If your plane is crashing is there anything you can do to save yourself?
July 30, 2015 4:54 PM   Subscribe

I travel a lot and I often wonder if you know your plane is going down is there anything you can do to save yourself. For example, could you turn the spare liferaft into a parachute? Or would it be better to try to move to the back? Assume the plane can't be saved. What would mcgiver do?
posted by gwen1234 to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Put your shoes on. Also go back in time and make sure you're wearing closed-toe, comfortable shoes.
posted by threeants at 4:57 PM on July 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

I have a relative who is a professional aviation-industry observer. I've asked him about this, and here's what he says. He says that the plane crashes that you hear the most about are the catastrophic ones, and those are generally not survivable. But most plane crashes aren't ones in which planes fall out of the sky. They're planes sliding off of a runway or landing gear failing to come down or something like that, and those are totally survivable. He says that you should wear shoes that you can comfortably walk in, and you should actually pay attention to the little safety spiel at the beginning of the flight. When they tell you to look for the closest exit, do it and remember where it is. Then, if something happens, don't panic, but also don't just sit there. Listen to any instructions from the crew. Unless you're told otherwise, get out of the plane as quickly as you safely can. Once you're out of the plane, move away from it as quickly as you can.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:08 PM on July 30, 2015 [44 favorites]

don't wear synthetic fabrics. listen to the flight attendants. count the number of seatbacks betwee you and the exit row. leave your belongings behind in an evacuation and hope to god the people around you do the same.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:08 PM on July 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

As someone who has jumped out of a plane before, I can assure you that you're not going to hang on to an inflatable raft and glide to safety. Also, running around in the aisles is a really bad idea.

The best thing to do would be to fasten your seatbelt. Whenever you get a crash where most of the people live, the ones that don't are generally the ones not belted in.
posted by ryanrs at 5:08 PM on July 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

(actually, the synthetic fabrics things is something every combat pilot from the 60's I ever knew--which is a lot--always told me. I don't actually know if it's still true).
posted by crush-onastick at 5:09 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I remember a great TV show called "why planes go down" and the things I took away from it were noted above, don't wear synthetics, wear closed-toed shows that you could walk/run in (you might think you can run in high heel stilletos but there's a good chance you'll have to talk them off to go on the slide) and to count headrests so you know how far you are from the exit *even in the dark/smokey/dusty chaos*. From the utter disinterest many of my fellow passengers show to the 'your nearest exist may be behind you' I think people assume that their exit will be in a well lit, level plane with nothing in the way and all the time in the world (which doesn't even describe exiting from a perfectly normal safe arrival).

Wear your seatbelt and tighten it for landing and if you're going to crash. But wear it all the time anyway. My parents insisted we wear our seatbelts through the whole flights even before this became the regular advice because being suddenly bounced off the ceiling doesn't do anyone's necks any good.

I like to sit on the aisle, for many reasons but I figure I have a better chance of getting out. As a 'prepare for all disasters' type of person I also like to look around me in case there are any babies/small kids I should note to grab, especially where one parent has two in their care.
posted by kitten magic at 5:22 PM on July 30, 2015 [16 favorites]

I always wear jeans in case I have to go down an escape slide.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 5:47 PM on July 30, 2015

I have been on two commercial flights where the plane started to literally drop like a rock. Both times I was so busy trying to hold on to the seat, not bash my head on the ceiling, or crack any of my teeth that I only able to watch that oxygen mask bounce around, and luggage from the overhead compartments fly around the cabin. The best advice I could offer is this: keep belted in as much as possible, even if the flight seems placid. You are much more vulnerable while walking around (It was terrifying to see the flight attendant being thrown around like a rag doll). And try to minimize the amount of stuff you have around you. If you need to quickly move (and sometimes you literally have seconds to decide), you don't want the strap from your carry-on bag tripping you.
posted by LilithSilver at 6:09 PM on July 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

Can someone clarify why you shouldn't wear synthetic fibers? Is it because it's flammable? So what does that mean? What fabrics can I wear? Could I wear denim?

