Survive an aircrash

Surviving a Plane Crash
by survival expert James Mandeville

Survival a plane crash rating = 4.5

If, like me, you fly frequently, it must cross your mind at some point that there is a chance one day you may be the victim of a plane crash. Some crashes cannot be survived, others, (in fact, the vast majority) can be survived. 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 90 per cent, survived. Even of the 26 crashes deemed the worst, the study found that more than half the passengers and crew survived. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be in a plane that crashes, there are things you can do to better your chances; assuming the crash is survivable.

The main killers are:
  1. Not bracing correctly for the crash.

  2. Panic – tonic immobility: Not putting on an oxygen mask – not being able to release the seat belt – not following evacuation instructions.

  3. Dealing with smoke – not being able to find an exit.

  4. Not getting out of the plane quickly enough and leaving the crash–zone fast enough.

1. Bracing for the crash:

brasing positions

The internationally accepted position for bracing
Currently, on the internet, there is a lot of chatter about whether or not the brace position is any protection against injury. Some suggest it could even be a fatal thing to do. What are the facts and what should one do?

The most incorrect thing to do is to ignore the brace position in the belief that you are going to die anyway, so why bother? The fact is, there is a good chance of survival for most in a survivable crash, but there is also a very real chance of serious injury if you do survive. Adopting the brace position will reduce the chance of serious injury (not eliminate the risk entirely). The main impact–injury risks are to the head, neck and legs. The brace position is designed to reduce injury to all three areas.

If there is insufficient room for you to brace correctly, 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 jack–knife 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. It is wise to place soft hand luggage under the seat in front of you, because on impact, the feet will fly forward and many have sustained broken shins and ankles when the legs hit the seat in front. Your soft hand luggage bag will protect your shins and ankles. Your feet should be firmly on the ground and placed back towards your bottom, further back than your knees, not straight or stretched out in front of you.

Injury to the head is caused by the head falling back and then smashing forward into the seat in front. Even in the brace position this will happen, but the force of the impact is cushioned a little by the seat in front of you. One thing to beware of: If the seat in front has a fold–back tray (most do), position yourself so you do not smash into the plastic catch that sticks out. You also risk head injury from flying objects, another reason to adopt the correct brace position and cover your head with your hands. If you can, add additional protection for your head — a pillow or coat, for example; this will also give you some protection if the person next to you smashes sideways into your head. 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.

Injury to the neck is whip–lash, as in a car crash. Adopting the brace position may reduce the effect of this. Everything depends on how the plane crashes and how much force is transmitted along the fuselage towards the passengers. You can only try to give yourself the best possible chance.

People who are too fat, or physically unable for any reason to bend forward to reach the seat in front must bend forward as far as possible and follow all the other rules for bracing.

2. Panic – tonic immobility:

It is well documented that after a plane crashes everyone is in a state of shock, passengers and crew alike. Some people freeze and sit there waiting to be told what to do; some do not react even when they are told what to do. For everyone, there is a risk of confusion. The world has suddenly turned on its head. Both hearing and sight may be impaired. Simple tasks in those vital few moments become laboured and the mind plays tricks.

how to fasten seat belt

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 learned behaviour comes from unfastening 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 bit of slack on the belt you are increasing the potential g–forces to which you'll be subjected. Practice opening your belt one–handed with your eyes closed.

Seconds count after the impact; it is a moral dilemma just how much you choose to help those in trouble around you. Surviving the crash is stage 1. Stage 2 is to get out of the crashed plane as fast as is humanly possible. Stage 3 is to get as far away from the plane as possible in the shortest possible time.

One of the keys to survival can be to listen to, and follow the crew's 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.

Not all survivors are heroes – there will be panic as passengers attempt to get out of the crashed plane. If someone is endangering you or those around you, be prepared to deal with them, decisively if necessary. However, a word of caution, even in a fraught situation like this, you are still legally liable for any injury you wilfully cause another person.

3. Dealing with smoke:

A third of all plane crash victims die through smoke inhalation; a smaller percentage from first–degree burns. Most of the smoke victims would have survived if they'd had smoke protection, or at least taken certain precautions. What is really frightening is that smoke protection for passengers is not a requirement on public transport aircraft. The crew, however, have smoke protection hoods. There are many unanswered questions relating to the safety of passengers on public transport aircraft and providing smoke hoods under the seats (along with life vests) is one of them.

