Deep Survival: Most Airplane Accidents Are Survivable – Here’s How
This year, 500* people have died in airline accidents. Here’s how to avoid being the next.
Text by Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the books Everyday Survival and Deep Survival; Illustration by William Duke
Flying is a daring undertaking: Whether you realize it or not, you’re putting yourself in a Coke can full of explosive fuel going nearly three-quarters the speed of sound. When things go wrong—as several recent incidents have shown—they tend to go wrong rapidly and catastrophically.
Sometimes, there is nothing you can do about it. A Continental Airlines commuter plane, operating as Colgan Air Flight 3407, took off from Newark, New Jersey, bound for Buffalo Niagara on February 12, 2009. It had almost made it to the airport when it pitched up sharply, then pitched down violently, rolled left, and spun right, crashing into a home and exploding in a fireball. Everyone on board was killed, along with a man in the house. No matter what your strategy for survival might have been, it would not have worked under those conditions.
But most airline accidents are survivable, and what we do in an emergency
can influence whether we come out alive.
On December 20, 2008, a flight taking
off from Denver veered off the runway and skidded down into a deep ravine. One engine and the landing gear were torn off, and the plane burst into flames. The fire quickly burned through the fuselage on the starboard side, melting the overhead bins, which fell into the seats. One of the passengers, Maria Trejos, was four months pregnant and had her one-year-old with her. While many of the passengers were slowly lining up to exit as the plane burned around them, Trejos went out onto the wing with her child in her arms and jumped into the ravine. Her quick, decisive action saved three lives.
The Denver incident reminds us of some other simple but important precautions to take. First of all, dress for a fire. Don’t wear open-toed shoes or sandals. Don’t wear synthetic materials: They melt when exposed to heat. Too often people have died from smoke inhalation under such circumstances. If you really want to give yourself a few extra minutes of consciousness, carry an Evac-U8 Emergency Escape Smoke Hood from DuPont. And while most people ignore the safety briefing, I take it quite seriously. I count the rows from my seat to an exit, because I might not be able to see in the smoke. I figure out how the exits open before I need to know. During an emergency is not a good time to try to learn.
We all remember US Airways Flight 1549, which took an unscheduled dip in the Hudson River in New York City this past January. Although the chances of an airliner landing in water are remarkably small, it happened. I always check under my seat to make sure the life vest really is there and that I can reach it. But it wasn’t the life vests that saved those 155 people. Apart from the perfect performance of the pilot, there was a clear reason that things turned out so well: The passengers were all wearing seat belts. When the flight attendant tells you to fasten your seat belt “low and tight across your lap,” you would do well to comply. That means across your pelvis—among the strongest points in your body—and it also means really tight. During takeoff and landing it should be uncomfortably tight. You can loosen it a bit during flight.
Seat belts are good for more than just water landings. On October 7, 2008, Qantas Flight 72, an Airbus, was near Learmonth, Australia. It was at 37,000 feet, flying straight and level, when an automatic flight system went haywire and the aircraft pitched down sharply. Anyone who was not strapped in hit the ceiling, and 60 people were injured, 14 of them quite seriously. They suffered neck and spinal injuries, broken bones, concussions, and lacerations. Fastened seat belts would have prevented virtually all of those injuries. But an airplane doesn’t have to malfunction to put you on the ceiling. A National Transportation Safety Board investigator told me that when he entered the cabin of a 747 after it had experienced severe turbulence en route to Tokyo, there were footprints on the ceiling. Passengers were slammed into it and pinned. When you fall, standing is an automatic response, even if you’re technically on the ceiling
of an airplane. The passengers attempted to stand up, and when the 747 recovered they were slammed into the floor.
Another way to ensure your own survival is to choose your airline carefully. I make
it my business to know, for example, that AirTran changed its name from ValuJet because in 1996 that airline dumped a DC-9 into the Everglades, killing everyone on board. Sometimes our adventures take us to exotic places where we might be confronted with unfamiliar airlines. The European Union keeps a list of airlines that are so bad they’re not even allowed to land there (see Deep Intel, at right). Unfortunately, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is charged with the conflicting tasks of maintaining safety and promoting the airline business, so it refuses to rank airlines on safety. The FAA claims there’s no evidence that any one airline is better than any other. The EU disagrees.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Sometimes you have to be a bit of a sleuth to know who you’re flying with. For example, I like Lufthansa. But in 2008, Lufthansa passengers were put on a code-sharing flight in Madrid and flew with Spanair instead. The plane crashed right after takeoff, killing most of the passengers. It’s good to ask questions about the age of the plane, as well as its last safety inspection, before you fly.
You may think, after all this, that I’m a nervous flier. Far from it. One of the reasons I’m at ease while flying is that I have a plan. I pay attention during takeoff. Then I let go of it and enjoy the flight. I don’t wander around the cabin. I keep my seat belt fastened. And then I prepare for landing and make sure I know what I’m going to do if the worst happens.
* As of August 5, 2009
Deep Intel: Three things you should do every time you fly
1. Research Check the safety record of your airline and plane on Flightglobal.com, and make sure your carrier is a member of an oversight organization (like IATA) and not on the EU’s blacklist (ec.europa.eu/transport/air-ban/list_en.htm). 2. Actually listen to the safety briefing . . .. . . and note the nearest exit. Count the number of rows to it—you’ll need to remember this if you’re trying to get out during a fire.
3. Buckle your seat belt Most serious injuries can be avoided simply by wearing a seat belt and remaining seated whenever possible.