Nothing else matters if you
don't actually get off the plane. Surviving the stresses
of the landing is great, but if you're unable to exit the plane
before it is no longer possible (ie due to smoke/fire/sinking)
then your efforts prior to then have all been wasted.
One thing is certain - the
sooner you exit a plane after it suffers an emergency
landing, the greater your chance of surviving. And a key
part of exiting as soon as possible is to find the best exit to
use and then to proceed purposefully to it as soon as you can.
And the best way to help other
people exit the plane too is simply to get to an exit and leave
the plane, yourself, as quickly as possible. In a
situation where the plane is becoming rapidly uninhabitable, every
second of delay you cause potentially means one less person who
can exit the plane.
Count your blessings - you're
still alive. Now follow through these steps to maximize
your chances of staying alive.
: This article series contains things
which are subjective opinions rather than provable
repeatable facts, and deals with probabilities
rather than certainties.
experts sometimes have differing opinions on the
optimum strategies for surviving a plane crash.
I'm not an expert, 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,
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
Let me know, afterwards, what worked for you!
Planning the Exit to Use
You should decide which is
probably going to be
your preferred exit either before getting on the plane (if you
know where you'll be sitting,
can give you a helpful seat map) or shortly after getting on.
You should revise this first
decision when you see where all your fellow passengers are
And then, most important of
all, if you do have a need to evacuate the plane, you'll want to
update your decision as soon as possible.
Write down where your
emergency exits are
Don't trust yourself to
remember how many rows to the emergency exit. Instead,
imagine yourself in a panicked situation, surrounded by other
panicked people, and with the in-floor lighting not working.
How will you know, then, where to go?
Here's a simple solution.
Take one of your business cards and keep it in, eg your shirt
pocket, and write on it how many rows forward and aft to your
nearest exit rows. Then you can simply take this card out of your
pocket and review the numbers on it when going into your 'alert
mode' prior to the dangerous part of each flight.
Choosing Your Best and
When you're on a plane,
decide if your preferred exit row is going to be ahead or behind
you. Five factors will influence your choice :
How Close the Exits are
: Count the rows between you and the exits closest to you,
both ahead and behind.
Obviously (?) the exit that has
fewest rows between you and it is closest, and scores highest
(but only on
this part of your four point evaluation - continue on through
the other three stages).
Wing or Door Exits :
A door exit can probably handle more passengers evacuating
through it per minute than an over-wing exit, for the simple
reason that it is a large door with a matching large space
around it for people to move to and prepare to leave from.
An overwing exit is narrower and requires you probably to climb
up and squeeze through the exit, while also first going down a
narrow 'walkway' between two rows of seats.
If I were choosing between a
door exit five rows away and a wing exit four rows away, I'd
choose the door exit every time.
People between you and
the exits : The emptiest parts of planes tend to be
those parts closest to the back. Maybe the rows of seats
are 80% full in front of you, but only 50% full behind you.
This would suggest that an exit three rows in front of
you is going to have as many or more people wishing to use it as an exit
perhaps five rows behind you. This favors you choosing the
exit behind you.
Exits serving both
directions or only one : The exits at the very front
and very back of a plane will probably serve passengers from one
direction only. But the exits in the rest of the plane
generally have passengers converging on them from two
directions (passengers walking back from ahead of the exit, and
passengers walking forward from behind the exit), with the exception being over-wing exits which often
exist in paired locations - ie, two exits in two adjacent rows,
so that one wing exit logically becomes available for passengers
ahead of the exit, and the other exit logically becomes
available for passengers behind the exit.
Clearly, an exit that is
serving passengers from both directions will be more congested
than one serving passengers from only one direction.
If I had a choice between an exit three rows away serving
passengers from both directions, and one five rows away serving
passengers in only one direction, I'd take the exit five rows
Water landing issues
: If you're on a flight that goes over the water, you need
to consider some extra issues that impact on the best exit to
use. If you're landing in the water, planes typically tend
to sink from the rear first, and many airplanes don't allow the
rear-most exits to be used after a water landing. So if
you've had a water landing, don't even think about going to the
very rear of the plane, and in general, give preference to
moving forwards to an exit rather than rearwards.
Additionally consider the
issue of life rafts. The detachable slides on the forward
doors of some planes aren't actually life rafts per se - they
are merely great big floating things that you hold on to, while
in the water yourself. They act as a further buoyancy aid
and as a way for everyone to keep together. But if the
water is cold, you're going to suffer hypothermia from being in
Most planes also have
life rafts (depending on if they are rated for over water flight
or not), often kept in the ceiling compartments of the plane,
and often deployed through the over-the-wing exits. These
life rafts actually allow people to get on board them, and so
are massively preferable to just hanging on to the evacuation
slide while in the water.