The airlines have some reasons for not providing smoke hoods. For instance, an incident took place on a UK Flybe flight from Birmingham to Edinburgh in 2005 when smoke started to enter the aircraft. The report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said the smoke prevented the cabin crew from seeing the length of the cabin. The report also said that passenger who were suffering from smoke inhalation asked for smoke hoods but they were reused them. The crew complained the smoke hoods had, 'severely hindered communications with passengers.' It added that the hoods had proved a barrier to, 'both hearing and being heard.' As a result of the hearing difficulties caused by the smoke hoods, the cabin crew did not hear the landing calls made from the flight deck. The airlines could argue that if all the passengers were unable to hear instructions from the crew, panic and uncertainty would kill more people than would otherwise have died. The truth of the matter is: survival, is really down to you. Knowing that smoke is the main killer and that airlines do not provide any smoke protection for passengers, consider carrying your own smoke hood. When you are not flying it is a good safety item to have in the office or in the home.

smoke hood

Emergency smoke hoods are readily available for purchase from specialist supplier and can be bought over the internet. Make sure they are suitable for use on an aircraft, that they are small, portable, fit anyone and can withstand high temperatures without melting all over the head. Be aware that some cheap smoke hoods give adequate protection from smoke, but not from heat. A smoke hood must be made from flame–retardant material or it will kill you in a fire onboard an aircraft.

packed smoke hoodA smoke hood that is meant for a one–off emergency will come in a sealed, pocket–sized packet. Keep it in your pocket or hand luggage and place your hand luggage under the seat in front of you so you can quickly get at the mask and put it on. Make sure the filter material can handle toxic gasses, such as, cyanide or carbon dioxide. The dense smoke in an aircraft fire is mainly caused by burning seats which are foam–filled and which release cyanide when burning.

What to do if you do not have a smoke hood:
Priority one is to get down low under the smoke. The smoke can kill in a little as 20 seconds, so don't think too long about it. You must cover your nose and mouth with cloth. Use clothing, a handkerchief or rip the seat cover off the seat in front of you and use that. You must wet it for it to be effective. Any water will do, including urine. Do not crawl along the ground, you will be trampled on and injured or killed. Walk along in a crouch position, as illustrated below.

escaping a plane filled with smoke

Walk in a crouch position; tell others to do the same
The golden rule is to keep your head down, mouth and nose covered but stay on two feet. Climb over seat backs only if gangways are blocked.

4. Getting out of the plane quickly and leaving the crash–zone fast:

People do the most remarkable things after crashes, one of the strangest of which is trying to retrieve some, or all of their possessions. 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 both inside and out, then get out and move as far away from the plane as fast as possible. If you pause as you exit, even for a moment, you risk being pushed out of the plane. And whether you stop to help others? Well, that is up to you, and to the reserves of courage and compassion you may or may not have in the situation.

Once out of the aircraft don't block the exit for the people coming behind you. Move away. In fact, get 150 m (150 ft) away (unless instructed otherwise) to protect yourself from a late explosion. Upwind is better to keep away from any poisonous fumes.

If you're in the water:
Don't inflate your vest until you need it to keep afloat. Swim into the waves and wind; the wind will carry fire and smoke away from you; wave action will carry floating fuel away from you. If fuel is burning on the surface of the water, dive down. To surface and take your breath, extend one hand out first and sweep the surface (quickly not to get burnt) to clear an area of burning fuel. Take a deep breath and dive back down as quickly as possible. If there is a danger of underwater explosions grab hold of anything floating and pull yourself out of the water; if you can't, you may reduce the risk of injury by swimming on your back.

Save your energy:
If you are in the water and have nothing to help you (life jacket, floating wreckage) keep afloat, it is important to save your energy. Unless you can swim to shore (within a reasonable distance and the current isn't against you) you should avoid swimming and save your energy as much as possible. The density of the human body is much lower than the density of salt water (and for women density is lower than men). This means that it is easy to stay afloat. However, fear often causes people to drown as exhaustion and frenzied breathing leads to swallowing water. A few sips can cause you to drown. It is important to relax. The easiest way to save energy is to float on your back. You can become more buoyant by taking deep breaths. Some people might have difficulties with this technique. If so, lie on your stomach with your face in the water and spread your arms apart. When you need to breathe, push your arms through the water and raise your head just long enough to breathe. If the sea is too rough these two techniques might not work. Use the second technique (float on your stomach), but let your legs dive in. You will almost be in an upright position (more stable in the waves). Keeping your head underwater until you need to breathe will save you a lot of energy (you don't need to fight to keep your head out of the water). Relaxing and controlling your breathing is the key.

If you get a cramp (likely in cold water with added fear), relax and use one of the techniques above. Try to press your cramped muscle using your thumb or the palm of your hand. If a second person can help, apply pressure first, then stretch the muscle.

