new A380 had 853 passengers and 20 crew complete their evacuation test in 77 seconds.  Typically an A380 will carry about 500 passengers and less than 20 crew, giving a nice extra time margin in the event of a real evacuation.

Note that evacuating a plane is dangerous, whether it be part of a test or a real evacuation.  An FAA review of 19 full-scale evacuation demonstrations between 1972 and 1991 involving 5,797 participants found that 269, or about 4.5%, of evacuees were injured.

When do Plane Crashes Occur

The two most dangerous periods of any flight are the take-off and landing phases.

While you're cruising along at altitude, the plane and its engines is unstressed, the pilots are unstressed, there are fewer other planes to avoid, much less that can go wrong, and lots more time to correct any such problem before reaching the ground.

80% of accidents occur in either the first three or the last eight minutes of a flight.

Taking off

Take-offs are the most dangerous part of any flight, because everything about the plane is at maximum stress.

The plane may be at close to its maximum weight, the engines will be running at close to red line, and the fuel tanks may be full.  From the point on the take-off roll where the pilot passes the point of no return and needs to commit to taking off, no matter what (termed the V1 speed), and for the first couple of minutes of flight, there are commonly no reserves of anything.

While cruising

On the other hand, when you're at 35,000 ft and 550 mph, you (or, to be more precise, the pilots) have more time to solve any problems that might occur.

Assuming the wings haven't fallen off (and airplane wings almost never fall off, not even in the most violent of turbulence), and depending on if the pilot feels the need to quickly descent from altitude down to below 15,000 ft (where you can breathe unassisted, if the cabin pressurization has failed), you probably have about 20 minutes before the plane reaches the ground, and that may be sufficient time for the pilots to hopefully come up with a solution to whatever the issue is, and/or to allow them to prepare for the upcoming landing and hopefully do so at an airport rather than somewhere inhospitable, less survivable, and less easily rescued from.

Landing

But when your plane is below about 10,000 ft, there's perhaps only 5 minutes between you and the ground.  The plane suffers both from less altitude and less airspeed - the two things any pilot wants most desperately when things start to go wrong.  This should be the time when you switch back into a semi-alert and in your mildly ready state.

When you're landing, things aren't nearly as stressed as when taking off (except for the pilots - they're busier and more stressed landing than taking off), but the plane is getting close to the ground, it is going very slowly (comparatively speaking) - perhaps 200 mph or less - and it doesn't have much reserve 'energy' in its state should it suddenly lose engine power, or encounter a strong downdraft, or if something goes otherwise unexpectedly wrong.  Things that might result in a 5,000 ft loss of altitude and which don't matter when you're at 35,000 ft become much more serious when you're at 3,000 ft!

Which are the safest planes?

It is very difficult to come up with meaningful statistics on the relative safety of different models of airplanes.

The main reason this is difficult is because when there is an accident, it can be a very subjective interpretation to determine how much blame should be attributed to the plane itself, how much to the pilots and their training, how much to the maintenance of the plane, how much to other factors (eg weather) and how much is just random bad luck.

It is probably safe to say that some airlines are less safe than others, and similarly, some airports and countries are less safe than others, but it is very difficult to be able to create a clear distinction between different planes.

Some planes had bad reputations that were either not fairly deserved or which, while fairly reflecting earlier models of the plane, were no longer accurate for more recent models of the same plane.

It is also positive to note that, over the years, airplane safety standards and regulations have several times been revised upwards, making more modern planes generally safer than the ones before then.

It is probably fair to say that newer planes are generally better than older planes, but that is about all you can conclude.

Your Alert Periods

The most dangerous parts of the flight are the first five and last ten minutes of the journey, assuming the plane climbs smoothly up and way from the airport and comes in quickly to land without an extended time of holding near the destination airport.  Another way of phrasing this, and a useful rule of thumb, is that any time the plane is below  about 10,000 ft, your risk increases greatly compared to when the plane is above that height.

So, any time the plane is below 10,000 ft, you should switch to your more alert mode.

This means, when taking off, perhaps go easy on the drinks before boarding and prior to take-off, and if you're going to take a sleeping pill, wait until the flight is safely in the air before doing so.

It means, when coming in to land that you are ready to respond to a sudden brace and subsequent evacuation, with the safety things you need at hand rather than in the overhead locker (or zipped up in the bottom of the bag under the seat in front of you.

It means in both cases, you know where your emergency exit would be, and where the alternate is too.  Check the note you made to remind yourself how many rows they are from you.

When you are alert, you should have your shoes on, be wearing suitable clothing (or have it within reach), and you should also minimize the number of solid/sharp objects you have in your pockets and around you so they are least likely to cause injury during the rough and tumble of a crash landing.

During your alert periods, you want to be mentally running through the emergency and evacuation scenarios that might arise.  You won't be alone in doing this - the flight attendants are taught to do similar things, too.

These alert periods are important, as is the mental preparation you go through silently while alert.  If something does go wrong, you'll be overdosing on adrenalin, you may become non-responsive, and whatever else is happening, you're not likely to be thinking clearly.  If you already have your routine planned before an emergency occurs, you can function at a lower intellectual level and simply do what you've planned to do without the need for so much higher level planning and thought.

Reading the Safety/Emergency Card

Something to do during your alert time is to read the flight safety briefing card.

Most of the material on the card is stuff you'll already know, like not smoking, how to fasten/unfasten your safety belt, and so on.  But there are some unique things also provided that are specific to your plane and the airline operating it, in terms of how doors are opened, how slides are activated, and where life rafts are kept.

Don't just glance unseeingly at the card, but carefully look through it to find the information that is most relevant and specific to your flight.

Accidents happen without warning

This might seem obvious, but it bears specifically stating.  All flights start off as normal ordinary flights, with no apparent reason to worry or expect something untoward to occur.

The transition from normal flight to disaster can sometimes be slow, but more commonly (and particularly for the passengers) will be completely sudden and utterly unexpected.  For example, one minute you are impatiently waiting for the plane to land at the end of its flight and watching the ground approaching out the window, same as always.  Then all of a sudden something goes wrong with the landing, and the plane is careering off the runway, hitting things, breaking up, and possibly bursting into flames.

You need to prepare for these scenarios in advance, because when they do occur, for sure you'll have no time to prepare for them as they unfold.

Part one of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations

 

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Originally published 23 Jan 2009, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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