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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 October 2006, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
How to survive a plane crash
By Milla Harrison
BBC Horizon

Flying may be the safest form of transport, but many of the three million people who take to the air each day are terrified of crashing. Now more than ever, though, it's possible to survive a plane crash.

Most people believe that if they're in a plane crash their time is up. In fact the truth is surprisingly different. In the US alone, between 1983 and 2000, there were 568 plane crashes. Out of the collective 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 survived.

The advances in science and technology now mean over 90% of plane crashes have survivors. And there are many things you might consider to increase your chances of surviving such as:

• how to survive the moment of impact
• the life and death decisions you should make during the evacuation
• what to do if there is a fire onboard
• how to survive if your plane ditches into water
• statistically where you should sit to increase your chances of surviving.

World leading aviation safety expert Professor Ed Galea, of the University of Greenwich, has studied over 2,000 survivor reports and compiled a unique database.

Tom Barth
The important thing is to get your upper torso down as much as possible
Tom Barth
"Surviving an aircraft crash is not a matter of fate. You can help yourself getting out of an aircraft quickly, and so there are things you can do to improve your chances of surviving," says Professor Galea.

He has discovered what all these survivors were doing that got them off the plane alive and his findings are extraordinary. Time and time again many of the passengers struggled 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.

"This seat belt is different to what's in your car; it's a latch that you've got to pull."

If your plane is about to crash, you may be told to adopt the brace position - an important step, says Tom Barth from AmSafe Aviation, an expert in how to survive an impact.


"The brace position is a position that will offer you the best chance to survive in a crash because it stops you from flying forward and striking the seat or interior in front of you," says Mr Barth.

"The important thing is to get your upper torso down as much as possible, limiting the 'jackknife' effect from impact forces."

His team in Phoenix, Arizona, has developed the first airbag ever to be put onboard commercial aviation seats. It's a technology that has saved thousands of lives every year in the car industry and he's hoping it will do the same in the aviation world. It makes the seat safer and complements other safety technologies such as the fire resistant interior, to ensure that you stay conscious and are able to evacuate the wreckage.

Helen Muir
Look around you and see where your nearest cabin crew are - they'll tell you what to do
Helen Muir
"The airbag is folded up in the seatbelt itself and deploys away from the occupant, making it safe for children and adults. The airbags inflate very rapidly in about 30 milliseconds, which is much faster than you can blink your eye."

Many plane crashes have a post-crash fire but it's not the flames that are likely to kill you, it's the toxic smoke. Smoke onboard is lethal; in just a few breaths you can pass out. And if you had to evacuate in smoke, finding your exit is very difficult.

But there is one simple step you can take which could increase your chances of getting off in the presence of smoke, says Professor Galea.

"I count the seat rows from my seating position to the exit. So in the event of smoke or if emergency lighting fails and it's very dark, I know the number of seat rows and I can feel my way to an exit. By counting the seat backs I'll know when I've reached the exit row."

Professor Helen Muir, of Cranfield University, who studies the behaviour of passengers during evacuations, believes how you behave in those last few minutes can make the difference between life and death. She has her own "one simple step" suggestion.

"If you want to survive an aircraft accident, even though they're very infrequent, every time you get on an aeroplane you want to sit down and then make a plan," she says.

"In other words, look around you and see where your nearest cabin crew are, because they're the people who will tell you what to do and will make a huge difference. Then look where your nearest exits are, both in front, behind and across, and work out how you would get there."

But what about the one question that everyone wants to know - the Holy Grail in aviation safety is where to sit on a plane to increase your chances of staying alive?

I felt like I was on a rollercoaster or something

Mercedes Johnson survived the American Airlines Flight 965 which crashed into a Colombian mountain in 1995. Out of 159 onboard, only four lived and Ms Johnson believes where she sat played a role in her survival.

"The location where we were sitting was over the wing which was near the exit row and I've heard on numerous occasions that those rows are one of the safest areas to sit in because it's the most reinforced with metal," says Ms Johnson.

But sitting over the wings isn't always the best place, because you don't know how your plane is going to crash.

"I'm often asked, 'well, where should I sit in an aircraft to have the best chance of surviving?'" says Ms Muir, "and, sadly, I haven't got a good answer."

"They're unpredictable events, so you never know whether it's going to be a crash landing or whether you're going to have a fire in one of the engines. And this means you can't say where's the best place to sit."


