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

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 30, 2013 · 78 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

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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 malfunction notwithstanding). (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

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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.

Overcome the Normalcy Bias With an Action Plan

As we discussed in detail in our post on why we’re hardwired for sheepdom, we’re all naturally affected by the Normalcy Bias. The Normalcy Bias causes our brains to assume that things will be predictable and normal all the time. When things aren’t normal, it takes our brain a long time to process this. Instead of springing to action when something unexpected happens, our brain kind of shrugs and figures that what is going on can’t be so bad, because truly bad events are so out of the ordinary.

Investigators have discovered that normalcy bias has caused many unnecessary deaths in plane crashes. Instead of taking immediate action after a crash, people sort of mill around. Many will even start looking for their carry-on luggage before getting to the exit.

Normalcy bias manifested itself in dramatic fashion during a plane collision in 1977 that killed 583 people — the worst aircraft disaster in history. Two 747 jumbo jets collided with each other just above the runway on the small island of Tenerife (part of the Canary Islands off of Morocco). After the collision, one jet tumbled to the ground and exploded, killing all 248 passengers on board.

The other jet crash-landed, but didn’t explode. The collision sheared away the top of the jet and flames began to take over the aircraft. Passengers who survived the initial collision could have escaped unharmed, but they had to act fast. Paul Heck, a passenger on the burning plane (who was 65, by the way), sprung to action. He unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbed his wife’s hand, and hightailed it to the nearest exit. They, along with 68 other passengers, survived, while 328 died.

In an interview after the disaster, Mr. Heck noted how most people just sat in their seats acting like everything was fine even after colliding with another plane and seeing the cabin fill with smoke. Researchers believe that passengers had a little over a minute to escape before being consumed by the flames, and are convinced that if more people had taken immediate action instead of remaining in their seats pretending like things were okay, the survival rate would have been much, much higher.

To overcome the normalcy bias, you need to have an action plan on what you’re going to do in the event of an accident every single time you get on the plane. Know where the exits are. When you’ve spotted the nearest exit, count the number of rows between yourself and that row. Should it be nighttime, or the interior lights fail, you won’t have to succumb to confusion because you’ll know right where to go. Size up the passengers around you to see who could be potential roadblocks to your exit. If you’re traveling with kids, talk to your wife about who will be responsible for which kid in the event of an accident. Mentally rehearse quickly springing to action as soon as the plane comes to a stop.

Another reason it’s important to have an action plan is that there’s a good chance you won’t have too much assistance from the flight crew. One study found that 45 percent of the flight attendants in survivable crashes are incapacitated in some way. You need to be ready to take action without direction from anyone.

Read the Safety Card and Listen to the Flight Attendants

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Another thing you can do to overcome the Normalcy Bias is to read through the safety card as well as listen to the flight attendants when they give their pre-flight safety spiel. Just because you’ve amassed enough frequent flier miles to circumnavigate the globe 1,000 times, you’re definitely not off the hook. You may think you’re justifiably confident, but you’re probably complacent; in a report published a few years ago, the FAA found that frequent fliers were the least informed on what to do and most susceptible to the normalcy bias in the event of a plane crash.

Re-reading the safety card will remind you where the nearest exits are and what to do during a crash landing. As you read through the safety guidelines, formulate your action plan.

Remember the Plus 3/Minus 8 Rule

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In the aviation world, Plus 3/Minus 8 refers to the first three minutes after takeoff and the last eight minutes before landing. According to flight crash investigators, close to 80% of all plane crashes occur during this timeframe (the events leading up to the recent Asiana plane crash happened during the last 8 minutes of descent). In between those times, the chances of a plane crash occurring drop dramatically. Thus, if you want to up your chances of survival, you need to be extra vigilant and ready to take action during the first 3 minutes after takeoff and the last 8 minutes before landing. Here are some suggestions from The Survivor’s Club on what to do and not do during Plus 3/Minus 8:

  • Don’t sleep.
  • Make sure your shoes are on and secured. If you’re traveling with your wife or girlfriend, make sure she’s wearing flats and not high heels. It’s hard to run in stilettos.
  • Don’t drink before getting on a plane. You want to be fully present in the event of a crash.
  • Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened — low and tight.
  • Go over your action plan.

You don’t need to be paranoid during this time, just vigilantly relaxed.

Put on Your Oxygen Mask as Soon as It Drops

Airplane cabins are pressurized so you can breathe normally at 30,000 feet. When a cabin loses pressure, there’s so little air at high altitudes that getting oxygen to your bloodstream is next to impossible. That’s where oxygen masks come in. They pump pure oxygen into your nose and mouth so that you can get the air you need.

In an event where the mask drops from above, put it on as soon as it drops. According to passenger studies, most folks think they can survive an hour without a mask after a plane loses pressure. You actually just have a few seconds. Just a few seconds of oxygen deprivation can cause mental impairment. If you want get out of a crashed airplane alive, you’ll want all your mental faculties intact when it lands. Also, follow the safety guidelines of securing your mask first before helping others secure theirs. You’re pretty much useless to others if you’re not getting oxygen to your brain.

Assume Brace Position

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I always thought the brace positions were kind of silly. There’s no way that curling up in a ball would help you survive in a plane crash. But research has shown that brace positions do indeed up the chances of survival in an emergency crash landing. The positions help reduce the velocity of your head when it inevitably slams into the seat in front of you. Moreover, they help minimize limb flailing.

