Fifteen passenger airplane crash survival tips

by Ned Levi on July 8, 2013

Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 by InSapphoWeTrust, http://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnylawyer/

Saturday, every airplane passenger’s worst nightmare occurred in San Francisco. An Asiana Airlines’ Boeing 777, on a flight (214) from Seoul, South Korea, with 307 people on board, crashed at San Francisco International Airport, and the cabin was quickly engulfed with flames, with the tail of the plane sheared off.

Remarkably, 305 passengers and crew survived the crash. A few passengers remain in critical condition at San Francisco area hospitals, but so far, only two passengers and no crew have died.

According to passenger Eugene Rah, a regular on the Seoul–San Francisco route, the flight attendants helped everyone off the plane as smoke filled the cabin, and that soon after, flames spread throughout it.

Airplane crashes are survivable. For example, National Transportation Safety Board statistics of airplane accidents which occurred between 1983 and 2000, report that 53,487 passengers were involved and 51,207 passengers survived. That’s a 95.7 percent survival rate.

I have fifteen tips for air passengers to help you survive an airplane accident:

• Choose your seat to be within five rows of any exit. A British safety expert concluded that five rows is the cut-off for getting out of a burning plane. Beyond that range, survival chances drop off quickly. In addition, passengers in aisle seats have higher survival rates than passengers in other seats.

• Wear shoes or leather sneakers, never high heels, sandals or flip-flops, which make it hard to move quickly and safely within wreckage. Loose or elaborate clothing can snag on obstacles in a plane’s tight quarters, especially when damaged. Long pants and long sleeved shirts made with natural fibers (synthetics or high synthetic content blends can melt on your skin in a fire, causing serious and even fatal wounds) are the safest, and help protect passengers when sliding down a wing or emergency slide. I learned that going down an emergency slide myself, when I suffered friction burn.

• If you’re flying to or from a cold area, dress appropriately, and consider keeping a jacket on your lap during takeoff and landing. In cold weather, crash survival may depend on your staying warm.

• Read the safety information card and pay attention to the preflight safety speech. Every plane is a bit different, so it’s a good idea to refresh your memory.

• Devise a safety plan. Count the rows from your seat to the two closest exits, fore and aft, so you know precisely where they are in case smoke fills the plane, obscuring your sight, and fire blocks your exit in one direction.

• Stay especially alert during and just after takeoff, and from about 10 minutes before and during landing. About 80 percent of accidents occur during those times. Keep your shoes on, don’t put on a face mask, earplugs, or earphones during those times.

• Put your seat belt on and fasten it as tightly as comfortable throughout your flight, not just at takeoff and landing.

If you’re alerted to prepare for a crash, stay calm. After all, the odds are with you.

• Double check your safety plan. Tighten your seat belt as much as possible. Take pencils, pens and sharp objects out of your clothes and remove dentures, high-heeled shoes and eyeglasses. If you have some water, moisten a handkerchief, headrest cover or shirttail, to use if there’s smoke after impact, to hold over your mouth.

• If you’ve got time, and it’s cold outside, put on your sweater or coat. Put any medicines you might need in your pockets. Cover your head if you can, and brace yourself in your seat as per your flight crew’s instructions.

Once down, after the plane comes to a stop, get out as fast as you can.

• Don’t wait to be told what to do by the flight attendants. They might be dazed or injured and can’t give directions for a while, if at all. As soon as the plane comes to a stop move quickly to the exit.

• Don’t take anything with you. Keep your hands free to maintain your balance as you step over debris and luggage, or are being pushed by other passengers, some of whom might be panicking.

• If the aisle is blocked, go over the seat backs.

Under no circumstances crawl on the floor to avoid smoke, as you might be trampled by other passengers.

If there is smoke, keep your head down and follow the white lights to the exit. Use your hands to count rows by feeling seats, but remain on your feet. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the door by your count and/or when the floor lights are red.

• Don’t push passengers. It might incite a hysterical passenger to go berserk, which will delay your exit.

• At the exit door, if it’s not open, before you open it, look out its window to see if there’s fire. If there is, go to the other side of the plane and check the door there.