Watch for life rafts being deployed; some planes are equipped with them. Hang onto the life raft if you are not injured; reserve the raft space for children and those who are injured. But stay with the rafts; they will be spotted more easily by rescue workers than a single person floating in a life vest.

In general

This article is all about thinking about survival and planning what you would do to survive in different scenarios; also preparing yourself as well as one can. The key to giving yourself the best chance of surviving an air crash is planning – as in all survival situations. Having a notion of what you would do in the event of a crash or forced landing is fundamental to survival. First, listen to the safety announcement and read the safety card; even if you are a frequent flier, safety advice can vary considerably between different types of aircraft.

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. Know how to open exit doors as illustrated below.

open a door in an airliner

put on a lifejacket in an airplaneCheck the life vest is actually under your seat. It sounds silly to some, but once I checked and there was nothing there! I said nothing, but at the back of my mind for the whole six–hour flight was the knowledge that if the worst happened, I had no life vest! I determined never to be so blasé about my own personal safety again.

When a commercial plane at altitude gets into trouble it could take several minutes from the warning to impact; so use the time to go through any plan again. Make sure everything you have read above is in place; especially ensure that there is no cargo that can smack into you and that you have nothing in your pockets that could injure you.

The safest seats debate

Boeing's website says that, 'One seat is as safe as another,' as do the United States' Federal Aviation Administration, and most UK and European carriers. The old joke that: "Rear seats are safer because no plane is going to reverse into a mountain," has been shown not to be the case when the rear of some planes fared worse on impact than the nose section. There really does not seem to be any hard evidence to support the rear seat theory. Having said that, in 2007, Popular Mechanics magazine in the US looked at all crashes since 1971 for which seat survival data was available and claimed that those in rear seats (behind the wing's trailing edge) were safer — survival rates were 69 per cent as opposed to 56 per cent over the wing and 49 per cent for those at the front of the plane. Other authorities have decried their findings as flawed. Crashes vary, and sometimes the only people to survive are those at the front; in other crashes survivors are over the wing.  Over the wing seats are possibly best, because the plane is stronger at that point. Also, if the landing is in water, it has been proved that exiting onto a wing means one has more time to prepare before the inevitable soaking. On the other hand, if the engines are on fire, as happens, being near to the wing is the last place to be! Front, middle or back, it is better to sit in the aisle than in a middle or window seat so you can escape faster.

Spanair Flight JK 5022, from Barajas Airport in Madrid to Gran Canaria Airport in Gran Canaria, Spain, crashed just after take off from runway 36L of Barajas Airport on 20 August 2008. Of the 172 people on board, 146, including all crew members, perished in the crash or immediately after in the fire; of the 26 passengers rescued alive from the crash site, six died before arriving at the hospital, and two more in hospital, bringing the total number of fatalities to 154. The diagram below illustrates where the survivors were sitting; again, this belies the school of thought that rear seats are safer in a crash. You just cannot know. One of the stewardesses decided to change seats from the rear to the front of the plane and she was one of the survivors.

which is the safest seat in a plane

Consider your clothing

burning plane

Consider choosing special clothing for your flight, even on a short–haul flight, this gives you the best chance of survival should the plane catch fire or if you end up in the sea. Acrylic, polyester and nylon materials are a no–go. Experience from all fires teaches us that these synthetics melt at low temperatures and stick to the skin. Nylon melts at 265°C (510°F) and burns at 485°C (905°F). Polyester melts at 254°C (490°F) and burns at 488°C (910°F). Many synthetics with acrylic melt and burn at lower temperatures. In an aircraft fire, even if you are outside the wreck and escaping the plane, these temperatures are easily achieved. If you are wearing these materials you risk them melting into your skin or catching fire with devastating results.

Wool, and secondly cotton, gives the best protection from fire, but wool especially is less attractive if you end up in the sea; it increases significantly in weight. Choose flame–resistant clothing (Wrangler use flame resistant material for their jeans and jackets, for example.)

Wear lace up shoes, not high heels. Keep your shoes on during the flight. Good footwear can be a decided advantage in an escape.

Consider your exposed areas:

If there is a risk of fire onboard (always a risk in an air crash), make sure you have a wet cloth to cover your head, also your nose and face to protect from smoke if you do not have a smoke hood. Women should cover their hair with wet material, especially if they have long hair and use hair lacquer. For this reason, it is prudent to carry an extra bottle of water onboard with you and keep it for such an emergency. Pack a piece of cloth in the top of your hand luggage, a Shemagh or tea towel, for example. This is called survival planning!

Wear long pants, sleeves and closed shoes. This will help protect you from glass, metal and the elements.

