Do you know how to brace if
called upon to do so in an emergency? Have you ever tried
bracing so you know how much you need to adapt the suggested
brace position to fit the space around you, and your own
Good bracing is a vital part
of surviving a crash landing. This last part of our four
part series discusses bracing, plus a number of other factors
that can increase your chances of surviving.
: 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!
Bracing for Impact
There are two main parts to
surviving a crash. The first part is withstanding the
effect of the crash itself, the second is swiftly evacuating the
plane after the crash.
The most important thing you
can do to increase your chances of surviving a crash is to brace
yourself for the shock of the impact and not to lose
consciousness. Have a look at what happens to crash
dummies in test impacts, and then try and prevent those same
things happening to you.
A key part of your brace
position is simply placing yourself hard up against whatever is
in front of you, so that when the sudden deceleration causes you
to be thrown forward, you're already up against whatever it is
you'll hit. So the seat back in front of you is actually
your friend - get nice and close to it when bracing.
Another key part of your
brace position is to stop your limbs and head from failing about
and hitting things during the shocks of the plane crashing to a
halt. So you want to, for example, wrap your head in your
arms and tightly clasp your hand/fingers together.
Wikipedia entry gives a lengthy discussion on how and why to
brace, and is useful reading.
There's a new consideration
these days when you're bracing. Don't brace yourself
against the seat in front of your video screen (assuming there
is one). That would be a very bad idea indeed.
Position your head above or below (lower is generally better) the video screen.
One more thing about
bracing. If you have an airplane pillow or blanket, use
this as part of a cushion between you and any hard surfaces
about you which you're likely to hit during the crash stop.
Protect Your Legs
If you break a leg, you're
probably not going to get out of the plane alive. Even if
you don't break a leg, if you harm your legs so you can't easily
walk as you otherwise would, you're massively reducing your
So, when bracing for an
impact, think about your legs as well as the rest of your body.
Air accident investigators
have sometimes commented on the prevalence of post-crash
passengers with one or even both their legs broken below the
knee, and it is thought this happens because passengers tuck
their legs underneath them when bracing. But the
tremendous forces in a crash cause the legs to fly free and
forward, where they then slam up against the bottom corner of
the seat in front, and with such a strong impact that the legs
Perhaps it is better to keep your
legs stretched out in front, close to the bottom of the seat in
front, so that they won't travel as far and won't break.
Protect Your Hands
Here's a vital but subtle
additional consideration. You'll need your hands after the
crash - to undo your seat belt, perhaps to crawl along the floor,
to support yourself, and so on.
So what do you do with your
hands as you brace for impact? Most people clasp them over
their head - but there is a right way and a very wrong way to do
The wrong way is only subtly
different to the right way. Be sure you know the difference.
You don't want your hands to
be on the top of your head. You want them to be on the back
of your head.
The reason for this is due to
what happens in the impact. Your head is going to fly
forward and collide with the seat back in front of you. You
must be certain that the part of your head that will hit the
seatback is not the part you have your hands holding, because you
don't want your hands to become crushed between a seat back and
your skull. In such a case, you'll likely break some
fingers, which means you'll be much less dexterous and less able
to quickly undo your seat belt, move out into the aisle, and
proceed quickly to evacuate the plane.
So, if your hands are on the
back of your head, they'll be safely out of the way, but if they
are on the top, they are liable to be crushed by the impact of
your head on the seat in front.
Seat Belt Tight
Don't just fasten your
seatbelt, but massively tighten it too.
And practice releasing it -
sure, you might think this is an amazingly simple thing to do,
but after accident reports consistently show that some people
forget how to release their safety belts. Remember that
airplane seat belts generally need you to lift the
buckle/release lever, which is the opposite of most car seat
belts that need you to push in the release lever.
Because airplane seat belts
are held in position by a friction roller, they work loose
fairly quickly. You'll want to cinch it tight again
several times as you come in for a crash landing.
One study suggests that you
get triple the G-force acting on you for every half inch of
slack in your seat-belt. This is why air force pilots
don't have cushions on their seats but instead sit in a hard
uncomfortable metal seat - if the ejection rockets fire, they
want to be right up against the seat frame rather than have it
slam into their backside.
Flame Resistant and Appropriate
Fire is an ever-present
danger in an airplane emergency, and you might find yourself
needing to dash through flames on your escape.