Also, make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened — low and tight — over your lap. Those bad boys are designed to withstand 3,000 pounds of force, which is about three times as much as your body could handle without passing out. You can trust ‘em.

Forget Your Carry On Luggage, Remember the Kids

Alright. The plane has crash landed and you’re still alive. Time to get to those exits as fast as you can. Remember, you only have 90 seconds.

Believe it or not, you need to be reminded to forget your carry-on luggage! It will slow you down and block others’ escape, and it may injure you or someone else if you try to get down the very steep inflatable slides with it. You can get another iPad when you return safely to your home.

In your rush to get out of the plane, don’t forget your kids. That actually happens. Your brain does stupid things in disasters. Keep reminding yourself, “I have kids. I have kids. I have kids.” Ideally, you should have a plan with your wife and kids on who goes with who in case of an emergency exit.

Have any of you been involved in a plane crash? Did you notice normalcy bias take hold of passengers? What do you think helped you escape alive? Share with us in the comments!


Source: The Survivor’s Club by Ben Sherwood (Highly recommend picking this up. Crammed with useful information for the sheepdog-in-training.)

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 78 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael July 30, 2013 at 11:20 pm

My dad was in a plane crash in Mexico in 1980 and I can say that a lot of these very things saved his life. He was sitting in an aisle seat close to the front of the aircraft. He left his briefcase and got to the front of the plane as quickly as possible. The flight attendant couldn’t get the main cabin door open, but he could since he was young and stronger. Then once on the ground he ran like hell! Just a few short yards away he heard a loud explosion. 80-some people died…many of whom never even got their seat belt off.

One thing to add to this list is to keep your wits about you. The back of the plane was already on fire when they hit the ground. And he said he could hear people screaming in the back as he made his escape. I can imagine that, beyond normalcy bias, people could easily become paralyzed with fear.

Thanks for writing this article. It’s good information that people do need to know.

2 Chris July 30, 2013 at 11:53 pm

If you’re going to crash, the oxygen masks are the least of your worries because the plane is already heading towards a lower altitude.

In most cases, the decrease in cabin pressure is the result of a minor problem. The masks only supply about ten minutes of oxygen, which gives the pilots plenty of time to drop the plane to a lower, safe altitude.

Just from the way you worded it it seems like that the masks dropping automatically means that the plane is going to crash, when in reality, it isn’t.

3 Colin J July 31, 2013 at 12:39 am

Sorry if this is mentioned, I’ll admit I skimmed this one, but I would throw in there to always wear proper shoes on a plane. If you survive a crash, your next job is to walk over hot metal, glass, and possibly burning fuel. You don’t want a flip flop in between you and that stuff.

4 Mike July 31, 2013 at 1:23 am

Another well-written, exceedingly useful article. Still my favorite website. Thanks.

5 Marko July 31, 2013 at 1:51 am

@Michael Are you reffering to Western Airlines Flight 2605 that crashed im Mexico City October 31 1979 leaving 72 dead? Asking since there were no crashes in Mexico in 1980.

6 Franck July 31, 2013 at 2:12 am

Very nive and informative article Brett & Kate, with some definitely useful tips (like the passengers blocking and the aisle seats).

Nevertheless, I respectfully disagree with the Popular Mechanics article, for a very simple reason. You can’t draw a general conclusion based on statistics with only 20 events, because the standard deviation might be too high.

7 Thijs July 31, 2013 at 3:46 am

That was a great artical.
Michael that sounds awful! Do you know what kind of flight that was? I would like to read some more info on it.

8 Mike Martel July 31, 2013 at 5:10 am

Great article.

Plane crashes and other emergencies illustrate the need to do the “what am I going to do if” thinking.I guess pre planning and being prepared for contingencies was burned into me in the military. We were trained to always think ahead and “what am I going to do it” something was to happen. For example, on an airplane I always look for the exits and plan out what how to get there if. You can and should do the same in a theater in case of a shooter and for a multitude of other situations.

9 Steve July 31, 2013 at 5:36 am

It’s interesting reading Mr Heck’s story about how after the crash many people just sat around in their seats.

To be honest, I can see how this could happen, even to myself. You revert back into a helpless, child-like state when flying. First there’s the strict discipline and submissiveness you need to observe at the airport, immigration and customs. Then you give complete control of your life over to an anonymous pilot and mothering cabin staff, waiting to be fed at set intervals. You don’t step out of line, don’t think for yourself, and only jump when you are told to. Only by being a good little boy will you arrive safe and sound…

Little wonder people sat in their seats, waiting for the stewardess to bring them peanuts, while the plane burnt down around them.

10 Marco July 31, 2013 at 6:11 am

A couple of things… I am fit, slender and male although not particularly ‘young’, at 52. My odds of survival are higher but I would most likely try to help poor ol’ fat “Aunt Myrtle” escape so maybe we would both perish! … Also, there might be little need to suggest we stay awake within the first three minutes of takeoff and the last eight of landing. Even the most seasoned of air travelers would be challenged to fall off during those intervals, what with all the noise, light and activity in the cabin.

11 amy July 31, 2013 at 7:01 am

Great article.