I think about this all the time when I fly too, and I just always sit near an emergency exit row. Ideally, I am in the emergency exit row, or I'll sit in the back of the plane. There a joke I've heard that goes something like, "You never hear of a plane backing into a mountain." I'm not sure the back of plane is any safer, but I feel like I'd have a better time escaping back there if I had to.

I also always wear my seatbelt tightly. Air travel is very safe, but I hear about the fuselage coming apart on a commercial plane in flight, and although no one was hurt, I have no interest in being sucked through a hole on the roof of a plane.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:16 PM on July 30, 2015

Well, the pilots always told me it's because fire tends to be the danger in crash landings. Synthetics melt in high heat, causing extraordinary burns; whereas cotton will flame up, burn you, and then turn to ash, synthetics melt and cling to you exacerbating the burns. Wool, as noted above, smothers itself.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:24 PM on July 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

I read once that the fire after impact kills far more people that the impact itself, and that the best thing to do is memorize the number of rows to the nearest emergency exit so that you can find it in the smoke if you survive impact.
posted by COD at 6:26 PM on July 30, 2015

AppleTurnover, I read somewhere that the back of the plane is statistically a more survivable location.

Here are tips for surviving free-fall, such as might happen when your plane breaks up at 33,000 feet.
posted by univac at 6:26 PM on July 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I watched a "how to survive a plane crash" TV show once that talked about a flight where many survived the initial impact but died from burns. There was fire and people tried to stop-drop-roll to put the flames on their clothes out and ended up rolling in jet fuel. So yeah, run clear of the jet fuel. Don't think that graphic image hasn't stuck in my brain for YEARS...
posted by cecic at 6:42 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, synthetics melt and melt into your skin and the burns are incredible. When you try to remove it, your skin comes with it. (Even minor home burns involving synthetic fabric typically require ER care to remove the melted fabric and clean the burn.) Natural fibers - cotton, linen - will just burn up and be done with it. Denim is fine, it's cotton. If you're in the US, all your clothes have tags telling you the fiber content.

A Packers fan once survived a small plane crash by protecting his head with his foam cheesehead, but that seems too idiosyncratic to be generally helpful. He did the rounds on late night talking about his cheesehead.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:52 PM on July 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

After you're on the ground, watch out for emergency vehicles.
posted by bendy at 6:57 PM on July 30, 2015

Yes, what Eyebrows McGee says about the burns re: synthetics. That upsets me about the uniforms the flight attendants wear, and their pantyhose, ugh. Their job is to do their best to help all the passengers in an emergencie but if they are wearing crummy synthetic uniform skirts and pantyhose that lead to them having much more chance of bad long term injuries. Good quality wool fabric slacks would be much better.
posted by kitten magic at 7:14 PM on July 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, read Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters and Why. There is value in rehearsing crisis response.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:14 PM on July 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

If the opportunity presents itself, you could always do this course Otherwise, pay attention to the briefing, think through your critical actions in likely scenarios (evacuation route, etc) before they happen, keep your seatbelt on whenever you are in your seat and if you have to evacuate, don't take you carry-on!
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 7:41 PM on July 30, 2015

Don't open the emergency exit if there is fire outside it. And, learning from the AA MD80 that crashed in Little Rock some years back, don't be afraid to use a newly torn hole in the fuselage as an exit if necessary. Better to use the actual exit if possible, though, since you're much less likely to break your ankle using the slide.

Somehow it was always comforting being the one sitting next to the overwing exit, though. Especially knowing to look before opening. People have died due to overzealous emergency exit opening before. When the smoke and flame is outside, it is really best not to let it in. You might open the exit and make it out, but you just cost everyone else on the plane a couple of minutes by letting the smoke into the cabin.
posted by wierdo at 7:46 PM on July 30, 2015

Statistically, it seems like your odds of surviving are better than you would think: "In the US alone, between 1983 and 2000, there were 568 plane crashes. Out of the collective 53,487 people onboard, 51,207 survived".

Of course, when your number is up, it's up. Getting tagged by an anti-aircraft missile wielded by less than competent militiamen, or having a suicidal pilot ... *shrug* Personally, I recommend buying life insurance. I find I can handle imminent personal demise a lot easier if I know my family will manage okay without me.