For these reasons, it is
best to wear flame resistant clothing, and preferably clothing
that covers as much of you as possible.
Avoid synthetic materials,
and - ladies - it is better to have bare legs than to have
Wool is probably the best
material for clothing, followed by linen, and then cotton/silk.
Wool will catch fire at 600°C, compared to
cotton at only 255°C - some synthetics actually catch fire at
higher temperatures than cotton (eg polyester at 560°C), but
rather than forming ash that drops harmlessly away, they melt
and may melt onto your skin, giving you severe burns.
you should have trousers to protect your legs, and a long
sleeved shirt to protect your arms.
clothing should not be liable to get snagged or caught on things
as you're stumbling through the chaotic shambles inside a plane
that you're needing to do an emergency evacuation from.
Weather Appropriate Clothing
(everywhere on your route)
The good news - you've
survived an emergency water landing. The bad news - it is
below freezing, and you die of exposure an hour later. Or
perhaps you're on a flight between Los Angeles and Europe in
summertime, but the flight takes the polar route, lands on the
ice, and there you are in t-shirt and shorts, again dying of
exposure on the ice an hour or two later.
Make sure you have - at
hand, not in the overhead - any clothing items you might need
outside while taking off and landing. You can probably
leave the items in the overhead if they're there for a 'just in
case' somewhere along the way (as in the example of the
summertime flight via the north pole).
Wool seems to be a good
choice under this heading, too, and can also help if you're in
the water because it won't get too waterlogged while still
providing some insulating properties.
Generally, accidents are
more likely to occur in the dark, and in bad weather.
Your mobility is an
essential part of your ability to survive. You want to
protect your legs during a bad landing, and then be able to walk
to the exit and, once out of the plane, away from the immediate
After a bad landing,
anything could be on the floor in the cabin. Broken glass,
shattered fittings, liquids, who knows what. Similarly,
there could be anything on the wings of the plane and on the
ground from where you get out of the plane.
Consider sensible sturdy
lace-up closed shoes rather than open sandals, and no high heels
for the ladies.
Keep your shoes on your feet
during the danger periods (5 minutes after takeoff, 10 minutes
before landing); there's no way you'll have the time or
opportunity to put them on after something bad happens.
Flashlight (and Cabin Light)
The wonderful new LED
technology has made powerful and long-lasting flashlights
amazingly small and light. I have several that are made from
metal and so are very sturdy, while using a single small battery
as a power source, and so are very tiny and lightweight. Small
size notwithstanding, they cast a very powerful beam of white
light, and cost less than $40.
I always travel with one of
these flashlights, and regularly change their batteries (for
this reason my favorite is not the smallest, which uses
expensive watch type batteries, but rather a slightly larger one
that uses a single very inexpensive AA battery).
Many airplane emergencies
involve the loss of power, and therefore, the loss of lighting
in the cabin. So having your own light source in your pocket is
prudent good sense, as well as being very convenient even when
no emergency is present. If you've ever tried reaching up into
the overhead bins during the night part of a flight, you'll know
just how dark it can be up there, and how useful your own little
flashlight can be.
Choose one that is sturdy
and made of metal so that it won't break, and choose the biggest
one that you can comfortably travel with in your pocket or
handbag. There's no use to you in having a larger better
flashlight if you don't have it with you when you need it -
better a smaller one at hand than a larger one left at home.
I've been very happy with
the LED Lenser light, and my favorite measures a mere 4" long
and uses a single regular AA battery to give a strong light.
Highly recommended, and available from
elsewhere too, for about $35.
You should also consider
turning off your overhead lights during your alert periods, if
it is dark outside the plane, so as to help your eyes pre-adjust
to the darkness if there is an emergency. Most planes these days
dim their cabin lights for nighttime takeoffs and landings, and
you can take this a step further by turning off your at-seat
Delay inflating these until
you are out of the plane. They inflate rapidly, and if you
inflate them too soon, they just get in the way and make it
harder for you to make your way to the exit.
They're also more vulnerable
to being ripped/punctured if they're already inflated.
If you're holding an infant
in your arms, their chances of surviving a hard landing are very
low indeed. But if they're in an approved infant seat
(preferably rear-facing) they're at least as likely as you are
to survive the landing.
