How to survive a plane crash
Following the engine failure on board a Qantas A380, Tim Jepson investigates the best ways to survive a plane crash, from choosing the right seat to avoiding smoke inhalation.
How to survive a plane crash? Well, you can be lucky, like the 155 passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed on New York's Hudson River, and enjoy a combination of luck, superlative flying and excellent staff training. Or you can take matters into your own hands.
Planes have always crashed. The first fatal accident occurred in 1908, just five years after the Wright brothers completed the earliest controlled, sustained and heavier-than-air flight. The pilot of the plane involved in the crash, in which one passenger died? Orville Wright himself.
But there are crashes and crashes. Some, patently, cannot be survived. Others, however – the vast majority, in fact – can be. A US government study found there were 568 plane crashes in the US between 1993 and 2000, involving a total of 53,487 passengers and crew. Of these, 51,207 – or over 90pc survived. Even on the 26 crashes deemed the worst, the study found that more than half the passengers and crew survived.
Contrary to popular statistical myth, however, air travel is not the safest form of transport – rail travel is safer in terms of accidents per journey and accidents per hour travelled (air travel wins only in accidents per mile travelled). But what is true, contrary to expectation, as the study reveals, is the survivability of most crashes. More to the point, the study found that a third of those who died – smoke and fire accounted for most deaths – would almost certainly have survived if they'd taken certain precautions.
So what are these precautions? Well, as you'd imagine, it's an imprecise science, heavy with claim and counter-claim, with some precautions rendered useless in certain crashes. But there are areas on which all agree. Here is a checklist that might just save your life.
Have a plan
This is the key. Time and again, having a notion of what you are going to do in the event of a crash or forced landing has been found to be fundamental to survival. First, really do listen to the safety announcement and read the safety card, and if you don't, then at the very least know exactly where to find the nearest exits. Actually count the number of rows from your seat to exits in front and behind you – the chances are you might be trying to find your way to an exit in pitch dark and/or thick smoke.
Bear in mind that – unfortunately – you may have several minutes' warning before impact, so use the time to go through any plan again.
The safest seats
Exits seats, usually, though when it comes to crashes, there's more anecdotal, fanciful and other information regarding the safest seats on a plane than almost any other. Boeing's website says that "one seat is as safe as another", as do www.airsafe.com and the United States' Federal Aviation Administration, among others.
Popular opinion, however, has it that rear seats are safer, though there's a vocal online minority that claims over-wing seats are best, because the plane is "stronger" at that point.
Crashes vary, and sometimes the only people to survive are those at the front; in other crashes survivors are over the wing. But in 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine looked at all crashes since 1971 for which seat survival data was available and found that those in rear seats (behind the wing's trailing edge) were indeed safer – survival rates were 69pc as opposed to 56pc over the wing and 49pc for those at the front of the plane.
Like the safest seats, this is a contentious area. Internet conspiracy theorists claim the recommended brace positions (which themselves have varied over the years) are those guaranteed to break your neck and back most successfully – a deliberate ploy, they claim, to make your death as quick and painless as possible and reduce insurance costs.
Others – less ludicrously – point out that one of the two recommended brace positions is impossible for anyone in an economy seat, where the space in front of you is simply insufficient to adopt the suggested position. It's worth noting that some think the recommended brace positions don't make much sense, and that you should sit up straight and push against the seat in front of you.
In any event, you are trying to do three basic things by bracing. Get your torso as low as possible to reduce the jackknife effect at impact; stop yourself from flying forward and hitting the seat or other parts of the aircraft interior; and preventing injury to your legs and ankles that will hinder your escape from the aircraft.
The last is pertinent: after the M1 Kegworth crash of 1989 (when 79 of the 126 people on board survived), many victims and survivors were found to have legs broken below the knee, the result of their legs flying into, or being forced against the seat structure in front of them.
Therefore hold your legs and/or place feet flat on the floor, preferably farther back than your knees, and place hand luggage under the seat in front of you to act as a cushion or check.
If you can, add additional protection for your head – a pillow, say. Be sure that you have removed any dentures, pencils or other sharp objects from around your person. Also be sure to hold the brace position until the plane has come to a standstill – often there will be additional impacts after the initial one.
One of the strangest findings of research into crashes and passenger behaviour is that over and over again people struggled with what you'd imagine would be the easiest of tasks – undoing their seat belts. The reason is that in times of stress people revert to learned, normal behaviour and when it comes to seat belts normal and instinctive means a car seat belt. Following a crash, investigators found that many people scrabbled around to find the push-button release on their belts, as this is the release with which they were most familiar. Aircraft seat belts unbuckle.
As for the belt itself, pull it as tight as possible. For every inch of slack you are increasing the potential g-forces to which you'll be subjected.
After a crash, speed is of the essence, as is calm. But a frequent stress reaction is what is known as "negative panic", whereby people remain seated and immobile, as if in a trance, stunned by events. The same can apply to aircraft crew, who, despite their rigorous training, may also be stunned and fail to react.
One of the keys to survival can be to listen to, and follow crews' instructions, but if they or your immediate neighbours appear to be in a trance, then you have to make your own moves and decisions. In a similar vein, stunned passengers were often found to have remained seated waiting for instructions that, for whatever reason, didn't come. Move.
Fire is a main cause of death in most survivable crashes, but smoke is worse. Even a few breaths that draw in smoke can result in loss of consciousness. If possible wet a handkerchief, or other piece of material – the seat back headrest, for example – to cover your nose and mouth. If no water is available, use urine. This is a matter of life and death – it's no time to be fastidious.
Low to the ground?
In a smoke-filled plane, some sources suggest you keep low to the floor as there's likely to be less smoke at floor level. Wrong. The chances are you'll simply be trampled, crushed or suffocated under luggage, falling bodies and the rush of other passengers. Keep your head down, mouth and nose covered but stay on two feet. Climb over seat backs if gangways are blocked.
People do the most remarkable things after crashes, one of the strangest of which is trying to retrieve some, or all of their possessions. For goodness' sake – leave them. You don't have time, the possessions will slow you (and others) down, and you will need both hands free, whether it's to remove obstacles, hold a pad over your nose and mouth or fight off the flailing fists of others.
This said, don't push (you won't get through any faster) or lash out yourself – you'll slow everything and everyone down and invite retaliation: and in a stressful fight-and-flight situation such as a crash, people find extraordinary strength – you could be knocked out or otherwise injured.
The "golden period" for escape lasts only up to about two minutes. Listen to flight attendants, get to an exit fast, check quickly that it is viable, inside and out, then get out and move as far from the plane as fast as possible. And whether you stop to help others? Well, that is up to you, and to the reserves of courage and fellow feeling you may or may not have. Who knows what we will do in extremis?