How to Survive a Plane Crash
Most crashes are survivable, so it pays to know what to do
A 15-year-old passenger, Jose Vasquez, later was honored for using his Boy Scouts training to keep the other survivors warm and help rescuers find the crash scene in a forest, which he accomplished by employing an array of tools — cell phones, a fishing app with GPS and even smoke signals.
While large plane crashes that kill everyone onboard get a lot of news coverage, crashes like the one Vasquez survived are more common. In fact, 95 percent of passengers and crew live through airplane crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Most aviation accidents are survivable, says Jon Beatty, President and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to aviation and aerospace safety. Planes have non-flammable materials in the interior, seats that can withstand 16Gs of force and crew members highly trained to get passengers off the aircraft within 90 seconds of impact, he says.
While the chances of being involved in any kind of airline accident are slim, it can’t hurt to take a few precautions that, in the unlikely event of a crash, could save your life. Here are seven tips on how to survive a plane crash.
Wear comfortable clothes and keep your shoes on. Commercial aviation is so safe that it’s unlikely the outfit you wear to the airport will affect your survival, Beatty says. “But it doesn’t hurt to try to select flat and comfortable shoes as well as clothing that allows for easy movement,” he says. So, nix impractical footwear like spike heels, open-toe shoes or flip-flops, as well as tight skirts, skinny jeans or other restrictive clothing.
And keep your shoes on during the flight to save time in case you need to make a quick exit. If you do have to get off the plane in a hurry after a crash or a failed takeoff, who knows what sort of glass- or debris-strewn surface or hot (or snowy) runway you’ll find yourself having to walk on.
Choose a seat near an exit. An analysis of seating charts from 100 plane crashes by Ed Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, in England, found that passengers seated within five rows of an exit were most likely to get out of a plane alive. He also found it’s safer to sit in an aisle seat than a window seat.
But not all experts agree one seat is safer than another. “There really is no ‘safest seat on a plane,’” Beatty says. “With the safety level of commercial aviation, every seat is the safest seat.”
Count the rows between your seat and the nearest exit. “Knowledge really is your best tool in staying safe when you fly,” Beatty says. So, listen to the safety briefings from flight attendants and make a mental note of the location of the nearest exits, he says. Count the number of rows between your seat and the exit in case the cabin fills with dark smoke and the emergency lighting fails, Galea recommends.
Don’t zone out. Some experts say it’s especially important to stay alert during takeoff and landing because that’s when most crashes happen. In fact, aviation research has found that 50 percent of accidents happen during those times, Beatty says. But keep in mind that’s half of a “very, very low number,” he says.
In the past, there’s been concern about the forces being put on the engines and aircraft during takeoff, but that’s not much of an issue with modern aircraft engines, Beatty says. So, just listen for announcements from the pilots and flight attendants at any point during the flight, he notes.
Practice unbuckling your seatbelt before takeoff. In interviews with more than 2,000 plane crash survivors, Galea found it’s common to lose precious seconds fumbling with the seatbelt — probably because airplane seatbelts unbuckle differently from the ones in your car. Some people, in the moment of panic, revert to trying to press a button.
During the flight, keep your seatbelt fastened the whole time you’re seated, Beatty says.
Brace (correctly) for impact. “If the flight attendant tells you to brace, then brace!” Beatty says. You should have already read the seat-back pocket safety card, most of which include drawings that demonstrate exactly how to brace, Beatty says. There are good reasons to use the specific technique shown in the illustration.
Get out fast. Do not grab your purse, laptop or anything else. Time is of the essence, so get yourself out as quickly as you can. “Leave your carry-on luggage behind,” Beatty says. “It can be recovered or replaced.” And don’t hesitate when you are at the exits — just go.
Finally, as Vasquez learned in the Wings of Alaska accident, knowing some basic survival skills could come in handy, too.