You'll have to decide if
you're willing to pay extra for a separate seat for your young
children, or if you think the risk of a crash landing is so low
as to make the extra cost unreasonable.
A smoke hood could
potentially be a life saver for you. But if you buy one
that doesn't work as promised, it could be a 'false friend' and
lull you into an undeserved state of over-confidence.
A smoke hood needs to be
four things to be practical :
Easily carried : If a
smoke hood is big and bulky and heavy, you're just never going
to bother carrying it with you, are you? Sure, you might
once or twice, but they you'll start forgetting.
So size/weight is an
essential factor in evaluating smoke hoods.
Easily put on : The
wrong time to practice putting on a smoke hood is after a crash
landing. You'll be panicking, disoriented, it may be dark,
it may be filling with smoke, and you'll be desperate to exit
the plane. You need to be able to put your smoke hood on
in the worst of such situations, so you'll want a practice one
as well as the 'real' one you carry, and you'll want to be able
to successfully put on a hood with your eyes shut (to mimic the
disorientation and possible darkness).
Effective protection against
flames : A smoke hood isn't going to provide a substantial
barrier against the heat of flames, but it can provide a very
thin protection against naked flame, for example, it will be
harder for your hair to catch fire if there aren't flames
directly burning on your hair.
You also need to be sure
that the hood won't simply melt when confronted with a flame
So check what the melting
temperature is of the material the hood is made from. The
higher, the better.
Effective protection against
'smoke' : I put quotes around the word 'smoke' because the
smoke that you see is actually one of the most benevolent parts
of the byproducts of combustion. The nastiest things are
things you can't see, and sometimes even things you can't smell
either (for example carbon monoxide). Fires - particularly
ones burning the sorts of things to be found in an airplane
interior - may produce hydrogen cyanide (the gas they use in gas
chambers), various nitrogen and sulfur chemicals, acids, ammonia
Your smoke hood must be able
to filter out not just particulate matter (ie the smoke you see)
but these gases as well.
Note also that smoke hoods
generally have a finite life and an expiration date; so if you
do get a smoke hood, be sure it remains current and has not
The one good smoke hood I
had found some years ago has been discontinued, and I'm
currently unaware of any other suitable smoke hood. If you
think you've found a good one,
let me know, please (and perhaps wait until I've replied
before buying it).
Tying a moist handkerchief
around your mouth and nose may provide some beneficial effect.
In such a case, you'd want
to pre-purchase a large sized handkerchief that would readily be
large enough to go around your face and be double-knotted at the
back, and to consider traveling with a 3oz bottle of plain
regular water as part of your carry-on liquids.
Some people have advised to
simply urinate on a handkerchief or whatever if you don't have
water present. I don't know about you, but for me, the
time it would take to do that, and the possible difficulty of
succeeding in the task, would make the suggestion nonsensical.
Oxygen Mask Emergencies
If the oxygen masks suddenly
fall down from their storage spaces above you, relax. This does not
mean the plane is about to crash and burn.
It simply means there has
been a possible or actual loss of cabin pressure, and that the
oxygen masks are falling down to give you supplemental oxygen
until such time as the plane descends down to a safe altitude
where there is enough oxygen to breathe without needing the
Here's the one important
thing to remember with oxygen masks. Put your mask on
first, before doing anything for anyone else.
You have a surprisingly
short amount of time before you lose your concentration, then
lose consciousness, if the cabin pressure has dropped.
Losing concentration and losing consciousness are both okay - a
person will quickly recover from either, but only if oxygen is
got to them quickly.
So don't worry about your
spouse, or aged parent, or young child losing consciousness.
It is essential that you protect yourself first so that you will
then be conscious and able to attend to them second.
Some rows of (eg) three
seats will have three masks, and some will have four, so if a
mask fails, there's probably a spare in the row ahead or behind
you. These spares are also essential for infants traveling
on a lap.
How to be a Hero in an
There are two parts of any
emergency when you can help.
Before the bad thing actually
As soon as it is clear that
things are becoming serious, you can massively improve your
chances of survival by calming the people around you -
especially the people who will be ahead of you in the rush to an
exit once the plane has come down - and sharing your own
survival plan with them.
Reassure people about the
probability of surviving most emergency situations, and even the
probability of surviving most crash landings. Suggest
which exit people should go to, and remind them not to delay
their exit while trying to take anything with them.
