The Surprising Odds Of Surviving a Crash

Airplane accidents evoke a particular kind of dread -- not only are they terrifying, they also often look unsurvivable.

But the fact is that a majority of people walk away from even the most fiery crashes. Last month, 11 people survived a corporate-jet crash and fire in Teterboro, N.J., in which the plane skidded across a highway before smashing into a warehouse.

Broadly speaking, the numbers are compelling. From 1983 to 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated 26 major commercial accidents involving 2,739 people. A total of 1,525 survived, or 56%.

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Eleven people on board a corporate jet survived when the plane skidded across a New Jersey highway and into a warehouse.

Considerable research has gone into making plane crashes more survivable, which has led to a number of changes. For instance, the now-familiar floor lighting, which is intended to help passengers find the exits if a cabin fills with smoke. Newer airplanes also have stronger seats, designed to stay bolted down against crash forces.

More improvements are coming, says David Palmerton, the Federal Aviation Administration's expert on protection and survival. For instance, researchers are looking for fire-blocking materials that could be used in insulation of airplanes that could give passengers precious additional seconds to escape rapidly advancing jet-fuel fires.

Partly as a result of improvements like these, surviving a crash isn't necessarily a matter of fate. However, passengers can take a number of steps to increase the odds of walking away unharmed. "The flying public thinks if you're in an accident, you're going to die. So you don't need to know what to do, and don't pay attention to the briefing or read the safety card," Mr. Palmerton says. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

The FAA conducts extensive testing at a laboratory in Oklahoma City on airplane seats, evacuation techniques and other important aspects of crash survival. U.S. and British researchers have been examining crashes for years to see what helps get people out of planes that crash with the hull more or less intact, and what hinders evacuation and results in deaths even when travelers survive the impact of a crash.

Planes could be a lot safer if we faced backward rather than forward, for example. Sideways seating on corporate-jet couches, by the way, is terrible for crash survival, Mr. Palmerton says, resulting in serious neck injuries.

Short of smarter seating, here are some tips for travelers.

Count how many rows there are between you and emergency exits, both in front of you and behind you. The counting helps in case smoke or darkness makes it tough to see clearly.

I went through the FAA's smoke-demonstration program -- where an old airplane hull is filled with theatrical smoke -- and it will make a row-counter out of you. Smoke collects quickly at the ceiling of a plane, and comes down to blanket you within seconds. Hunched over, it's easy to lose track of where you are.

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In this 1999 crash in Little Rock, Ark., 136 of 145 people on board survived.

Use the "crash position" and brace for impact. Coach seating these days doesn't give most of us enough room to get our head between our knees. But an alternative is to put your head in your hands and lean against the seat in front of you. "It works," says Mr. Palmerton. "You're hitting the seat whether you want to or not."

Leave your luggage. As absurd as it sounds, fire-truck videos of real-life emergency evacuations show passengers going down slides clutching belongings -- even when the plane is on fire. Smoke can fill a plane in seconds; spend that time getting out, not getting your carry-ons.

Stay low and breathe slowly. Hunched over works best if you can (if you crawl, you might get trampled). And know that breathing aircraft-fire smoke is going to hurt; the slower you breathe, the better.

Get through exits quickly, but one at a time. Doors are small, particularly the exits over the wings; they can easily become clogged with bodies, with deadly consequences.

Don't worry about taking your shoes off. That no longer is necessary since the plastic used in evacuation slides is tougher and can resist rips better these days.

Help at the bottom of a slide if you can. Flight attendants typically ask able-bodied volunteers to assist sliding passengers. Having someone help you up and move you out prevents piles of people at the bottom -- a frequent problem in evacuations -- and makes it easier for scared passengers to jump. Videos of real emergency evacuations repeatedly show that volunteers wait only so long before running off themselves.

The biggest threat in a survivable crash is fire. Jet fuel (essentially, kerosene) burns very hot at 1,500, hotter than the melting point of aluminum. In addition, materials used in manufacturing airplanes give off toxic smoke, so the fuselage can become a deadly gas chamber in as little as 90 seconds. Just as quickly, heat can become so intense that a "flashover" occurs, where the entire cabin explodes in instantaneous combustion.

Bottom line: Get out quickly. To be certified, a commercial airliner has to have enough exits to get a full load of passengers out within 90 seconds, using only half of the doors.

Mr. Palmerton says researchers have found that there are four main factors that determine whether an evacuation will be fast or slow. First, the configuration of the plane matters -- the size of the exits, how densely seats are packed on the plane, whether there's a bottleneck at the front, for example.

Curiously, research now shows that the width of exit rows doesn't matter. In fact, a wider exit row may cause trouble during an evacuation, because it's wide enough for two people to try to get out at once -- causing a jam.

Currently, the standard width for an exit row is 20 inches, but Mr. Palmerton predicts that eventually regulations will revert back to the old standard, 13 inches.

In addition, the experience and training of the crew matters in rapid evacuations, and the environment matters: evacuations are slower at night or in the rain.

The fourth factor is dubbed "biobehavior," and hinges on the sex, age, experience and physical and mental state of passengers. Panic can be deadly if people fight to get out, or freeze up and sit.

In 1984, a Pacific Western 737 had a engine failure that spewed white-hot parts and led to an intense fire in Calgary, Canada, with 119 onboard. There were no fatalities -- partly because, Mr. Palmerton says, 75% of passengers were frequent fliers who knew the plane and the exits. There were no handicapped travelers, elderly passengers or children on board.

A year later, a British Airtours charter to Greece had a similar engine failure and fire on takeoff from Manchester, England. Of 137 people on board, 55 died. Panicky passengers clogged a narrow aisle, producing gridlock.