How to Survive a Plane Crash: 10 Tips That Could Save Your Life

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We often think that plane crashes are catastrophic and unsurvivable events. Thanks to movies and 24/7 news channels, the enduring image of a plane crash usually involves an aircraft plummeting to the ground from 30,000 feet and obliterating everyone on board in a terrifying fireball.

Thankfully, that isn’t the case. In a report analyzing airline accidents from 1983 to 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the survival rate of crashes was 95.7%. Sure, there are some accidents where everyone, or nearly everyone, died, but those are much rarer than you’d guess based on what you see in the news. The NTSB found that even in serious accidents where fire and substantial damage occurred, 76.6% of passengers still survived.

Combine those stats with the relative rarity of airplane accidents even happening in the first place (the average American’s chances of being killed in an airplane crash are about 1 in 11 million), and you can see that flying is actually the safest form of transportation there is. Taking to the road on an average day is far more dangerous — it just doesn’t feel like it because you have four (or two) wheels on the ground and a sense of control.

But it’s important to take note of another interesting tidbit that the FAA and NTSB found in their research on plane crashes: 40% of fatalities that did occur happened in crashes that were survivable. Close to half of all airplane crash fatalities might have been prevented had passengers taken proper action.

While the odds of being involved in a plane crash may be slim, they’re not zero. If it happened to you, would you know what to do to increase your chances of walking away? In today’s post we’re going to offer research-backed advice from Ben Sherwood’s The Survivor’s Club on what you can do to make it out of a plane crash alive.

You’ve Only Got 90 Seconds to Get Out

Understanding this is the key ingredient to surviving, and will frame all the other tips in this post. If you’ve survived the crash landing, you have a pretty good chance of getting out of the airplane alive. But, you only have 90 seconds to do so.

You see, the thing that kills most passengers in a plane crash isn’t the actual impact, it’s the fire that typically engulfs the plane afterwards. Folks may be surprised they survived the impact, and become complacent about other dangers. People vastly underestimate how quickly a fire can spread and consume an airplane. Surveys show that most people think they actually have about 30 minutes to get out of a burning plane. The reality is that it takes, on average, just 90 seconds for a fire to burn through the plane’s aluminum fuselage and consume everything and everyone in it. If that sounds scary, it should; you need to be motivated to get your rear end out of the plane!

Be Fit

The FAA has rigorously studied and crunched the numbers on airplane crash survivors, as well as tested nearly 2,500 people in simulated evacuations to find out the type of person who typically survives. Their results?

Young, slender men have the best odds of surviving a plane crash. (Old, fat women have the worst odds — sorry Aunt Myrtle.)

The FAA has found that differences in age, gender, and girth account for 31% of the difference between people’s evacuation times. Escaping a plane crash requires you to maneuver quickly through narrow aisles with luggage and wreckage strung about. You may even have to throw blockages out of your way. You then have to slip through an emergency exit that may only be twenty inches wide. Kind of hard to do if you’re fat and out of shape.

Not only can being out of shape reduce your chances of survival, it could also put other people’s lives at risk because they have to wait for you to exit safely. Hold-ups at the exit due to passengers having trouble deplaning has caused many unnecessary deaths. In a runway collision that occurred in 1991, investigators found the charred remains of 10 passengers lined up in the aisle waiting to leave the wing exit; folks who froze up and had trouble squeezing through the exit had created a fatal bottleneck.

If you’re on the rotund side, make it a goal to shed some of that table muscle so you’ll be fit enough to save your own life and perhaps the lives of others (and not just on a plane, either, but in all kinds of survival situations). We’ve got plenty of workouts on our site to choose from to get started. If you’re looking for more practical and accessible exercise and diet tips, I highly recommend Nerd Fitness.

Fly in Bigger Planes if Possible

If you have the choice between flying in a puddle jumper or a 737, choose the 737. According to FAA investigations, larger planes have more energy absorption in a crash which means you’re subjected to less deadly force, and that may equate to a better survival rate. This fact alone is why I try to fly on Southwest — whose fleet consists only of 737s — whenever possible. The carrier is also rated as the third safest in the world (their recent landing gear malfunctionnotwithstanding). (Landing gear malfunctions aren’t actually a big deal, by the way.) Also avoid regional carriers if possible — they have an accidents and incidents rate double that of national carriers and their pilots are often less experienced and overworked. Note that national airlines frequently use a regional carrier for some of the routes that fly under their name.

Remember the Five Row Rule

Five Row Rule 2

A few years ago, Popular Mechanics put out an article that analyzed every commercial plane crash in the U.S. and where survivors were sitting in each accident. The article’s author concluded that in the event of a crash, the safest place to be sitting was in the back of the plane. After reading that article, I started to sit in the back of airplanes. Come to find out,Popular Mechanics’ conclusion isn’t well supported by expert research.

According to the folks who dedicate their lives to studying plane crashes, the statistics are inconclusive because every plane crash is different. Sure, many crashes are nose-first, thus making the back of the plane safer, but several are tail-first (as with the recent incident in San Francisco) or wing-first. You just don’t know what kind of crash you’ll be in. Instead of worrying about whether your seat is near the back, focus on finding a seat near an exit. According to researcher Ed Galea, those who survive a plane crash typically only have to move an average of five rows to escape. Beyond five rows the chance of getting out alive decreases.

The best seat to have is in the exit row as you’d be the first one out should you need to exit. If you can’t snag that seat, go for the aisle. Not only do you have easier access to the lavatory during flight, you also have a 64% chance of survival compared to the 58% chance you’d have sitting in a window seat. Also avoid bulkhead rows. Sure, you have more leg room, but the walls don’t “give” as much as seats when you collide with them in a crash.

Galea admits that there are exceptions to the Five Row Rule; he’s found people that successfully moved 19 rows to get to an exit. Moreover, even if you’re just two rows away from an exit, there’s always the chance that the exit door will be blocked or jammed. Overall, though, your chances of survival will increase if you’re within five rows of an exit.

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