But still ... take the case of United Airlines Flight 232 [obvious trigger warnings] I'm posting it to illustrate that there is still hope even in some of the worst situations: 111 people died, but 185 people survived. Given the violence of that crash, 185 survivors is pretty fucking amazing.

A bit more information in this cracked.com article. (say what you will about cracked, they seem to care more than many about getting things right).

If all else fails, you can always hope that some future civilization will time-tunnel you off the flight (and drop a cloned corpse in your place) so they can make free with your primitive and unsullied DNA.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:53 PM on July 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Know the number of seats between you and the exit and do not let go of one until you are holding the next. If it's dark and things are moving around you should never NOT be holding something. Do not unbuckle your seatbelt until you can steadily grab something and after that count the seats till the exit without ever letting go. Study the card and know how to open the exit door even if you can't see it.
posted by sillysally at 9:05 PM on July 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know how true this is, but I've read several places that people who are drunk are more likely to survive most types of accidents. (Car wreck, thrown from horse, plane crash) Something about causing you to relax your muscles rather than tense up on impact.
posted by quincunx at 9:07 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, because I find this fascinating, here is the full list so far, in order of timing:


1. wear closed-toe, comfortable shoes
2. don't wear synthetic fabrics
3. pay attention to the little safety spiel at the beginning of the flight
4. look for the closest exit, remember where it is- count seat rows
5. sit in the aisle seat, near an exit, the furthest back in the plane you can
6. don't have heavy loose stuff in your seat
7. be drunk


8. don't panic
9. listen to the crew
10. stay seated
11. buckle your seatbelt
12. use the brace position
13. protect your head


14. don't open the exit door if there's a fire outside
15. get out of the plane as quickly as you safely can and move away from it
16. don't linger trying to save others or your belongings
17. do not stop drop and roll, at least in or near the plane
posted by quincunx at 9:32 PM on July 30, 2015 [19 favorites]

(minor book spoiler)
In Mary Roach's 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers' she interviews an NTSB-related crash investigator who analyzes human remains for clues. At one point she asks something like, 'If you had your preference, where in a commercial airliner would you sit?"

Dude: "First Class."
posted by j_curiouser at 11:54 PM on July 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of the major killers with fire is smoke inhalation, in the hours after the fire. So, during/after crash, do what you can to avoid inhaling too much smoke.

You might be able to breathe through a tshirt for example. And get as far away from anything on fire as possible - and DON'T go back in to rescue people! Often the people who die from smoke inhalation are the people who tried to go back and save others.
posted by Ashlyth at 2:23 AM on July 31, 2015

Flight attendant mother who drilled this into me as a child:

1. Always wear shoes for take off and landing. For both, keep your head straight and against the seat behind you to prevent whiplash if there is an aborted take off or landing.
2. Before take off count the number of rows both in front of you and behind you to the exit door. You may be in complete blackness and smoke and you can touch the backs of the seats to know where the exit is to get out.
3. Keep a blanket and bottle of water with you throughout the flight. In the case of fire during an emergency landing, soak the blanket in water to cover yourself to jump through any flames.
4. Get well, well away from the aircraft immediately.
5. Do NOT go back to the airplane.
posted by meerkatty at 2:50 AM on July 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

We watched this documentary once and it completely changed my attitude toward flying. I know religiously read the safety card every time I fly and obsessively count seats to the exit.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 5:40 AM on July 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm a pilot and I work on large aircraft.

Most crashes, the people in the back of the plane are going to have no idea what's going on until it happens. All those crash-of-the-week TV movies featuring long, agonizing crises from altitude are not representative of most crashes. In fact, the vast majority of crashes happen on takeoff or landing. You simply won't have time to recognize that there's a problem and prepare yourself for it.