Travelling with children
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 partner. It's easier for one adult to help a single child than for both to try to keep everyone together.

Cabin depressurizes or there is smoke

fit an oxygen mask in a plane crash

Creative Commons License
Above photos are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

If the oxygen masks drop, put one on before attempting to help someone else. If you fall unconscious, you have no chance of helping anyone else.

All planes are different – pay attention to the pre–flight instructions and study the safety card provided.

Has this put you off flying? Let's put the whole thing in perspective

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released passenger and freight traffic forecasts projecting that in 2011, the air transport industry would handle 2.75 billion passengers. Forty–four air crashes in 2011 were recorded in the Plane Crash Database. There were 75% fatalities, 769 out of the 1,028 passengers and crew involved were killed. That's 769 fatalities out of 2.75 billion passengers; you have a greater chance of winning the national lottery than being killed in an air crash.

The advances in science and technology now mean over 90% of plane crashes have survivors.


phases flight Click to enlarge

Using aircraft parts in survival


Using Cessna parts for survival Click drawing to enlarge.

Survival uses for aircraft parts:

The first rule of rescue is to get as far away from a crashed aircraft as possible immediately after escape. This is very important if the aircraft is a passenger jet because there is a high risk of aviation fuel catching fire and the tanks exploding. There may also be secondary explosions. Once you are certain there is no risk of fire or explosion, you should scavenge for usable survival equipment. The second golden rule is to stay within the vicinity of the crash site so rescuers can spot you more easily. If you are in a crash–landing of a light aircraft or commercial piston–engine plane and end up (especially in winter) in a remote area, this is a list of how to use parts from the aircraft to aid your survival.  If you are a survivor of a crash in a commercial jet airliner, the basic ideas still hold true but removing aircraft parts may be more difficult. Most of these ideas also apply to using parts from any vehicle in a survival situation. The following suggestions cover most eventualities but you are only limited by your own ingenuity.

Air filter: Fire starter, since it is usually made of paper and is impregnated with highly flammable fuel and oil.

Aluminium skin: Reflector for warmth from a fire; signalling device; splint; sledge, snow shovel or saw blade.

Battery: Signalling with aircraft lights or radio; fire starter.

Battery box: Stove or cooking container.

Charts and maps: Stuff them inside clothing for insulation. (Don't burn them, since you may need them for navigation if it becomes inevitable that you need to walk out.)

Compass: Direction indicator.

Control cables/electrical wiring: Binding for shelter making, splints or general lashings. Use thick wire to make fish hooks and fine wire as fishing line.

Doors: Shelter, windbreak or sledge for hauling.

Engine cowling: Shelter; water collection; windbreak or fire platform.

Engine magnetos: Fire starter.

Engine oil and fuel: Fire starter and fuel for fire; makes black smoke for signalling. Be very careful with aviation fuel near a naked flame.

Fabric skin: Fire starting material and fuel or for water collection.

Hoses: Siphoning fuel from tank.

Inner tubes: Cut into strips makes binding material. Makes black smoke when burned. Inflated inner tubes are useful as flotation aids.

Interior fabric: Water straining or filtering. Making emergency clothing, coverings, bandages or fuel for fire starting. Emergency sun glasses or snow goggles.

Landing lights and strobes: Signals when used with battery; lights at night and reflective surfaces for signalling when the battery dies.

Nose cone spinner: Bucket for water, oil and fuel. Scooping tool; pot for cooking and funnel.

Oil filter: Burn the filter to make dense, black smoke.

Rotating beacon lens: Drinking cup.

Rugs: Ground pad; insulation; clothing or warm covering.

Seats: Sleeping cushions; back brace for spinal injury; insulation; ground pad and sponge rubber for neck support. Foam from seats can make eye covering to prevent snow blindness and can be used to make insulated foot covering if you have to walk through snow.

Seat belts: Binding material, slings or bandages

Tyres: Make black smoke when burned. Useful as flotation aids. Can be cut up to make very tough "flip–flop" type sandals.

Vertical stabilizer: Shelter support or fire platform.

Windows: Cutting tool or signalling mirror.

Wings: Use for making windbreaks, shelter supports, overhead shade, platform for fire, water collector or signalling device.

(If the aircraft is intact, blankets or plastic tarps draped over the wings and secured to the ground make an excellent tent.)

Wing tips: Drip collection or water carrier.

Wiring: Binding and rope. It is possible to start a fire with sparks made by shorting out the battery.

Wooden wing struts, braces or propellers: Fire starter, fuel and construction material for a shelter.

Luggage and debris from luggage: Search for clothing, food, water and medical supplies according to need. Search for working cell phones, torches and cigarette lighters.