Updated: 15/11/2011 17:34 | By Rachel Burge, contributor, MSN Travel

How to survive a plane crash

Smoke fills the cabin, the oxygen masks drop and you're told to brace for impact. It's the scenario we all dread - but does an aviation accident necessarily mean you're doomed?

According to statistics, more than 90% of plane crashes in recent years had survivors. In America, for example, there were 568 plane crashes between 1983 and 2000: out of the collective 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 lived to tell the tale. That's a survival rate of 96%.

Some experts believe that almost one-third of deaths in aeroplane accidents could have been prevented if people knew what to do and took action.

Here's how to improve your chances should the worst happen when you're a plane passenger.

Sit within five rows of an exit

A plane's exit sign (© Getty)

The exit sign: stay close, just in case

Aviation safety expert Ed Galea, a professor at the University of Greenwich, has analysed the seating charts of more than 100 plane crashes.

He found that people seated within five rows of a serviceable exit were most likely to escape. Beyond five rows and your chances of survival are much lower. Passengers in aisle seats were also more likely to survive than those in window seats.

To stand the best chance of survival, book an exit row seat, or one row away. It doesn't matter which you choose - any exit row will improve your chances.

Sit near the rear of the plane
Should you sit at the front or back of the plane? Officials and airlines insist that one seat is as safe as another.

As Professor Helen Muir, who studies the behaviour of passengers during aeroplane evacuations, told the BBC's Horizon programme, plane crashes are classic "unpredictable events". An accident could take the form of a crash landing or a fire in one of the engines - which means you can't tell where the best place to sit will be.

However, one study of crash statistics looked at every commercial jet crash in the US since 1971 that had both fatalities and survivors. It found that passengers seated near the tail of a plane were 40% more likely to survive than those seated in the first few rows.

Count the seats to your nearest exit

Cabin crew (© Getty)

Cabin crew will tell you what to do in an emergency

Many passengers survive the initial impact but don't get off the plane quickly enough - and it's the first 90 seconds after a crash that are considered "golden time" by safety experts.

Professor Galea suggests passengers count the rows to their nearest exit before take-off. That way, in the event of smoke filling the cabin or if emergency lighting fails and it's very dark, you will know the number of seat rows and can feel your way to an exit.

Helen Muir also recommends making an exit plan. "Look around you and see where your nearest cabin crew are, because they're the people who will tell you what to do [which] will make a huge difference," she told BBC's Horizon.

Stay focused during take-off and landing
"Focus on your action plan during the first three minutes of flight and the last eight minutes. That's when around 80% of accidents happen," advises Ben Sherwood in his book The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life.

In other words, have your shoes on during take-off and landing, don't knock back the booze and don't nap wearing an eye mask and earphones.

Keep your seatbelt on and wear it across your pelvis, which will handle impact better than your stomach. Fasten it tightly - every inch of slack is said to increase the potential g-forces you could be subjected to during an impact.

Wear sensible clothing

Flipflops (© Getty)

Flipflops: good beachwear, risky on a plane

What you choose to wear can help or hinder your escape. Opt for flat, sturdy shoes - a pair of high heels may look good but won't help you make it to the emergency exit.

Ben Sherwood told Time magazine that he leaves his shoes on, "in the event that I need to run through a burning plane". He also wears lace-ups, as people's shoes have been known to fly off them, particularly flip-flops and slip-on styles, during impact.

In the event of a fire or of there being glass and metal debris, long-sleeved shirts and heavy cotton trousers will offer more protection than shorts and a T-shirt.

Pay attention to safety advice
Read the safety card in the seatback in front of you. Yes, you've heard it all before - but a reminder won't hurt and planes do differ.

Many people are unaware that, at 35,000ft, they have just 30-60 seconds to put on an oxygen mask and tug on the line to get the flow going. After that, you lose consciousness.

"That's why we say put on your own mask first and then assist a child," says Candace Kolander, coordinator of air safety, health and security for the Association of Flight Attendants, an American organisation, in an interview with The Washington Post.

"If you don your child's first, then you could pass out and then you're good to no one. If for some reason the oxygen masks drop, it really is serious."

Read the safety card before take-off and the information will be fresh in your mind.

Know how to open your seatbelt

Seatbelt (© Getty)

Opening your seatbelt should be second nature

After interviewing 1,900 survivors and 155 cabin-crew members, Galea made an interesting discovery. Most passengers, he told BBC Horizon, lose valuable time because they struggle to undo their seatbelts.

"People tend to try and press a button on the seatbelt because in this emergency situation, they revert to normal behaviour. And what's normal behaviour for most people? Well, they experience a seatbelt in their car and in their car, it's a push-button system."

Andy Clubb, Course Director of BA's Safety Awareness Course, told CNN: "People who have survived emergency landings frantically search for where they expect the seatbelt to fasten [on the hip as in a car]. You often find bruising and cuts in that area."