My dad researches plane crashes and the engineering mistakes/problems associated with them. He’s often given me a similar speech about flying whenever I’m about to travel. His take after reading so many books and reports is to keep your wits about you. That and to make sure your feet are unentangled by carry-on luggage you may be tempted to store beneath the seat in front of you. Try to fly light, or make sure to put that extra backpack in an overhead compartment.

12 Ted Vailas July 31, 2013 at 7:41 am

Lots of really good facts in this blog. When I was young they used to demonstrate the brace position on every flight, but I haven’t seen it at all in years. I wonder if airlines decided it’s not worth demonstrating. I think the best and most useful part of this was the higher chances of survival if you are FIT. Great article. Thanks!

13 Eric July 31, 2013 at 8:33 am

Sitting in an exit row would certainly allow you the quickest escape from a plane post crash. My question is does a man sitting in an exit row have any sense of moral responsibility to NOT exit the plane as soon as possible.

Is there any code of ethics that suggests that a man in an exit row should assist in popping the hatch, and then remain onboard to assist others in escaping the plane.

It reminds me of a captain going down with the ship. As men sitting in exit rows is our duty to assist others completed once we successfully open the exit door? Inquiring minds want to know.

14 STW July 31, 2013 at 9:08 am

I talked with a flight attendant who had survived a crash. In her case some of those that died neglected to look outside the plane before exiting. The wing on the right side was burning. Those that went left lived. Those that went right died. You need to be flexible and able to change your plan when necessary.

15 Alan Andrews July 31, 2013 at 9:17 am

Interesting article. i didn’t know a lot of these stats, although they make sense, and I’m always just naturally uptight during takeoff and approach/landing.

The alarmist part of me looked at the “95.7%” survival rate and thought, “if that many people survive, and all we usually hear about are the high death-toll crashes, that means that THERE ARE A LOT MORE CRASHES THAN I THOUGHT.
Something else to look forward to next month when I put my 14 year old daughter on a plane to visit my folks in Texas.

16 Heil Patrick Harris July 31, 2013 at 9:53 am

Doesn’t apply for passengers and just military aviators, but I don’t feel comfortable unless I have a Martin Baker MK16 ejection seat handle in my seat. We just had an ejection last week and both pilots survived what would have been a fatal accident.

17 Robert Steffens July 31, 2013 at 10:06 am

Great article! I’m new to Art of Manliness and learning with every post. Thanks so much.

18 Gary July 31, 2013 at 10:26 am

While I appreciate Brett’s intention to make us feel more safe in planes, comparing safety between cars and plans can be a bit misleading, depending on which metric you use. For example, here’s a bit from The Economist about how the comparisons change:

“Air travel is only the safest mode of transport when fatalities are calculated in terms of distance travelled. If deaths are counted per unit of time travelled, trains are every bit as safe as planes, and cars only four times more hazardous. Then, again, if fatalities are computed in terms of the number of journeys taken, cars and trains are respectively three times and six times safer than planes. (Difference Engine: Up, Up, and Away, Jan 7th 2013)”

That being said, the survival tips are very good, and I will be mindful of them on my next flight. Thanks for a great article.

19 Moeregaard July 31, 2013 at 10:27 am

Interesting and informative article. For many years, I worked for a guy who was one of the engineers on the Lockheed L-1011 airliner, and he mentioned that wearing shorts on commercial flights is a bad idea, because the emergency slides have an intentionally rough surface designed to slow people as they descend. He and his wife were volunteers during the L-1011′s evacuation certification tests, and he said that a lot of folks came away with some serious road rash.

For those flying in light aircraft, unlatching the doors prior to an off-field emergency landing will prevent people from being trapped due to jammed doors. I met a guy who survived an accident and he said that having that door unlatched made it that much easier to egress while gasoline was running into his lap. Private pilots are supposed to address emergency procedures with their passengers before flight, but it’s worth asking if he/she doesn’t mention this.

20 Bret Fredrickson July 31, 2013 at 10:52 am

The book you mentioned “The Survivor’s Club is a great read and talks about why so many people just stay in their seats and don’t try to escape. Apparently when your brain encounters a situation that it hasn’t dealt with before, you get that “deer in the headlights’” affect, which is a terrible response. I think talking about this kind of thing and knowing how to take the proper steps in the event of a crash will have people more alert and proactive.

21 Craig Roper July 31, 2013 at 10:59 am

Eric, about the code of ethics staying on longer if there is a crash to help others: in nursing school in one of our courses we were going over natural disasters. In bad disasters, there comes a point, when things get bad enough, that you say sorry to your patients and get out of there to save yourself and your family- you’re no help to your family or future patients if you’re dead. whether you’re in a crash or any other kind of disaster, you have to be able to make hard, very hard decisions if you want to make it out alive with your wife and kids. The only hero you need to be in that situation is to your wife and kids- no one else. The grim reality is, you have to be ready to make the hard decision of leaving passengers that can’t get their seat belts off or get stuck in order to save your family. You can either be everyone’s hero in vain that doesn’t make it out and dies with those in the plane, or you can be your family’s hero and make it alive, with your loves.

