Plane crashes seem rare these days, but as last week’s vivid incident on the San Francisco runway reminds us, they still do happen and the results can be fatal. Since I am in the Florida Keys with my daughter and we are flying across the country in a few days, the San Francisco accident admittedly gave me a scare. Fortunately, I came across an interview with Ben Sherwood, the author of The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, which included smart tips for increasing your odds that you will survive a plane crash – if you happen to be so unlucky as to be in one. As it is the summer travel season, I thought I would share Mr. Sherwood’s and other experts’ potentially life-saving tips with you:
1. Maybe the most important tip: Sit as close to an exit as possible. A study by University of Greenwich’s Ed Galea, an expert on how people react and survive in emergency situations, examined the seating charts of over 100 plane crashes and discovered that those within 5 rows of the emergency exits had much better odds of survival than those farther away from exit doors. Aisle seats are also statistically safer than other seats as it allows you to exit the plane faster than people in middle and window seats.
2. Galea also found that seats at the back of the plane were safer statistically than those in the front (sorry, First Class). Passengers in the tail of the airplane enjoy a 40% higher survival rate than those in the first few rows.
3. Always keep your seatbelt snugly buckled when sitting in your seat. “Snug” is the operative word here: Every centimeter of slack in your belt triples the G-Force your body will experience in the crash. Also, keep your belt low on your pelvis, rather than your abdomen, as your bones can handle impact better than your soft internal organs.
4. Pay attention to “Plus Three / Minus Eight.” This is aviation lingo referring to the first three minutes of being airborne and the last eight. Why is this time frame important? Eighty percent of all crashes happen in this eleven-minute window. Rather than take off your shoes, snooze or pick-up a magazine, pay close attention during take-off and landings for any signs that something may be amiss.
5. On average you have 90 seconds to exit a burning plane before the aluminum hull of the aircraft is no longer protective. Leave luggage, purses and laptops behind. Also, remove high-heeled shoes. Smoke is one of the biggest threats to plane crash survivors, so if possible, place a cloth over your nose and mouth as a rudimentary filter. Again, if possible, for added protection make the cloth wet before using.
6. Sherwood emphasizes that how you react to an emergency situation and how prepared you are has significant bearing as to whether you will survive it or not. Easier said than done, but do not panic. Panic, says Sherwood, is the enemy of survival. Being prepared helps prevent panic. When boarding a plane memorize where you are vis-a-vis the emergency exits. Formulate and VISUALIZE your exit plan – for example what if the closest exit is not available, where is the second closest exit? The third? Imagine yourself getting to the closest exit and out to safety. ”You are responsible for your life,” Galea warns, “If you know what you’re doing, you’ve got a better chance of surviving.”
7. In most extreme emergencies, about 90 percent of people either panic or freeze, while only 10 percent keep absolutely calm, are able to think clearly and instruct others on how to save themselves. If you happen to be a deer-in-the-headlights person or one who is prone to hysteria and you come in contact with an Indiana Jones-type (i.e. calm, cool and collected), do your best to follow his/her instructions.
8. Statistically people who are in better shape are more agile, more alert and better able to escape. Also, being thin increases your survival chances in a plane crash as you may be required to squeeze through tight spaces to safety. While you are not likely to suddenly get in shape or become thinner for an upcoming flight, you can choose to be as alert as possible. Do not drink alcohol or take sleeping pills that will impair your ability to respond quickly in an emergency, especially in those crucial minutes before take-off and landing.
9. Listen to those safety instructions before take-off, even if you have heard the drill a hundred times. Have your children listen as well. Look at the emergency card and consider the different impact positions that can be assumed during a crash. A child has a different impact position than an adult. Bracing upon impact makes a difference on survival rates. This was well demonstrated by Discovery TV that crash tested a Boeing 727 in Sonoran Desert. They had the Boeing 727 equipped with crash test dummies, dozens of cameras, sensors and a crew of daring pilots, who parachuted from the plane minutes before the jetliner careened into the ground.
10. Be positive – while accepting the worse case scenario. While you may feel a sense of hopelessness in the advent of an impending crash or immediately following a crash, remember that the survival rate of plane crashes is 95.7 percent! That is an incredibly high rate of survival for something as dramatic as a plane crash.
After sharing his plane crash survival tips, Sherwood likes to reassure his audience that actual crashes are highly unlikely and the odds are that you will survive. ”You could fly every day for the next 164,000 years and not have an airplane crash,” he said. I don’t know about you, but I find that last statistic the most comforting. But in the advent of a crash, thanks to Mr. Sherwood and others, I also feel more empowered that I can survive.