Surviving an Airliner Crash

This week’s crash of Asiana 214 was a terrible event with great miracles – the survival of 305 people out of 307 onboard the airliner. When I initially wrote about the accident, I said I would follow up with some common sense procedures every airline passenger should know.

Fortunately, most of us will never experience something as terrible as an airplane crash. However, if you do find yourself in an airliner that is about to crash, here are important considerations to keep in mind. I wrote about the training I received in the Navy and how I still use that very training to this day each time I find I have to fly as a passenger. For the most part, the public has not had access to this training. For those with an interest, what follows is a safety briefing that goes beyond what you might hear from the flight attendants prior to departure. Keep reading and follow through with these important, common sense rules in the event you find yourself in an airliner crash.

One most important aspect of surviving a plane crash is avoiding panic. This is much easier said than done. Following an event, those who will survive will do so because they have a clear head. As long as you are in control of yourself, you can function. If you can function, your probability for survival increases substantially.

Always remember the only thing that is important is survival. Forget about your carry-on luggage, your laptop, your purse, or anything else you may consider important. The one, and the only thing that is important, is staying alive. You can replace everything left in the airplane; you cannot replace your life.

When the flight attendants begin their pre-flight safety brief, pay attention! The flight attendants are not there to serve drinks and hand out blankets and pillows. They are highly trained professionals who never get the credit deserved for the job they do and the undeserved abuse from some of  the flying public. Every time I have flown “back in the tube,” I am amazed at the number of my fellow passengers who ignore the safety briefing. Yes, the cabin crew is there to help keep passengers comfortable, but more importantly, they are there to take charge in the event of an accident.

Flight attendants have specialized training allowing them to save passengers following a crash. Do what they tell you to do! Failure to follow through with their commands could be a punishable offense. Do not hesitate, just do it. You might not have a second chance in an emergency.

Another important contribution to survival is your seat location. If you can, try to obtain a seat at the emergency exit. If the airplane is already crowded when you book your ticket, book as close as possible to the emergency exit. The closer your are to a way out of the airplane, the higher your odds of survival.

You should also memorize the way out. Count the number of seat rows between your seat and the emergency exit. This is an important number because if the cabin is involved in a fire, you probably will not be able to see where you are going. Hence, the necessity for counting the rows on your way out of the aircraft.

Something else to consider is that going down the aisle might not be best way out. In other words, you may have to turn into an Olympic athlete and bound over the seats between you and the exit. You might have to do things you would not normally do to get out of the airplane.

Also, remember that if there is a lot of smoke, you may have to get as low as possible and crawl out of the airplane. Remember that heat (and smoke) rises leaving the clear, breathable air down near the floor of the cabin. This is another reason it is important to count the rows between your seat and the exit; you might not be able to see to find your way out.

Once you are clear of the airplane, you should get as far away from the wreckage as possible. However, the flight crew may need you to help them in helping others. No one would blame a survivor who leaves the immediate area of a crash; it is the correct thing to do. Yet, there is also a moral obligation to help others.

If you are substantially uninjured after the crash and in a possible position to help others, do so under guidance of the flight or cabin crews. Remember, they are the experts in aviation and they will know what they are doing, but they may need and may require help from able-bodied passengers. Follow through with their orders if you are capable, but don’t feel guilt if you decide you should move away from the accident.

Remember that accidents may happen anywhere. So entertain the possibility of going into the water. Again, having the rows memorized between your seat and the exit is extremely important regarding your survival – especially underwater.

The most important aspects of staying alive after crashing is always being observant, controlling your panic, and doing what you are told without question. More than likely, you are never going to be involved in a plane crash anyway, which is a very common belief.

It is this belief that leads to complacency on the part of many passengers, especially the “frequent flyers.” This, of course, severely decreases their chances for survival.


©2013 J. Clark

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5 Responses to Surviving an Airliner Crash

  1. Brenda Stuglik says:

    Good info! Years ago my sister-in-law who was an Air Force officer taught me to count the seats to the nearest exit, something I have taught my children – an exercise we have gone through every time we fly since they were little. They laugh about it, but they always count! And always look behind you because the nearest exit could be there. Another tip she gave me was for women to not wear hairspray when they fly because it can be flammable. She also said she always wears natural fibers like cotton – it doesn’t melt in high heat. You are right – people ignore the safety briefing. I took a cruise once and my husband and I were the only one’s who met at our designated life boat for the safety briefing. Unbelieveable! Thanks for the tips!

    • Joe Clark says:

      Brenda, Thanks for adding so much more to this blog! All very good information – I have never thought about hairspray, but I could see how that would be highly flammable and not something anyone would want in their hair during a hot situation. (We really enjoyed all the photos from Hawaii, Jessica was beautiful.)

  2. Trey Hardy says:

    Great points Mr. Clark! Ever since dunker training I have been counting seats from a primary exit as well as a secondary exit in case primary is either too backed up with people or damaged. A personal practice of mine is wearing proper shoes. Everyone seems to be wearing flip flops or loose slip on shoes when flying these days for ease of passing through security. I always wear a good pair of laced shoes or boots. Having to evacuate a burning/damaged aircraft barefooted should be motivating enough to spend the extra minute or two passing through security removing shoes.
    Take care,

    • Joe Clark says:

      Trey! How are you? Good points that add to the blog. I remember that dunker training also. That is where I learned patience. The first time I went through blindfolded, I tried to get out quickly and was rewarded with another ensign’s boot in my face, rather hard. After that, I waited just until everything settled down and I knew the mad rush for the exit was over. OK in training, not so OK in real life…

      Thanks for what you’re doing, fly well, fly safe, have fun.


  3. Harrison says:

    Great discussion, Joe. Here’s another angle to look at. When an airplane makes a hard landing (even if there’s no damage) it is not unusual for the oxygen masks to deploy. This landing certainly qualified and one of the photos of the interior shows all the masks hanging down. Oxygen flow doesn’t begin untill the passenger pulls the mask down lower and the lanyard pulls the pin on the cannister. The passengers that did listen to the briefing probably pulled the mask and started the flow. Others probably pulled the mask in the mad dash to exit. The point is, with the burn pattern taking the roof off the airplane, it’s likely that the cannisters in the overhead were feeding oxygen to the fire or cooking off once the fire began (the initial source was probably the burning engine next to the fuselage). These are the same oxygen cannisters that ignited in the cargo compartment of the Valujet DC-9 that departed Miami and went into the swamp. The news is reporting that the pilots said they were using auto-throttles and relying on them for speed control. My question is, “So what?”

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