22 Haiz July 31, 2013 at 11:03 am

Thanks for this, as a petrified flyer and also flying out to Canada form the UK on Friday, I will take note of all of this. Urgh I really am not looking forward to this flight

23 Nick Myers July 31, 2013 at 11:29 am

Something not necessarily involved in the crash, but pertinent in regards to wearing a seatbelt during the en-route phase of flight. Clear air turbulence is a very significant hazard to passengers that don’t have their seat belts secured. Even if the seatbelt sign is off, there is always a possibility of CAT. Which could cause injuries by impacting the overhead bins or even the aircraft ceiling. There has been cases where peoples heads have dented overhead compartments. That would be one killer headache….

24 Charlie July 31, 2013 at 11:31 am

Wear real shoes and not flip flops. Yes, flip flops are easier to deal with for security, but you’ll want better foot protection in case of a crash. Fire, debris, liquids of various sources could wreck havoc on your feet and flip flops would offer no protection.

25 Daniel G. July 31, 2013 at 11:52 am

First of all, as a Southwest employee, I appreciate your business. And what better airline for The Art of Manliness to fly than one that was founded by Herb Kelleher (definitely a sheepdog).

I fly on a pretty regular basis and definitely have fallen complacent. As you pointed out with the frequent flyers, the temptation to succumb to the normalcy bias increases when you become more familiar with something. For me, the key is to be mindful of the fearful respect that is owed. Not afraid, but fearful respect.

This is not an exact parallel, but handling firearms comes to mind. I have grown up around guns and am very comfortable with them, but every time I touch one, I handle it with the upmost respect knowing what its potential is.

If other aspects of life are approached in the same manner, it is easy to stay alert and keep your mind in the present. This also makes planning second nature. If you already have in mind what the end result may be, you will naturally want to prepare for it.

One last tidbit. It is an FAA requirement that every plane be designed so that it can be evacuated within 90 seconds using only half of the available emergency exits.

Here are links to the Federal Aviation Regulations that spell out the testing parameters:

26 James Abel July 31, 2013 at 11:58 am

Craig, you addressed Eric’s question in the exact same way I would have. As a passenger, your main responsibility is to get out and be safe. If you were a member of the flight crew or emergency personnel, it would be considered part of your job up to a point. It would be tough to watch someone struggle with getting out of the plane and if you are single, make whatever decision you feel you can live with. As for me, my responsibility is to my wife and kids. That may sound harsh, but I consider myself responsible for my own rescue in such a situation and don’t expect anyone to endanger their life to help me.

Great post Brett and Kate!

27 Don July 31, 2013 at 12:26 pm

In the Southern Airways Flight 242 crash, there was a NASA engineer on the flight (also he’s a private pilot) who says what saved him is that when he knew the plane wasn’t going to make it, during it’s attempted engines out landing on a highway, he left his seat and ran to the rear of the aircraft. That’s his story anyway.

28 Richard Ryan July 31, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Great article. I am definitely going to get a copy of The Survivor’s Club.

Folks may also want to read a very interesting article entitled “A Survival Guide to Catastrophe” by Amanda Ripley. Like this article it addresses the “survival mentality” and the need to be prepared to ACT when you are involved in a disaster. I found a link to the article here:

I found the “normalcy bias” aspect fascinating. I have a friend of a friend who worked in the World Trade Center. She was there for the attack in 1993 and again in 2001. She was a very meek and mild type.

After the first attack, they followed the guidance of the authorities and stayed put. Consequently, they spent hours stuck in their office and for a while didn’t know what their fate was to be.

In the 9-11 attack, after the plane hit their tower, this quiet lady jumped up on her desk and shouted: “Everybody needs to get out of here RIGHT NOW!!”

The people she worked with were so shocked by her transformation that they stopped milling around and followed her down the stairs. They said she probably saved the lives of dozens of people.

29 Robert Hartman July 31, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Eric asked if a man in the exit row has a moral obligation not to exit–I presume in order to help others make their escape. I submit that he has a moral imperative to get out of the way of the others who are trying to exit. If the flight attendant is not barking orders at the top of her voice to get up and get out NOW, he can do so while he is opening the exit door. He can also stand just outside the door and help pull Aunt Myrtle through if she is blocking the door–as long as he is not in the way of the other people who need to get out fast.

30 Richard Ryan July 31, 2013 at 2:16 pm

IIRC, if you sit in an exit row, you are obliged to help get the door open.

Beyond that, I agree with Robert that, at that point, you primarily need to get out of the way.

Anything beyond that would be a matter for the dictates of your faith and what your conscience tells you to do.

Thanks again for the great article I already ordered ‘The Survivor’s Club’.

31 Josh July 31, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I would agree that the primary goal of those in the exit row is to check for fire, open the door quickly, and lead others out (which means you go). All while yelling at everyone to “get the #*$&! out and don’t touch those @&!?^% bags, just get out NOW!”

32 Michael July 31, 2013 at 3:29 pm

@Marko Turns out it was an Aeromexico flight in 1981 in Chuhuahua Mexico. And 30 people died. I had some of my numbers wrong.