Horizon: Survivors Guide to Plane Crashes is on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Tuesday 3 October. Watch video highlights at Horizon's website.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The brace position is all very well, but has anyone, including all these researchers, actually tried to do it on a plane ? With a typical seating pitch of 31" (much less on budget airline and chartered flights) getting you back down horizontal, as shown in the picture above, is virtually impossible for most 6 foot tall people who make up a sizeable amount of the population.
Dan Robinson, Liverpool, UK

Due to a 'close call' a few years ago I am now terrified of flying. I am due to go to New York in December and I have been dreading it but I feel a little more relaxed after reading this report as I know there are things I can do incase of emergency.
M, Cambridge

I'm flying to Australia in a few weeks. Such information is just what I need. Thanks again to the Beeb for providing us with the little facts that make all the difference.
Prysor Williams, Pandy Tudur, N. Wales

If smoke is such a big killer, then why not have smoke hoods stored with Lifejackets under every seat. They would cost next to nothing, weigh virtually zero and take up almost no space when folded, but perhaps save more lives than lifejackets ever did, giving that few minutes needed to get through the smoke and out of the exit.
Dave, Tonbridge, UK

Of the stats quoted, I expect the majority of survivors are from small, light aircraft. Indeed, what is an aircraft defined as for the purposes of these statistics? The fact remains that when heavy passenger airliners slam into the ground, the impact forces and resultant debris/ shrapnel will kill you and you will not be able to hold a brace position. It is nonsense to suggest otherwise. the safest place to sit? At home of course! Could Milla Harrison please mention some good examples of when a plane has crashed into the sea, and has avoided violently breaking up. If there were some good stories of people surviving jet crashes into the sea, then correct lifejacket technique might become of interest. With the exception of planes running off the end of a runway into the sea, I was under the impression that the sea doesn't make a good landing zone.
Andrew Other, Manchester

Surely one of the easiest ways to reduce death and injury from the initial collision would be for the seats to face backwards. Then, instead of having to adopt an unnatural brace position, the seat would provide the necessary support.
kevin mcilroy, harrow

Professor Galea says that it is NOT a matter of fate surviving a crash, but that there are things that you can do to improve your chances. However, it could still be fate that those people survive. It was fate that they sat where they did and took the action they did. Therefore it was fate that they survived!
Matt Jones, Northallerton

This article actually makes very little sense. The seatbelt bit? What, so the survivors often had difficulty undoing their seatbelts? And? How was this helpful to surviving? All this article does is reitterate the safety talk at the begining of each flight - and we all know that!
Glyn Williams, London

I saw a test on TV and if people knew the number of rows to the exit and had made a plan, they emptied the airplane quicker and 45% more people would survive. So now I always do that count and plan, and also read how to open the doors.
Fiona Macartney, Rugby, UK

There is a factual error in this report, air travel is not necessarily the safest form of transport. It all depends how it is measured, in fact rail travel wins on safety in terms of accidents per journeys and accidents per hours travelled. Air travel only edges it on accidents per mile travelled.
Andrew Kelly, Bath

I've always assumed that the best place to sit to have a best chance of survival is somewhere near the back next to the aisle, the premise being is that the rest of the plane acts as a huge crumple zone. This assumes that the plane doesn't stall or drops tail-first out of the sky.
Dave Mills, Nottingham

Before every flight the cabin crew give a safety briefing on all this important stuff. Next time you fly look around the cabin when this is happening. I'll guarantee at least 50-75% are not listening and watching. These are the people who are going to be between you and a safe exit if it all goes wrong... Reassuring thought isnt it?
Bob Ward, Great Yarmouth UK

I used to fly 15 or more times a year over a period of 10 years and can agree with all the advice above. Awareness of exits and your own location, wear the seatbelt at all times and always put your shoes back on well before landing, not after the plane has stopped! The other unwritten rule of any disaster is that you have to know that you are going to survive, never ever give up!
simon mallett, UK Maidstone

I've just recently had to travel quite frequently by air for business, having previously only flown for the occasional foreign holiday. I'm amazed at how few other people actually listen to the on-board emergency briefing given by the flight crew prior to take-off. Perhaps the survivors of plane crashes are the one's that DO listen!
Max Harris, Crawley, UK

Why are you asking the survivor how her seat choice helped her? She isn't an engineer. She has no special insight. Ask an expert.
Lindsay, Glasgow

I can't help thinking that this story is rather misleading. Aren't most of the events you call "crashes" in fact "crash-landings", or even just "emergency landings"? Also, I have never heard of a large aircraft coming down on water and not breaking into pieces (seaplanes excluded). Having said that, flying is still the safest way to travel, and I'm not afraid of flying - but if a plane I was on crashed, I would NOT expect to survive.
Gordon Morrison, Basingstoke, UK

I think that one of the simplest things to do to improve your chances is to listen to the safety announcement. I get quite annoyed at the businessmen who have done this flying thing so many times that they think they don't have to listen. My safety will also depend on them doing the right thing if the time comes.
John Powers, Kettering Northants

Some very good advice but the alternative brace position simply would not be possible for many people in economy class as the seat pitch is too short. My knees are usually touching the seat in front so there is no way I could put my head down to my knees.
Dave, Horsham, UK