Check the emergency
instruction brochure in your seat pocket to see what your plane
has in the way of life rafts, where they are kept, and where
they will be deployed, and this might influence your choice of
exit as well.
In theory there are
sufficient life rafts plus one spare for everyone on the plane.
But, in the reality of an emergency landing, who knows how many
can and will be deployed.
Updating your exit choice when
needing to evacuate
If you need to evacuate the
plane, you'll want to check to see if your preferred exit
remains your best choice.
If possible, try and see if
your preferred exit has been opened, and as you head to it, try and
keep checking that people are continuing to use it. Not
all exits may open in an emergency - either because they're
jammed, below the water, or because the slide failed to open, or
if there is something nasty (ie fire) outside;
you'd hate to get halfway to your preferred exit only to find it
wasn't able to be used.
And even if an exit door is
opened and people start to use it, the situation might change -
the exit slide might become damaged, or the situation on the
ground might become unsafe, or the life-raft might be full.
If you notice people have stopped going out the exit, consider
choosing a different exit.
Secondly, get a sense for
congestion and blockage problems in the aisles to your preferred
and alternate exit choices. Panicking passengers, stuff
spilled into the aisles, or whatever else (such as the plane
splitting in two!) can make the
theoretical best choice no longer a good choice.
Thirdly, try to get an
understanding of what is on the ground outside. If you can
see flames outside your window, you'll want to be careful which
exit you choose on that side of the plane and might choose to
instead try your luck on the other side (unless that side is on
It is reasonable to expect,
in the case of fire, that there will be less fire towards the
front of the plane, and more fire around the wings where the
fuel tanks and engines are, and behind them (if the plane was
moving forward, leaving fuel and fire behind it).
Thinking Three Dimensionally on
Twin Deck Planes
If you're on a 747 or an
A380, you have exits on both the upper and lower decks.
Depending on where on the
plane you are, your best exit might be on the other level.
I don't know for sure, but my guess is that few people will be
taking the stairs between one level and the other in an
emergency evacuation, so consider going (especially down) the
stairs if that is likely to lead you to another exit choice.
What to Expect in a Bad Landing
Firstly, any landing can
suddenly/unexpectedly turn bad at any time until the plane has
stopped. Don't relax your alert status until the plane has
slowed down to its slow normal taxi speed.
Normally, planes land at
about 150 - 180 mph of forward airspeed, and just a couple of
miles per hour of downward (dropping) speed. Is that fast
or slow? Well, it is slow compared to a plane's cruising
in the air speed, which is something over 500 mph, but it is
amazingly fast compared to the speed you drive your car down the
freeway at. And your car probably is more crash resistant
than a plane.
The slowest most passenger
jet planes can ever land is just above their 'stall' speed - the
slowest speed at which there is enough lift generated to keep
the plane aerodynamically sound and flyable. This speed is
about 100 mph, so no matter what the pilot does, you're going to
be connecting with the ground at some forward speed greater than
In any sort of
semi-controlled landing, you're unlikely to be going any faster
than, say, 250 mph, and probably will be going much less than
When you land, you'll
immediately start to slow down - either because the pilot uses
the wheel brakes and/or the reverse thrust on the engines, or,
if neither are possible, just due to the friction of the plane
moving over the ground and through the air.
With a fairly aggressive
braking program, you'll be braking at 0.5g or more, which means
your speed will be slowing down by 10 mph every second.
After ten seconds of this, your speed is going to be something
less than 100 mph, and after 20 seconds, you'll be close to
Better still, after only
five seconds of braking, your plane has already lost around half
its kinetic energy, making your survivability very much greater.
This is not to say that the
plane may necessarily be braking at as much as 0.5g. If it
is on ice, for example, it will have very little traction and
the wheel braking will be relatively ineffective, and engine
braking alone is a relatively weak form of braking.
For sure, a bad landing may
be terribly bad, and may be very noisy and involve extremely
violent jerkings, up and down, and side to side, but try to just
calmly count down the seconds. Get to five seconds, and
your survivability has greatly increased. Get to ten
seconds, and the plane is hopefully now traveling at less than
100 mph. Get to twenty seconds, and you're almost there.