33 Pita July 31, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I flew in the military and it was drilled into the aircrew to get out of the airplane as quickly as possible if you survived a crash. I travel very often now for my work and I will tell you that I always take an aisle seat and an exit row if I can get it. When I get on the plane I always scan the emergency card and then I count the rows to the two closest exits. I also know that the most critical times of flight are on the departure and the approach so I always have my shoes on and my lap belt tight during those phases of flight. Finally, although I believe I am a gentleman, in the event of a plane crash I will have no qualms about ensuring I get out of the airplane alive. If Aunt Myrtle has a problem getting out of her seat I will not wait for her. I owe it to my children to be alive for them so my priority is to get out of the plane as quickly as possible. I’ll deal with the shame of not being polite and waiting my turn in the years later, but at least I will be alive in those years to contemplate my actions.

34 Mike July 31, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Some really good tips. If you’re picking seats, try not to pick one in line with the engine’s front or rear sections. Although rare they could have an uncontained turbine failure, spitting blades outwardly from their rotation.

Remember that pounds is actually a measure of force. The seats IIRC are rated for a male mesomorph at 170lbs and 9Gs horizontally. If you’re larger than that you may actually break the seat free and crash into the one in front of yours. Hopefully most of the force is in the horizontal direction as the human body can stand more force chest to spine.

That 90 seconds to get out can be affected by many things so don’t think you have at least 90 seconds. In some cases you have less. Remember to get under the smoke to avoid becoming hypoxic.

Along with becoming complacent remember that some may become hsyterical or completely shutdown. If it’s your wife or child don’t be afraid to smack some sense back into them if need be. A son saved his mom that way in one aircraft accident (sorry, don’t have the reference on that one).

Like the article mentioned sitting in the back is usually best, but not all the way in the back. Breaks typically happen where the tail and the body connect and where the cockpit and first class connect.

SW has had accidents and serious injuries, but as far as I can remember they haven’t had any fatalities on any of their flights. Many injuries occur when exiting the aircraft as other people have mentioned. Usually by jumping, going through fire, or coming down to fast on the slide. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, but having too steep of a slide angle is usually what causes fast slide speeds.

You should always go to the nearest exit, but you should know where all the exits are located. If you can’t get a door open don’t be afraid to go to another and please don’t trample the flight attendants. They can’t get the door open if everyone is pressing their body weight against them.

I would add don’t bark out orders unless the flight attendants are unable and you are sure you’re absolutely correct. They are trained for this thing and most likely you are not.

Someone said something about being awake during take off is kind of a given. I would say no as I have definitely found myself asleep and waking up around the time the beverage cart is making its way down the aisle.

After exiting the aircraft be careful not to get in the way of the emergency workers. It’s a natural inclination to run away from the accident and straight to them, but if they don’t see you they may run you over.

If the oxygen mask drops, put it on, unless its because of the crash. Better be safe than sorry and always put yours own on first.

35 Tina July 31, 2013 at 4:58 pm

The book “The Unthinkable” by Amanda Ripley is a great read for that phenomenon you call “normalcy bias.” She calls it something different, but the concept of people freezing or not doing anything in an emergency is MUCH more likely than the panic we think would happen (thank you, Hollywood)

36 Misha Parker July 31, 2013 at 5:33 pm

My husband is a fan of your site. Since I’m not a man, I’ve never commented before, but this post intrigued me. I was a passenger on AA flight 1420 that crash landed in Little Rock on June 1, 1999. Ten passengers and the pilot were killed (out of 145 people on board). The facts presented in this article ring true in terms of my own experience. I was seated in the left wing exit row, though the wing had been sheared off during the crash so my seatmate and I jumped out instead of sliding. There was definitely a collective sense of belief during the moments right after the crash, like we were suspended in time. I have always believed that so many lives were saved because strong leaders took charge (at least in my section of the plane) and manned the exits. Many folks were sluggish and disoriented because the flight had been delayed multiple times due to the weather. It was nearly midnight by the time we crashed, and many folks had actually managed to sleep through the rough descent. I would also recommend closed-toe shoes, not flip flops, and no clothing that will melt when exposed to intense heat. You can’t be sure where you will be escaping to–in our case, the Arkansas River flood plain. Since the crash, I have always taken care to count the rows between me and the exit and take stock of my neighbors. I count the doors between my room and the stairwell at hotels, too. I had really never paid any attention to those things before.

I appreciate you posting this article and inspiring my husband in so many ways over the years. Thank you!

37 Greg July 31, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I was glad to see that there’s a 95% survival rate in plane crashes. I was in a plane that had a serious scare, and I haven’t felt as good about flying since then. There’s something disconcerting about hearing the flight attendant saying “W-w-we’re g-going t-to try to m-make it S-salt Lake City” through tears on the intercom. They had us brace for a crash and everything. But it all turned out okay.

38 Mike July 31, 2013 at 5:51 pm

Misha makes a great point that I forgot. Count the seats so you can find them in the dark/smoke.

Misha, I remember reading about that flight in one of my classes.

39 Maarten July 31, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Eric, the person in the exit row’s role is to get the door open. If you try and stand there and help people get out you’re more than likely going to get in the way. You’d be better off helping people clear the area at the bottom of the slide.

40 Castle August 1, 2013 at 12:02 am

Id have to say the most deadly plane crash I’m aware of happened 11th Sept 2001. Otherwise good stuff.

41 Kevin August 1, 2013 at 12:25 am

Here’s another excellent way to emphasize the factors that may be present. National Geographic Channel has an extremely good series that is shown from time to time. In the US it’s called ‘Air Emergency’, ‘Mayday’ in Canada, and ‘Air Crash Investigation’ in the UK. With some looking, it can be found on YouTube. The episodes will follow the events of an aviation incident and then chronicle the investigation. When relevant, the things a passenger can do are pointed out. The show is interesting and the information given out is right in line with this article.