Tell them when they get to
the exit they should not pause, not wait for the slide to be
clear, but immediately jump out and onto the slide, and help
talk them through assuming a brace position.
Create an island of calm in
what may be a sea of panic. If the people around you act
in a calm rational and efficient manner, you're not only helping
their chances of survival, but you're helping your own chances
too, because you'll all get to the exits and out more quickly
that way. You'll also remove some of the raw fear and
emotional searing that runs through a person when things first
start to go badly wrong.
After the bad thing happens
Okay, so you've now landed,
and it is time to exit the plane. You'll quickly be able
to assess if you're in a fully developed emergency, where
seconds are precious and if you can't exit the plane in a very
short period of time, you'll not be able to survive the adverse
effects of smoke/fire/water/whatever.
Even if it seems to you that
this was just an overly cautious 'emergency' - eg, due to
someone smelling some smoke or something, but no flames visible
anywhere - don't now relax and treat things as a harmless joke.
A harmless seeming smoke smell one minute can become a raging
fire all around you the next minute. And a safe emergency
landing for a miscellany of reasons might suddenly go wrong -
overheated brakes might set fire to something inflammable, and
all of a sudden, your plane is unexpectedly blazing all around
However, until there is a
clear and present threat that is threatening your survival, you
can be in Hero Mode 2. When there is a clear and present
threat, you need to switch to Hero Mode 1.
Hero Mode 2 :
Your primary responsibility to yourself and your fellow
passengers is to get yourself off the plane as quickly as
possible and without impeding your fellow passengers and their
ability to get off the plane, too. On rare occasions, you
can sacrifice a small amount of time to help other people get
off the plane also.
Hero Mode 1 :
This is when you have to be a super-hero and accept a very
difficult mandate on your behavior. Your only priority now
is to get yourself off the plane as quickly as you can and
without impeding your fellow passengers and their ability to get
off the plane too. If you see an injured person, or
someone that needs help, you must ignore them and press on in
Hero Mode 1.
Why should you abandon all
concepts of helping other people and why is this a heroic thing
to do? Think through the issue. In this life
threatening time critical situation, it is possible/probable
that not everyone will be able to safely exit the plane before
it becomes no longer survivable inside. So here is the
choice you must confront : If you delay your exit and the
exit of the people behind you to help an injured/incapacitated
person to exit the plane with you, you might be saving one life,
but that delay you have caused may result in two or more other
people now not getting out of the plane in time (remember -
every second represents the ability of another person to exit
the plane - a two second delay means two fewer people who can
exit the plane before it becomes unsurvivable). You
have saved one person but killed two others. Does that
make you feel good?
And what say the delay you
cause results in you, too, becoming a casualty? Isn't your
first responsibility and obligation to your family, your
friends, your work, and all the other people who know and rely
upon you? An attempt (possibly even unsuccessful) to help
a stranger to live while sacrificing both your life and that of
other people behind you in the plane is selfish and
You don't have the right to
choose who lives and who dies, and it is not your job to help
strangers. Be an unsung hero and simply get off the plane
as quickly as you can. You can assist, if you feel the
need and if you can actually help, getting people onto or off
the slide at the exit, but don't cause more problems than you
solve by delaying your exit off the plane.
This might seem harsh, but
it is a harsh situation.
The Most Effective Ways to
Reduce Your Risk of Being in a Plane Crash
The first thing to do is to
try and fly non-stop wherever you're going. Remember that
nearly all aircraft accidents occur during take-off or landing.
If you minimize your take-offs and landings (ie by flying
non-stop rather than via connecting cities) you also minimize
your exposure to potential risk.
The second thing to do is not travel if you don't need to. Maybe plan your business
trips so you go once a month instead of once every two weeks.
However, be careful not to
end up substituting driving time for flying time. You're
much more at risk in a vehicle on the road than you are in an
airplane in the sky.
Here is a
great multi-part series produced by the BBC on How to
Survive a Plane Crash. It gives you visual presentations
of what to expect and reinforces the material in this two part
web article. Highly recommended.
Here is a link to purchase my
favorite travel flashlight on Amazon.
Here is a video that shows
how to exit a plane in an emergency. You should watch
several of these types of videos to give you a feeling for what
Part four 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 0ther considerations
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30 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.