And here's a bit of good
news to cling to. Every violent impact you suffer during
the landing roll absorbs energy from the plane, and helps it to
bleed off more speed. It is arguably better to have some
major bangs and scrapes because this helps the plane slow down
more quickly - each minor impact on the ground reduces the
remaining energy for a potential future catastrophic major
So, tell yourself, during
the potential hell of an emergency landing, that each
gut-wrenching move of the plane is a step closer to walking off
Don't stop your bracing
until you can tell the plane has almost stopped. Ideally
you'd wait until it has completely stopped, but you'll probably
be a bit impatient, so wait as long as you can.
Steps to Take to Evacuate the
Most important - obey
instructions given to you by the flight crew.
Even if the instructions
seem wrong, you probably should do what they order you to do,
because it is a really bad time and place to try and debate the
best evacuation strategy, and you'll likely find your fellow
passengers will not welcome your independent thinking.
Preserving order is an
important thing, and you don't want to be the spark that changes
an obedient group of passengers into a rebellious rabble.
1. Wait until the
plane has massively slowed down before ending your brace
position, and, if you can, wait until it has completely stopped before releasing your seat belt.
For all you know, just as the plane is about to stop, it might
run off the runway and/or plunge into a huge ditch or down a vertical
cliff edge; you can't predict what might happen next when the
plane is landing in a bad/adverse situation, so keep your seat
belt fastened as long as possible.
2. If you can, look
out a window to familiarize yourself with what is happening
outside the plane. Do you see any flames or other issues
that might prevent you safely evacuating from your side of the
plane? Anything outside that might cause you to choose one
of your emergency exits over the other?
3. Don't panic.
Even if you see the wings ripped off the plane, even if the
plane is on a terrifying angle, even if it has broken in two,
even if it is upside down, even if it is dark and people are
screaming all around you, don't panic. You're alive.
You've made it through the landing. That was the truly
hard part. Now all you need to do is get out of the plane.
Congratulate yourself for having survived the landing, and now
proceed to purposefully evacuate the plane as best you can.
4. So, when you are
able to start your evacuation, gather the emergency survival
things you have with you, and turn on your flashlight (whether
you need it or not - it makes you look more an authority
5. Take a quick look
around you and then toward your preferred exit. Is the
path to that exit passable? Is someone opening the exit?
Good, but also quickly check your secondary exit choice - maybe
the path there is unexpectedly better. Decide which way to
go and head that way, but stay ambivalent about your choice of
exit until you can tell that people are using it and leaving the
plane. Don't confuse people bunching up with people
actually leaving the plane.
6. If you are
traveling with other people who are next to you, make sure they
are coming with you. If other people are traveling with
you and are on the way to your exit, then watch for them as you
pass where they were sitting. But if they are the 'wrong
way' or in an entirely different part of the plane, they're on
their own. You can't block other people or 'go against the
flow' of people. You have a responsibility to yourself,
and to all the other passengers, to quickly leave the plane and
not impede other passengers who of course wish to do the same
7. The closer you get
to the functioning exit you plan to use, the more certain you
can be of your probable survival, and you can consider, if
everything else seems appropriate, pausing to help other people
on the way. But don't slow down the other people behind
you - it is not for you to decide 'I'm going to reduce the
chances of the 20 people behind me of getting off the plane so I
can help one other person'.
When you're actually at the
exit, you can decide if you want to immediately leave the plane
or if you may choose to stay to help people leaving the plane
for a short while. Only choose to stay and assist if there
are not other people already doing that, and if there is a
flight attendant present, get their agreement for you to stay
The main thing to do is to
speed people through the door and onto the wing or down the
slide. You want to be averaging one person every second,
and so if you can speed things up by the slightest tenth of a
second, you are increasing the number of people going through
the door by 10%. On the other hand, a person who wastes
time indecisively and takes two seconds has 'used up' one other
person's time as well as their own while leaving.
The most important part of
the evacuation is to have people flowing smoothly through the
exit and jumping without pausing onto the slide. Keep
people jumping onto the slide, without waiting for each
person to get clear at the bottom.
8. When you have
evacuated the plane, decide if you can be helpful at the bottom
of the slide, catching people as they come down and pulling them
clear so as to encourage people still on the plane to continue
coming down quickly. If this isn't an issue, move well
clear of the crash site, and encourage other people to move
clear with you.
Even if the plane isn't on
fire, you have no way of knowing that it mightn't suddenly
explode in a spectacular fireball like you see on television.