42 Max August 1, 2013 at 2:33 am

That figure of 1 chance on 11m for the average American, does it include non-flyers?

I’d really like to see a figure that only refers to frequent flyers. It would probably be still low, but I bet it’s not *that* low.

43 paul D. August 1, 2013 at 2:54 am

I small aircraft like a Cessna wear a helmet. Alaska Air National rescue folks I know have said they have gone out on small aircraft rescues and found that traumatic head injuries were the primary cause for the deaths and the other injuries the victims sustained in the crash were survivable.

44 icba August 1, 2013 at 6:15 am

This is the first time I have ever been on this website, but I will definitely be reading regularly from now on. This was a very interesting read – thanks. Unfortunately having a family member with a disability would mean that my main aim would be to save her at any cost, even if it meant that I perished with her. I know for sure I would give it my best though, and thanks to this article my chances would be increased.

45 Doug M August 1, 2013 at 10:03 am

When I was in Air Force SERE training one of the instructors had the following advice for traveling commercial air: Bring a thick clear plastic bag, like a turkey bag. In the event of smoke (smoke will incapacitate you in that 90 seconds before the fire kills you), put the bag over your head, and the oxygen mask on your face under it. Your expiration and excess oxygen will exit the bottom and help keep the smoke out. The oxygen mask alone will not protect you very well from inhaling smoke. I took this advice and bought smoke evacuation hoods which are mylar plastic bags with smoke filters built in (available from pilot vendor sites like Sporty’s) and travelled with them for awhile. They also allow protected egress (once you get out of your seat, you leave the oxygen mask behind). Problem was, they were packaged in a green plastic container with a red screw on top about the size of a beer can. I guess they looked like some kind of incendiary device so the TSA myrmidons would always pull me aside, question me, call a supervisor, etc. I got tired of it, normalcy bias took over, and I stopped carrying them. Thanks to this article, I think I’ll start carrying them again. I’ll just put them in a flat container.

46 Fred August 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm

In Tenerife, during heavy fog, a Pan Am 747 was taxiing down the runway when the KLM 747 began its takeoff without permission from the tower. The Pan Am pilot saw the KLM taking off (landing lights vibrating) and tried to get off the runway. KLM only got 30-40 feet off the ground in trying to go over the Pan Am and broadsided him.

47 Petie August 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Better yet, get your private pilot’s license and buy yourself a small airplane. You can do the whole shebang for less than the cost of a luxury car.

48 Jaymoon August 1, 2013 at 5:28 pm

Funny how this was posted one day after I flew for the very first time (I’m 28).

Great info, and as always, great read!

49 Jo L. Will August 1, 2013 at 7:55 pm

A correction to your “landing gear malfunction” on the recent Southwest accident in New York (LGA). It came to light very soon that the the landing gear was just fine, It just can’t handle the weight/force of it being touched down on first. Yes, they slammed into the runway on the nosegear, rather than the mains. A quite common mistake- among student pilots in trainers. (Yes, I am a pilot with another carrier)

50 André lopes August 1, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Very good article, this is great stuff! Nevertheless, I have something that makes me some confusion. The seatbelts can protect you from the force of the collision, that’s for sure; but what if they jam? You will be stuck and won’t be able to get out of the airplane (unless you cut it, but you can’t bring cutting tools in the airplane). I also thought about this problem for car accidents. What are the odds of a setbelt jamming?

Keep up the good work!

51 Mike August 1, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Castle: 9/11 isn’t considered an accident since the acts were committed on purpose. So Tenerife is the deadliest aircraft accident.

If you can flail into it then it’ll certainly knock out out or make you very loopy. You can involuntarily flail out an an additional 15% due to force of the crash. A pilot took a passenger up and subsequently crashed. He knocked himself out (seat was modified and failed) and the passenger was so hysterical he was unable to remove the pilot. Things to watch out for in any vehicle, not just a plane.

Bird’s impacting the canopy can punch through if they’re big enough causing impacts with the pilots head or squirting blood in the eyes so having a helmet and eye protection isn’t too unreasonable.

52 Tim August 2, 2013 at 12:12 am

Intresting article. I just finished up my first stage of flight school where we practiced a mininum of four emergency procedures every day.

53 Karl August 2, 2013 at 3:47 am

I was on a flight once with Thomas Cook to Morocco and the seat rows were so close together it was impossible to get into the brace position if it was necessary. Why are carriers like this allowed to operate?

54 Jim August 2, 2013 at 4:28 am

Great article although it missed out a very useful bit of info I read in a similar article about the flight safety procedure:

When in the brace position you should put your weaker hand (usually the left) over your strong hand. The reason being that if anything drops onto your weak hand and breaks it, it’s not as big an issue if your strong hand was broken or injured.

55 Brian August 2, 2013 at 10:46 am

Good article. To ceritfy a passenger aircraft the manufacturer must demonstrate that all the occupants can exit in 90 seconds with a percentage of the exits blocked. I always read the safety card as soon as I reach my seat and determine the rows to the nearest exit and review the 2-3 different door opening procedures. I’m usually the only one on the plane that even looks at the card.