• Once out of the plane, get as far from the crash as you can. The fuel left in the plane’s tanks could ignite and cause an explosion. If you see something to shield you, get behind it as long as it’s not to close to the plane. When planes explode thousands of fragments can fly in all directions and be fatal.

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  • Marilyn

    I appreciate your mentioning of paying attention to the safety instructions. I flew recently with my granddaughter who has not flown much. She at the age of 11 was trying to listen to the instructions at the beginning of the flight and study the safety folder from the seatback. However, there were two men in the seats behind us who talked loudly during the entire safety instruction. Some people assume that just because they fly a lot and presumably know about the safety procedures, then everyone else must know that, too. I probably should have turned around and attempted to shush them. Since it is a federal offense to disobey the instructions of a flight crew, i do wish the crew would make people be quiet during that important time.

  • NedLevi

    Unfortunately too many passengers not only don’t pay attention, but make it impossible for anyone else to do so. I’ve found that lately flight attendants have given up trying to stop such passengers during the safety briefing.

    Fortunately, while the safety briefing is helpful, the safety information card is extremely helpful. The only thing it’s missing is putting on the seat belt, and using the O2 mask, things it doesn’t take much to use. Of course, there is one thing about both which is important, and few think of it, unless they’re experienced air travelers.

    First, the seat belt should be worn at all times whenever you’re in your seat. You never know when it’s going to get rough and it will save you from getting injured. Second, one should always put their O2 mask on before trying to help others. We need to stay conscious to help others.

    The safety information has the critical information about the location of the exits. This allows you to create your safety plan for evacuation. Frankly, the safety talk doesn’t show you exactly which are the rows with the exits in the middle of the plane.

    Frankly, before I make a reservation, I check seat guru to pick my seats, and I’m already thinking of my comfort, and safety.

  • Captain James S.

    Ned,
    Your article is excellent, coming from a major airline Captain, and
    a lifelong world traveller (first flight was to Japan at age 2). I have and had friends, crew & passengers, who have both died in & survived accidents. From Col. Rick Husband, commander of STS-107 (Shuttle Columbia), to an 8 year old boy (now a grown man) who
    survived the United DC-10 in Iowa. His mother did not survive. You
    are even spot on as to shoes, and when I am a passenger, I keep my shoes during all take offs and landings. The nice carpeted floor can become a sea of fire, torn metal, glass, wires, etc.. after an accident.
    My father (USAF) served on accident investigation boards when I was a boy. I follow dad into the Air Force, but also was interested
    in the dynamics of accidents even before I became a pilot. Marilyn’s
    comments, and your reply are also very intelligent. First, if a child is
    5, 6, or older (depending on maturity level), they should be taught to
    get out of the jet without their parents, with the same skill set your
    list of 15 states. I taught my late wife (a platinum flying business
    woman, to set her magazine down, and pay attention to the Flight
    Attendants (which also shows respect, and acknowledgment of
    their

  • Captain James S.

    Ned,

    The last thing I’ll add, is that you correctly mentioned the oxygen masks, and consciousness. The aviation term is TUC, for
    Time of Useful Consciousness. Depending on altitude, and the
    size of the hole causing explosive depressurization (as opposed to
    rapid depressurization), you may only have 2 or 3 seconds to get your mask on. By the way, the air you did have in your lungs was just sucked out of you!! I know an Air Force C-141 cargo jet pilot,
    in a crew of 4, who had an explosive depressurization (nothing to
    do with explosives, but theoretically can be caused by explosives),
    at cruise altitude. He barely got his mask on, and the other three
    did not. He did an emergency decent to “e” (below
    18,000 feet, preferably 10,000 feet if no terrain issues). The other three were unconscious, convulsing, and vomiting!! They all came
    a second or two from dying, had he not been able to put on his mask. His interview tape was showed at recurrent safety training
    at my airline, and others. You were very correct in stating, put your
    mask on first, then help othe

  • Captain James S.

    Ned,

    The 10-18 thousand feet is called “a habitable altitude”.
    Thanks for your excellent article.

    Captain James S.

  • Captain James S.

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