Maybe some inflammable material is dripping onto something hot,
maybe something is smoldering and about to burst into open fire,
maybe part of the plane is about to collapse, thereby breaching
fuel tanks; maybe many things might go wrong. Move clear
of the plane - experts suggest 500 ft upwind is a safe minimum
9. Normally it is best
to remain moderately (safely) close to the plane wreckage and
wait to be rescued, because that will be the easiest thing for
search and rescue teams to spot.
Even if the pilots were
unable to send a distress call, the authorities will probably
notice the absence of the plane fairly soon, depending on where
the plane is, and will soon after that start sending out search
parties along the flight's expected path, moving ahead from its
last known position. Emergency locator beacons would speed
this up still further, although it can take five minutes or more
for a beacon to communicate to the central monitoring service
Bottom line - it shouldn't
be too terribly long until someone comes looking for you, and
hopefully not much longer after that until they find you.
Making Your Way to the Exit
Some authorities suggest you
should crawl along the floor if the cabin is filling with smoke.
If there's no-one behind
you, maybe that is a valid way to proceed. But otherwise,
if you've more people urgently pushing behind you, the last
thing you want to do is get down onto your hands and knees and
risk being trampled underfoot.
Keep your head as low as you
can to avoid smoke, but don't risk being pushed over and then
getting trampled on.
If there is a massive
blockage in the aisle, consider climbing over seat backs, but if
you do this, be alert for people in the seats you're climbing
How to Exit the Plane
As mentioned in point 7 of
the Steps to Take to Evacuate the
Plane section above, time is absolutely critical here.
You, and everyone else, need to get down that exit as urgently
quickly as possible.
Two points are most
At the top of the exit, as
soon as you are 'next in line', immediately exit the plane.
Do not wait for the person(s) in front of you to clear the slide
before taking your turn.
To exit the plane, do not
delicately sit down on the edge of the door then gently lever
yourself onto the slide, like a young child might do when going
on a slide for their first time, in a playground. Do
not pause, but continue moving to the door and jump out and into
Think of the slide as a
giant trampoline. You'd never hesitate to jump onto a
trampoline, do a similar sort of jump onto the exit slide.
It is very regrettable that
airlines don't include a graphic video presentation of how to
exit the plane as part of their safety briefing, because
actually getting out of the exit is the most critical part of
successfully evacuating a plane in the shortest time possible.
Fortunately, due to the wonder that is the internet and YouTube,
we can compensate for this critical omission.
this video for a good example of an emergency exit drill and
how to exit a plane quickly. On the right of the page
there are links to more similar videos. Watch several to
get a feeling for different types of exits and slides - some are
wide enough to handle two people at a time, others are one
person at a time exits.
video of an AA evacuation at LAX last year - there was some
sort of burning smell which caused the plane to be evacuated,
and it gives an example of a more typical rate of evacuation in
a semi-emergency (the best part to watch is from 2 minutes into
How Will People React
When there is an emergency
on a plane, survivors report a range of different responses.
Some people may mindlessly panic and become hysterical and
unresponsive to normal situations. Others may just freeze
in place and do nothing at all until someone tells them clearly
and simply what to do - this is apparently more common than
people becoming hysterical.
Assuming that you keep your
wits about you, you will likely confront some of these other
types of people as you make your way off the plane.
If they are not impeding
your own progress off the plane, ignore them. I'm sorry,
that sounds harsh, but the last thing you want to do for
yourself, for your family and others who rely upon you, and for
the people behind you, also urgently keen to get off the plane,
is to slow your own progress off the plane. Your first
responsibility is to yourself and those who rely/depend on you,
your second responsibility is not to interfere with other people
and their orderly evacuation of the plane. You do not have
a responsibility to people you've never met before and will
never meet again.
If you come across people
who are impeding your progress off the plane, you need to speak
to them loudly, in short clear phrases, using a 'command voice',
just like the police (and flight attendants) are taught to use.
People have a natural instinct to obey, and if you give clear
simple commands, they may follow them.
Clear simple commands would
be 'Stop!'; 'Turn Around!'; 'Go Left!'; 'Keep Moving!' and other
Note, if you say 'Stop!' you
better quickly come up with another course of action for the
person, because they won't stay stopped long.
Now is not the time for
politeness. Don't trample people in a stampede to get off
the plane, but don't stop in the aisle to tighten your shoelaces
either, and don't allow other people in front of you to dawdle
either. In particular, don't let people get anything out
of the overheads if you're in a time critical evacuation.
Part three of a four part
series on how to survive a plane crash. See also :
How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the
safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a
The safest seats
Exiting the plane
Bracing and other considerations
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30 Jan 2009, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.