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How to Survive a Plane Crash

Plane crashes show up on the evening news at least a couple of times a week. They usually grab headlines because, let's face it, a plane crash is a terrifying thing. When we think of a plane crash, we often think of a plane falling from great heights with no chance for survival. We have Hollywood movies and a rabid media to thank for that...

But according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the example above doesn't actually happen as often as we might think. The NTSB studied plane crash survival rates from 1983 to 2000 and found that the aviation accident survival rate was 95.7 percent, much higher than one might expect, given the chaos that we often see following a plane crash on the evening news. In the same study, the NTSB also found that even in crashes that resulted in a post-crash fire, or where significant damage occurred, the survival rate was still higher than you might expect at 76.6 percent.

Plane Crash Survival.jpgNow, this isn't to say that horrible plane crashes don't happen and that people don't die-catastrophic, fatal plane crashes do indeed happen, they are just far more rare than you might think. Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than you are in a plane crash.

One of the most interesting statistics from the plane crash survival study was this: 40 percent of plane crash fatalities happened in crashes that were considered survivable. Think about that for a second...nearly half of the fatalities in plane crashes could have been prevented if certain steps were taken.

Plane Crash Prevention

The best way to stay safe in the event of a plane crash is to be prepared. Many plane crashes that occur every year could have been avoided if careful attention was paid to pre-flight issues. Take icing, as an example. More than 710 people have died in plane crashes where ice has built up on the wings of aircraft since 1981, when the NTSB first recommended ways to solve in-flight icing problems.

In a 1997 crash, ice built up on the wings of a plane as it was approaching an airport to land. The plane ended up losing airspeed and crashed, killing all 29 onboard. This tragic crash could have been prevented.

Runway collisions have killed more than 112 people since 1990. There have been dozens of collisions and near collisions on the nation's runways and thousands more violations of runway safety. A glaring example of what can happen in runway accidents is the 2006 Comair plane crash. Pilots and air traffic controllers failed to notice before take off that the plane was lined up to depart from the wrong runway. The plane crashed because the runway was too short...it simply never got off the ground, and 49 people lost their lives. This crash also could have been prevented.

Sometimes a poor repair job can be costly. At least 160 accidents on passenger planes were at least in part caused by poor maintenance or repairs. These accidents have killed more than 756 and injured 805 people since 1973 (which is when the FAA started keeping records). Poor repair caused the 2005 crash of a Chalk's Ocean Airways flight. The right wing fell off the Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard plane shortly after take off and the aircraft plummeted into the ocean off the coast of Miami, killing 18 people. The probable cause of the aviation accident was attributed to a poor repair job on a crack in the right wing.

Finally, there are times when pilots or air traffic controllers simply shouldn't be flying or on-duty because they are too fatigued. More than 745 people have died while in the hands of tired pilots in at least 342 accidents since 1971, around the time the NTSB first named fatigue as a major issue and suggested solutions. While regulators have worked to reduce fatigue among both pilots and air traffic controllers, it still remains an issue. Many fatal plane crashes could have been prevented if the fatigued crash pilots simply didn't get in the cockpit.

In summation, plane crash survival starts with preventing plane crashes.

What You Can Do to Increase Your Chances of Walking Away From a Plane Crash

If the worst should happen, here are a couple of things that can increase your chances of survival...

  • You only have a brief window to evacuate, so move quickly. If you are lucky enough to survive the initial impact of a plane crash, it is likely you will be able to get out of the plane alive, as long as you understand this concept. Many deaths in plane crashes aren't from the crash landing, but from the fire that breaks out immediately after the crash. Most people think they have a good chunk of time to get out of the aircraft before it is engulfed in flames. Not so. On average, it takes about 90 seconds for fire to burn through the fuselage, so your survival hinges on moving quickly.
  • Be physically fit. Sounds obvious, right? But a recent FAA study found that young, slender men stand the best chance of surviving a plane crash. In a crashed plane, there are often blocked passageways caused by luggage and debris that can be difficult to maneuver around. If you happen to be out of shape, you will have a hard time getting out, and you may even hinder the chances of others behind you getting out as well. Again, your chances of survival increase if you are able to get out of the plane quickly.
  • Fly in bigger planes. If you have a choice between flying in a small puddle jumper plane or a bigger 737, go with the bigger option, as bigger planes have more energy absorption in crash landings. This means your body is less susceptible to deadly forces at impact.
  • Avoid regional carriers. They typically have worse safety records and higher accident rates than national airlines.
  • Stay within five rows of the emergency exits. It is impossible to know where a plane will impact first in the event of a crash. Conventional wisdom would have you believing that the front of the plane will impact first, which would make the back of the plane the safest. This isn't necessarily so, as evidenced by the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in San Francisco, on which the tail section impacted first. Aviation researcher Ed Galea's believes that those who survive a plane crash usually only have to move five rows or less, on average, to evacuate. So stay close to an emergency exit, if possible.
  • Pay attention to the flight attendants and read the safety card. So you're a frequent flier and think you've heard it all before? Don't mistake your confidence for complacence. An FAA report published a few years back found that frequent fliers were the least informed on what to do in the event of a crash.
  • Forget your luggage. Believe it or not, even in the most dire of circumstances, people automatically move to grab their luggage in the wake of an air disaster. It might sound ridiculous but in highly stressful situations, your brain may not be thinking clearly, so it is a good idea to remind yourself...leave the luggage and get off the plane as fast and safely as possible.
  • Have a plan. No one wants to think about plane crashes. But if you have an idea of what to do if you should find yourself in one, your chances of survival are much higher.

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