It's good to know this, however one question- how on earth are you supposed to adopt the braced position over your knees (position 1 in the picture) when most airlines in economy class dont give you the room (as most of the chairs are so close together you are alomost sitting on the person behind's legs)??
Emma Lipman, Bahrain

How many airlines have you travelled on that give you anough leg room to adopt the "protective brace" position?
Peter Smithj, Surbiton, UK

Depends on the magnitude of the crash-Of the 568 crashes how many were very trivial? Of the sort of crashes that people really worry about i.e. flying into a mountain or exploding mid air at 30,000 feet I don't think an airbag is really going to help!
james, Doncaster

I don't see why they haven't invented some sort of system which envelopes the whole seat and protects you from fire, smoke and impact. You almost end up in some kind of baloon type contraption, with air inside, which would also float if the crash happened at sea.
Tony Brannon, Alvechurch, UK

Let's not have unreasonable survival expectations. The Economist recently reported that, in the history of aviation, there has been no case of passengers surviving the crash-landing of a wide-bodied aircraft on water. Skip the life-belt drill.
John Heath, Edinburgh

Air travel is indeed the safest per mile travelled, but is not the safest per journey. That safety title goes to rail travel.
Dominic, London

I always have a wry smile when the flight attendents point out the "whistle and light" on the life jacket "for attracting attention". I just assumed the flaming wreckage of the crashed aircraft would be sufficient!
C Simmons, Belfast

As a retired Firefighter, when myself and wife fly anywhere I always ask to be seated at the main entrance/emergency exit doors, generally one has to be physically fit to be afforded these seats, as in the event of an accident/emergency you can assist Cabin Crew to open door or doors. I also tell Flight Attendants that I am a retired Firefighter, this usually goes down well. My main suggestion would be that in the event of an accident/emergency where fire and smoke ingresses into the cabin, I would keep as low as possible to the cabin floor as there is always air close to the floor, making my way to exit with my wife behind me, but in constant contact by touch, this should ensure as safe a passage to exiting the Aircraft as is possible under such extreme conditions. If at all possible, panic should be avoided and controlled at the onset of it happening.
Allan L. Mair., Cumbrenauld, Glasgow, Scotland.

I heard that the brace position is requested as the crash position on a plane becauase it's the most efficient way to break your neck and therefore make your death instant. Maybe an expert would like to comment?
Lee Pike, Cardiff, UK

This sounds bizarre, but I feel it merits some consideration. I have always thought that the roofs of aircraft should be fitted with a series of massive parachutes. These would be deployed, manually or automatically, in an apppropriate emergency to bring the aircraft down safely.
C. Matthews, birmingham, uk

The image: ALTERNATIVE BRACE POSITIONS made me laugh. When was the last you sat on a plane and there was that kind of leg room. Most people, myself included have to enjure plane journeys with their knees wedge tight up against the seat infront.
shaun, brighton

Some experts feel that it is safer to be seated backwards, facing the tail, if a crash occurs, because your body supposedly takes the impact in a less harmful way. Travellers supposedly like to ride facing forwards, but I would definitely trade a view for greater safety. I always ride the train facing backwards for the same reason.
DeeDee Doke, Ely, UK

Don't military transporter jets that carry soldiers have seats back to front, which is supposed to be better for survival in an event of a crash. I have read that commercial airlines don't do this because passengers like to sit going forwards. They also so that the back of the plane is generally safer and that is where the black box is usually located.
JT, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

When black box flight recorders were invented it was hailed as the beginning of the end for plane crashes. With the information gathered from the boxes of downed aircraft, it was said that eventually we'd understand all potential problems, and that in turn would eventually stop crashes. There's hundreds of points on an aircraft that can be monitored, but only a few crucial pieces of info are, such as air speed, height, etc. If that technology had been exploited when it was invented, we could have put a serious boot into the chances of dying in a plane crash. Military planes rarely crash, because they are constantly linked through satellites to ground control, where someone can monitor every point on the plane, alerting the pilot to potential dangers. If this (expensive) system was installed with commercial jets, maybe I wouldn't be too scared to fly...
Alan McAllister, Glasgow, Scotland

As a crew member of 35 years the first thing a passenger could do to help themselves would be to watch and listen to the safty demonstration. So many people think it is clever to read the paper and be seen not to watch. With the newer seats in First and Club class cabins the Life jacket is not always UNDER THE SEAT and the positon of the seat required in an emergency is NOT always upright.
R Sayle, Hampton

I've heard that wearing cotton clothing as opposed to anything made of non-natural fibers is better in cases of fire onboard a plane, or anywhere for that matter. The fabric will not cling to your body if it catches fire, increasing the magnitude of the burn(s) received and chances of getting third-degree burns. I always wear cotton clothing when flying just in case.
Rebecca, Crystal Springs, Mississippi, USA

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