How to Survive a Plane Crash

By: Charles W. Bryant
Plane crash wreckage.
The reconstructed remains of Pan Am flight 103 lie in a warehouse on Jan. 15, 2008, in Farnborough, England.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

It's every air traveler's nightmare. Sudden turbulence throws you backward. The beverage cart flies by and crashes into the rear of the cabin. You're losing altitude quickly, and your seatbelt is jammed between the seats. Oxygen masks drop from above, but you didn't pay attention to preflight instructions. People scream, pray and clutch each other as the plane descends downward at an improbable angle. You think you're going to die.

The good news is that an airplane crash doesn't necessarily mean certain death. In fact, of the 568 U.S. plane crashes between 1980 and 2000, more than 90 percent of crash victims survived [source: BBC].


In the event of an air disaster, there are things you can do that can increase your odds of living. Keeping a calm, cool head amidst panic and disorder isn't easy, but key to your chances. So are the clothes you wear, the luggage you bring and where you stow it. Some research even indicates that the seat you choose might help.

­In this article, we'll fill you in on how you can best increase your odds of surviving a plane crash. We'll also learn a few common myths about crashes and reveal some harrowing true stories of survival.


Survival Tips and Crash Myths

Plane crash wreckage
View of the wreckage of the AtlasJet Airline MD-83 plane that crashed on the hills near the village of Cukuroren in the southwestern province of Isparta, Turkey.
AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

The most common question asked of crash experts is "Is there a safest seat?" Official sources say that it makes no difference because no two plane crashes are alike. Popular Mechanics magazine did some exhaustive research that seems to point to the rear of the plane as the safest spot. They studied data of every U.S. commercial jet crash in the last 36 years and found that passengers in the rear of the plane are 40 percent more likely to survive than those in the first few rows [source: Popular Mechanics]. The Federal Aviation Administration's position is that there is no safest seat. The FAA also concluded in a 2005 report that there's no evidence that any one carrier is any safer than the next [source: FAA].

In the event of a crash, there are things you can do to give you a better shot at making it out alive. Following are five tips that everyone should know before they get on their next flight:


  • After you board, find the two closest exits and count the rows between them and your seat. In the event of darkness or smoke, feel the seats and count until you reach the exit row.
  • Ready for the impact. The official FAA crash position is to extend your arms, cross your hands and place them on the seat in front of you, and then place your head against the back of your hands. Tuck your feet under your seat as far as you can. If you have no seat in front of you, bend your upper body over with your head down and wrap your arms behind your knees. Always stow your carry-on bag under the seat in front of you to block the area.
  • Wear long pants, sleeves and closed-toed shoes. This will help protect you from glass, metal and the elements.
  • If you're with your family, talk to your children about what to do in the event of an emergency. Divide the responsibility of helping your children between you and your spouse. It's easier for one parent to help a single child than for both to try to keep everyone together.
  • Pay atte­ntion to the preflight instructions, as all planes are different. When the oxygen mask drops, put it on yourself first before attempting to help someone else. If you fall unconscious, you have no chance of helping your travel mate.­­­

In the next section, we'll look at some more tips as well as some common mistakes passengers make.


Mistakes and More Tips

Many people who perish in plane crashes could have avoided it if they had not made some fatal errors. The biggest enemy in a crash scenario is panic. Keeping your wits and maintaining focus will do more to save you than anything else. Panic is the reason that many passengers find themselves unable to do something as simple as releasing their seatbelt. The most frequent use of a safety belt is in your car, with a push-button release. In the heat if the moment, remembering that the plane's belt has a pull-release isn't second nature. For this reason, many crash victims are found still strapped into their seats.

­Here are a few more tips you should remember if your plane is going down:­


  • ­In the event of fire, stay as low as you can and get out as quickly as possible. The smoke and fumes from a burning plane are highly toxic and more likely to kill you than the flames.
  • The airline industry refers to the first 90 seconds of a plane crash as "golden time." If you're able to stay calm and move fast within this time frame, you have a good chance at getting out of the plane.
  • If you make it out of the plane in one piece, get as far away as possible as quickly as you can and tuck behind something large in case of an explosion.
  • Think before you drink. Consuming alcohol will slow your response time and cloud your decision-making.
  • No matter what you believe can't be replaced, never attempt to take your carry-on luggage with you during an emergency exit.
  • Don't inflate your life vest until you're outside the cabin. It will restrict your movement.­

­If you'd like to read more about surviving dire circumstances, please look into the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Charles W. Bryant
Charles W. Bryant, Staff Writer
hsw 2009

Author's Note: How to Survive a Plane Crash

I have a lot of issues with air travel, but none of them involve dying in a plane crash. I'm one of the people who takes solace in the fact that you're much more likely to die in a car than in a passenger jet. But there are other people who have a very real, sometimes debilitating, fear of flying. When writing this article, I had those people in mind. Maybe learning some facts about plane crashes and how you could increase your chances of survival could help ease a few fears. For instance, while officials won't go on record for saying one seat is any safer than the next, research shows that sitting in the rear of the plane gives you a 40 percent higher chance of surviving a plane crash than sitting with those lucky folks in first class. Remember that next time you're stuck beside the rear lavatory.

Plane Crash Survival: Cheat Sheet

  • Once on board, note the two closest exits and count the rows from your seat. In the smoky darkness you can feel the seats and count until you reach the exit row.
  • You may want to wear your PJs and slippers, but if you were smart you'd wear long pants, sleeves and close-toed shoes. Also, wear cotton. In the event of a crash, you'll be well protected and your clothes won't melt.
  • It's hard to believe, but roughly 90 percent of passengers in plane crashes between 1980 and 2000 lived to tell about it.

  • "Mercedes Johnson -- A Survivor's Story." BBC. 2008. survivorsguide/survivor_story/
  • "Safest Seat on a Plane: PM Investigates How to Survive a Crash." Popular Mechanics. July 18, 2007. http://www.popula
  • "Safety Record of Airlines/Aircraft." Federal Aviation Administration. 2005.
  • Colin, Chris. "Crash Therapy." 1999.
  • Daley, Jason. "I Will Survive." Outside Online. September 2004. top_survival_stories_4.html
  • Harrison, Milla. "How to Survive a Plane Crash." BBC Horizon. Oct. 3, 2006.
  • Hitti, Miranda. "How to Survive a Plane Crash." 2008.
  • Muir, David. "How to Survive a Plane Crash." ABC News. Aug. 3, 2005.
  • The Andes Accident. 2008.