Practice opening and closing your seat belt until it becomes second nature.

Brace for impact
They are three words no one wants to hear - but in the event of a crash, adopting the correct position could mean the difference between life and death.

"The proper position is to cross your hands on the seat in front of you. Put your head against your hands and stay in that position as long as it takes to get to the ground," Mac McLean, The Federal Aviation Administration's investigator for cabin safety, told ABC News.

According to a BBC interview with safety expert Tom Barth, the most important thing is to get your upper torso down as much as possible, limiting the so-called jackknife effect from impact forces.

Put your feet flat on the floor, preferably farther back than your knees, and consider placing hand luggage under the seat in front of you to act as a cushion. That way you're less likely to suffer broken ankles that will hinder your escape.

Move fast and stay low

Oxygen mask (© Getty)

People sometimes freeze when an emergency strikes on a plane

After the initial impact it's common for fire to break out - but it's not the flames that are likely to kill you. Just a few breaths of toxic smoke can cause you to pass out and make it impossible to see.

McLean advises passengers to "stop, stay low and go". In other words, as soon as the plane comes to a stop, stay low and move to the nearest exit as quickly as possible.

Stay low doesn't mean crawl on your hands and knees. Although there will be less smoke at floor level, you could be crushed or suffocated under luggage and other passengers.

Instead, keep your head down, cover your mouth and nose with a wet cloth if possible (wet the seat back headrest, for example). If gangways are blocked, climb over seat backs.

What NOT to do
People can do strange things in stressful situations. These may sound obvious, but here are a few things NOT to do in the event of a plane crash:

- Don't attempt to retrieve your luggage from overhead lockers. Amazingly, many people do.
- Don't inflate your life jacket until you have exited the plane or you may hinder your escape.
- Don't just sit there. Studies show that in a crisis people can freeze and wait to be told what to do. If passengers or even cabin crew appear to be in a trance, be decisive - and move.
- Move fast but resist the urge to push and shove. It's likely to make matters worse and cause others to lash out.
- Once you get down the escape slide, don't just sit there. There will be other people coming down after you in rapid succession.
- Once you get on the ground, don't stand and watch. Get away as fast and as far as you can.

12/10/2011 10:52
my family  had been in a plane crash ,my mother brother  and uncle  all going to Switzerland from axbridge  somerset ,my uncle died of  severe head injuries from  seat in front impact etc   lots of the  passengers died  mostly woman and children so tragic  this was in the seventy s standards have  progressed things learned, after mum had her foot put back together  and  a long recovery she went on to survive cancer twice and  tb  heart by pass but died in a dirty hospital in  somerset 3yrs ago of a superbug c diff  nhs  need to step up but cant with not enough money  and higher standards needed some people should stop sueing the nhs   mum was aged 75 she was a remarkable woman rip. Ivy besley mum and all who died that day. it was a rare  crash and due to very bad weather, my brother helped some survivers and got a bravery award  and still lives now . moral to storey  live for today do not worry about what might never happen and stop superbugs in our hospitals
12/10/2011 00:49

Do take notice of this information however if you like to request a seat next to the Emergency Exit, because If you are fortunate enough to be on an aircraft that has landed in one piece but is on fire, YOU! the person who likes to stretch their legs now has potentially hundreds of people heading in your direction, and if you don't know how to open that door quickly, then you are the weak link on that aircraft.

 Look at aircraft crashes and you will find an alarming amount of people who sit next to emergency exits do not get out alive because they are not confident in opening that exit door, the  people behind you are not going to stand and wait while you fumble around like an idiot so bear this in mind the next time you want to kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes in those extra ten inches of leg room you now have.  Make sure when the cabin crew show you what to do you listen and if you are not sure ask again. Safe flying! 

12/10/2011 10:33

Oh how sweet...


You can't adopt the correct crash position in the no frills airlines as the seats are too close together.


In a crash situation, the survivors are the ones that fight for their lives - they scramble over the chair backs to the exit - whether that exit is a door or opening. They then have to live with the guilt of obeying their survival instinct. It meant going over people and not helping them.


Sad but true.

12/10/2011 01:21
Excellent information, could this not be put on a card and put in with the regular information in the backs of pax seats.When I went to sea,I regularly went on the course for a lifeboat certificate. It came in very usefull when a ship I was sailing on caught fire in the south China seas.
12/10/2011 09:54
Well I Feel safer on a plane than on our roads !!!  sit near the black box that always survives!!!!
12/10/2011 13:50

In a 4 engine plane the pilot came on and said . sorry we had to cut off an engine our 2 hour flight will now be 4 hours.   After a while he came on again and said , had to cut off a second engine owing to oil pressure our flight will now be 8 hours. A little later he came on again and said, nothing to worry about folks but I had to turn off the third engine so our flight will be 16 hours. The little Irish bloke next to me looking at the forth engine said to me " Jesus begorra if that engine goes out we'll be up here all day.   Enjoy your flight.