56 Scott Kirwin August 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Tina, Thanks for the book recommendation. I knew Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley was going to be good because it discusses risk and disaster, two of my favorite topics. But the book became great when she interviewed my favorite scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and even my favorite shooting instructor Massad Ayoob. I recently played good Samaritan to someone who survived something he shouldn’t have, and have struggled to understand my reactions to the complete and utter disappearance of “normality.” This book explains what happens when it evaporates and how best to cope, and does so with wit and finesse. Thanks again for the recommendation.

57 Randy August 2, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Someone mentioned that you can’t bring cutting instruments on a plane, which isn’t true. You are allowed to bring scissors as long as they aren’t pointy and the blade is less than 4 inches long…and yes I do bring scissors with me, you never know.
Also, it’s safer to wear natural materials in the event of fires/explosions/hot metal, you run the risk of polyester melting onto your skin. I usually wear jeans, leather shoes, cotton or wool shirt and bring a leather jacket if it’s during cold weather.
I’m gonna have to look into that turkey bag oxygen mask setup, I’ve always wondered about smoke inhalation…

58 Fred August 2, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Two critical things not mentioned:

1) Wear shoes which don’t come off easily (sneakers or loafers not good at all, they come off surprisingly easily [check the photos of nightclub fires after the fact, note the massive piles of shoes], I wear hiking boots)
2) Carry a for real smoke/fire escape hood in a fanny pack! A quality smoke/fire escape hood will provide plenty of clean air for an extended period AND protect your head from heat (I carry a Drager Parat C, it’s extremely well made & passes the checkpoint inspection very easily)

59 john August 2, 2013 at 8:31 pm

tip #11….DON’T FLY.

60 Abbass (Steve) August 2, 2013 at 9:35 pm


Maybe for the first 90 seconds if I happend to be early out mate. ;)

Good article. I’ve never been in any sort of air accident; however a few incidents, but I fly quite often. Usually international and into some Middle Eastern and South Asian countries subject to a broad range of possible scenarios in which all this would be relevant. Life has long since beaten any sense of normalcy out of this old baby boomer and I’m grimly satisfied only to see I was already doing as much as I could to survive and keep my loved ones safe too in what was never a ‘normal’ situation for a bipedal mammal in my books anyway.

Cheers and Allah Hafiz.

61 oldBrewy August 3, 2013 at 11:13 am

Dying isn’t the worst – therefore no worries there.

62 DK August 3, 2013 at 11:30 am

I am an engineer for a major aerospace company, and I am a part of the certification process for our planes. While these machines are incredibly complex (millions of parts each), they are also held to insanely high design, build, and certification standards – after all, these planes are basically run 24/7 (minus inspection periods) for their entire 30 year life!

Not long ago, I was talking to an experienced pilot who said on average, it takes 14 minutes from the start of a fire to catastrophic failure. That sure doesn’t leave much time to land the plane and evacuate…

That said, having seen (from the inside) everything that goes into the design, analysis, build, and testing of these planes, I am still 100% comfortable flying. You better believe safety is the manufacturer’s #1 priority, because that is the absolute truth.

63 Kjetil Kjernsmo August 4, 2013 at 7:28 am

Interesting read!
I fly about 10-15 times a year, and I recently started to pay attention to the FA drill again. There were two factors: One was an article I read in the Scientific American magazine about how the amygdala in the brain plays a very significant part in emergencies, but it is also the most primitive part of the brain that cannot easily be taught. The other was the fact that only 10% of the people who landed on Hudson river managed to get their life wests. So, in one of the very few cases where they are actually needed, people forget.

I also follow the 3/8 min rule, and I’m vigilant for a possible crash. It doesn’t cause me the slightest problem. It is not that I’m nervous or anything, just vigilant.

I’ve also watched most of the Mayday episodes. One thing that struck me was that in the case of BA flight 38, which was a 777 that crashed suddenly on approach to London Heathrow, the FA asked people to sit down until the captain ordered an evacuation. Any idea how long one should wait for an order before just getting out? There are some cases where the cabin crew have waited in vain for a signal from the flight deck, such as Atlantic Airways Flight 670. In the latter case, the FA who finally had to commence evacuation was only 19 years old, but she performed excellently under very difficult conditions.

64 Nick August 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

British Airways (and presumably other airlines) offer courses where you can practice evacuation from a smoke-filled aircraft, including using the emergency exits and slides:

I’ve not been on it myself but was inspired to look it up by the sheep/sheepdog series and will hopefully give it a go soon.

65 Frequent Flyer August 5, 2013 at 4:48 pm

You’ve forgotten something very important here. Fume events! There is no safety measure on board on any commercial aircraft. Always have some masks with you in your carry on baggage.

Check it out here. Not many people know about that!

66 Eric August 6, 2013 at 7:45 am

Craig et al:
Thanks for your responses. Having thought it through and receiving your feedback I must say I agree. Sitting in an exit row and wanting to stay onboard to assist you are much more at risk of getting in the way.

Craig I as well am a nurse, and I do agree, if you get injured how can you be expected to help anyone. Medical personnel might be much better suited exiting early and then working to set up an area to see to injured people who have exited the plane and moved some safe distance away.