12/10/2011 14:35

On a recent flight the air hostess saw me studying the flight-safety card intensively just after we had boarded. She asked me why was I so different from the rest of the passengers in doing this. The answer was that my engineering training caused me to consider seriously the problem of escape.


Fellow passengers, don't just read the card, try to work out where the exists are relative to you seat and where to go if and when some of them are blocked. The advise about being competent at emergency door opening (which is normally reset off  "automatic" when a crash is immanent) is absolutely vital. The flight crew may not be able to do so at once, so passengers near doors should read and understand the printed instructions there.


Flying is safer than driving a car. Once after an engine failure just after take-off from Bangkok (B747-200) we dumped 30 tons of fuel (!) and landed safely at the same place. The Australian (Qantas) pilot was very friendly and answered passengers' questions. Had the failure occurred during take-off, the resulting Rejected T.O. is the worst thing, due to runways being of limited length and brakes/tires having limitations. But we avoided that.


After an RTO get out quickly by escape slides. The red-hot brakes will cook up the tires and melt them and the spilled hydraulic oil is likely to cause a serious fire! 

12/10/2011 10:48

Despite the fact that most people are warped with emotions and stampede like cattle, 96% survive near 200 mph crashes.

Try that in your car!

12/10/2011 11:11

Crucially important for everybody using airways. Must read  instructions how to survive a plane crash

12/10/2011 12:38

Yes sit next to a emergency exit, thats very good advice. As you sit there in the comfort knowing you have an escape route remember this.........



You will be the first sucked out of the plane when the door blows off at 25,000 feet   Smile



12/10/2011 10:27
As the great Billy Connolly once said, "If your plane hits the ground like a dart at 500 miles an hour it doesnt matter where you put your head". or if you wear sensible shoes!!
12/10/2011 12:26
Very interesting article. Most people don't pay atention to security demo when the crew is demonstrating the procedures. Some prefer reading and chating. Thank you for bringing that to my atention. I will pay much more atention next time. Thanks...
12/10/2011 14:06
and if your in a mid-air collision at 35000ft put you head between your legs and kiss yo **** bye-bye
12/10/2011 10:57
Wow! Didn't know the survival rate was so good. Guess I won't just scream my head off instead of obeying rules that always seemed so ridiculous. Flight please...
12/10/2011 10:17
I have observed the following when flying. First, quite a number of people continue to read and take no notice of the safety information at the beginning of the flights. Secondly, many of the low budget aircraft seats are too close together for passengers to take up the brace position. They are too close together for comfort let alone saving someone's life.
12/10/2011 12:13

Hell with all that just take a parachute.

12/10/2011 09:32
Last year, on my way back from holiday, our plane dropped few hundred metres in the sky. I was sleeping and was woken by the impact Thank god I had my seat belts on, my mom was playing games and was shocked when the remote went flying. and my brother who didn't had his seatbelt on and was at the back of the plane was thrown out of his chair. All the food trolley went crashing and we had no food for 10 hours journey. I think holding the chair is good idea. If not survive, at least something to hold to. but yeah buckle up.
12/10/2011 16:38
Man took parachute lessons for quite a while. On the big day at 35,000 ft. his trainer said, don't forget count to ten and pull this rip cord and the chute will open. If per chance it doesn't pull this emergency red cord and the chute will open. When you're down, there will be a red truck waiting for you to take you home. The man jumped and counted to ten, he pulled the rip cord and the chute didn't open. He grabbed the red cord and gave it a pull but the chute still did not open. He said to himself " I bet the damn red truck ain't there either. Enjoy your flight.
12/10/2011 10:26
You could face all the seats backward but most of them would not be up against a bulkhead which is one of the strongest areas of the plane and thus more likely to stay in tact.  Which again is why the cabin crew face backward against a bulkhead.  I suppose they have to try and keep the cabin crew in tact to direct the rest of the lemmings off the plane.  Unfortunately the majority of people behave like lemings in an emergency unless they have had specific crisis training either in their profession or spare time.  Even then it is difficult to prepare for such a catastrophy.
12/10/2011 10:10

as a cabin manager for a UK airline i have to say i dont think most people would survive a crash.most people DONT pay any attention to the safety demo.most people ARGUE with crew when asked to stow bags as not to block exits.ALOT of people try to drink themselves stupid.the ammount of drugs i have found would make a columbian CARTEL blush.some people still think its ok to SMOKE on a aircraft.

its my job to evacuate the aircraft in the event of a emergency.        "if the waters too deep,GET OUT.if the smokes to thick,GET OUT.if the fires to hot,GET  OUT."

good look to you all.i will do my best if that day ever comes.

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