Thanks for all your feedback gents, and for helping me think through this situation. The boy scout motto rings true: “Be Prepared”.

67 Dawn Wride August 8, 2013 at 11:31 am

Excellent and useful information. Maybe some of this should be printed and placed in every seat pocket on airplanes for the passengers to read.

68 carl peterson August 11, 2013 at 8:42 am

Can’t recommend The Survivor’s Club enough – read it a few years ago; completely fascinating. A couple of salient points I got from the book were 1) to be in a constant state of “situational awareness” in which you are scanning people and places for changes or anomalies (nothing new to anyone in the military); and 2) yeah, Aunt Mabel is definitely going to be a problem. Most survivors acknowledge they made it through because they did not stop to consider the other passengers AT ALL. Not for a second, screaming children and all. The book discusses the 10-80-10 formula whereby 10% will act immediately in a calculated fashion to ensure their personal survival – 80% are the sheep who will stand about waiting to be told what to do – and 10% will actively make real problems for everyone via hysteria, clogging exits, frantically looking for luggage, etc. Fat, female and forty (sorry) have a much lesser survival rate because they are not accustomed to making fast intelligent decisions on their own behalf but generally wait for someone else to tell them what’s what. Seriously, buy and read the book: lots of conversations with survivors about what worked and what didn’t.

69 matt August 21, 2013 at 7:46 pm

When I was in a plane crash I just ran for my live because aint nobody ghot time for that those instructional people havent been in crashes before

70 Gareth August 21, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for another fascinating and informative article, Brett and Kate.

71 B. September 24, 2013 at 11:11 am

Never wear stockings when you fly. If you are lucky enough to use the emergency exit and ride the emergency slide which is made of rubber, you can rest assured that you will get some severe and totally unnecessary burn injuries on your legs caused by the friction between the rubber and the nylon/polyester in your stockings/tights/leggings. IT MEANS THAT YOUR STOCKINGS/TIGHTS/LEGGINGS WILL LITERALLY MELT INTO YOUR LEGS. To be safe try to travel in jeans since they dont burn so easily. I have been working as cabin crew for many years

72 Sam September 25, 2013 at 11:32 am

Eric, a great code or ethic or moral comes from the Bible (full of them, BTW). 1 Timothy 5:8 : “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”
I am a 2nd Generation former Infantryman/veteran. I keep a clear head in danger and I have a tendency to run towards the emergency in order to help people. But I have to remember that my first obligation, despite my willingness to sacrifice to help others, is to my wife and 2 little girls first. They need a Daddy growing up and my wife needs a husband and provider.

73 trev October 7, 2013 at 11:47 pm

The 95 % survival rate comes from the fact that plane ‘crashes’ is a very broad term. The ntsb considers anything from a plane clipping another planes wing on a runway to a fiery plane crash from 30000 feet an accident.

74 Christopher Young October 14, 2013 at 8:28 pm

To Eric (who asked about a man’s moral obligation to stay and assist if seated in an exit row):

The rule for emergency first responders is to not become another casualty. One should not put oneself in a position where another first responder must risk themselves to save you.

That said, I think if one is going to be at risk helping, it is better to be at the bottom of the escape slide, making sure people make it off the plane safely and evacuate in a direction that does not send them into something dangerous, like burning debris or spilled fuel obscured by smoke. Exit rows, while slightly wider than regular rows, are still very narrow and the maddening crowd could turn you into an obstacle that bottlenecks the door as they try to squeeze past you to get out.

Best to be out of the way and be healthy enough to assist on the ground in my opinion.

75 Victor October 21, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I used to work in the airline industry and have had crash survival training. Two things the airlines tell their employees but not passengers are simple and lifesaving. Don’t know why they don’t share them:

1) During take off tighten your seat belt as the plane accelerates and pushes you into the seat. Then sit on your hands. Sit on your hands during bumpy air and landing also. This is to keep your hands coming up and hitting you in the face and knocking you out or busting your nose.

2) The proper way to open the emergency exit door hatch is to remember to wipe your nose. While in your seat reach across your body with your arm furthest from the hatch and grasp the top handle of the door. This is like wiping your nose. With your arm that is closest to the hatch you grab the bottom handle. As you release the hatch the door will try to fall back on you, remember they weight about 45 pounds, rotate the door and throw it out of the aircraft. This technique will keep the door from falling back onto you and prevent the exit from being blocked. If your hands are backwards then the door tends to fall back into the aircraft.

Lastly watch the cabin crew, pilots sitting in the cabin and an other airline employee around you. If they looked scared then there is probably reason to be. See you soon, rather than have a good flight. Good flight is bad luck.


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77 Lisa January 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm

For water crash landings: do not inflate your life vest before exiting the plane. If the plane is sinking, you’ll float to the top and could be trapped.

78 James March 13, 2014 at 2:43 am

Water crash landings as you need oxygen and an opening so you can actually leave the plane.

1). Make sure you are wearing your life vest but don’t inflate.

2). Try to grab anything that contains any extra oxygen like a bottle and get ready to put it in your mouth. Before the plane hits the water, have the bottle in your mouth tight.

3). Once the plane hits the water, hope that it breaks apart or the doors are open.

4). If an opening is available, run towards it. Once away from the plane, then inflate your life vest.

5). Once at the top, move away from the wreckage.

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