What that means is that you need to prepare yourself ahead of time. When I fly commercial, here's what I do:
-Yes, comfortable shoes - but they must have laces. Slip-ons, sandals, etc., will come off your feet and now you have no shoes.
-Seat belt. This isn't like the one in your car; it's not designed to prevent whiplash or striking things with your head. It's so you don't bounce around the cabin. You really want to stay put.
-Put everything away. Consider your "strike envelope" - if the vehicle comes to a sudden and unexpected stop, your head and limbs are going to keep moving forward and flail around a bit. Do you have unsecured objects around that might smack you in the face? That's bad. I will read a book or my iPad right up until we take the runway, but at that point the lighter stuff goes in the seat-back pocket and anything heavier goes in my bag under the seat. Same thing on approach to landing.
-NO HEADPHONES. You need to be able to hear things, especially emergency announcements.

Now, I have had a small amount of emergency training for some flight tests I went on, and here is some information from that:
-Aside from the cockpit, all the seats in the plane face backwards. If you're in a crash, it's safer to absorb all that energy through your back than to let your limbs and head fly around. Once we're airborne, the seats that need to can turn around to face consoles or whatever.
-The plane I work on comes equipped with axes. There are areas in the cabin marked with bright orange tape - these are places on the fuselage that are safe to cut open with the axe. If you manage to survive a crash that still horribly mangles the plane to the point that the emergency exits don't work, you are expected to cut open the fuselage with the axe and leave that way. (I would not suggest trying to cut open an airliner with your own axe.)
-There are survival suits in lockers on the plane. We were taught (and, on reflection, I have no idea how this would actually be accomplished) that if the plane was going down to collect a suit, put it on - this is a one-piece overall type thing - and then sit back down again and buckle up. Again, I'm having a hard time imagining a situation where things are so bad that you need the suit but safe enough that you could walk around the cabin without getting yourself killed.

Oh, and parachutes. Parachutes are a terrible idea. The plane I work on does not have parachutes. It does have an escape hatch that was meant for bailing out with parachutes, but it's been disabled for years. Do not jump out of a plane with a parachute.

Why shouldn't you? Well, a couple reasons. The most boring and pragmatic one is that there is no way to open the doors of an airliner without depressurizing it first, and if you're at 30,000 feet and you do that you will quickly pass out and probably die. Those little oxygen masks don't have a ton of hose for you to walk around with, and the flight attendants get first dibs on the portable bottles.

Second, assuming a) you can get a door open and b) you actually have a parachute, you're not actually going to go straight down like you think you will. You're very likely going to hit one of the many things that are sticking out in the airstream, like the wing. Or the tail. Maybe you'll get lucky and be ingested into one of the engines. This is why our bail-out hatch was disabled - not only can you not get it open until you're below 10,000 feet, but as soon as you slide out the airplane, the prevailing wind catches you and before you know it you're making sweet love to the leading edge of the wing.

However, all is not lost! I do have one MacGuyver solution for you, for one very particular modern-day problem. Battery fires.

Lithium-ion batteries, like what's in your cell phone or laptop, are generally pretty safe. Sometimes, though, they have a tendency to catch fire. This is enough of a concern that air cargo carriers will not ship lithium batteries, and the FAA has done a bunch of research into the causes of these fires and how to mitigate them.

If you are on a plane and notice that someone's iPad is ignoring the no smoking sign, the best way to extinguish the fire is to take whatever soft drinks are immediately at hand (hopefully the beverage cart is close) and keep dumping it on the device. You're trying to do two things here - first, extinguish the fire, but also you want to cool the battery as much as possible to prevent the fire from reigniting. Attempting to smother the fire with a blanket or even ice doesn't work because without that cooling effect, the battery will quickly go up in flames again. If you manage to get hold of a fire extinguisher, it will help to extinguish the initial fire, but you still need the liquid for cooling.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:07 AM on July 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

Also, the emergency slide is a slide, not a trampoline. I heard that people have injured themselves by jumping onto the slide and then bouncing off onto the tarmac.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2015

They mention it in the spiel, but not the reason why, so I think it needs emphasis: if you're in a water landing, don't inflate your vest until you're outside of the plane. If the plane is filling with water, you may have to dive down a few feet to get through a submerged exit door, and you will likely be unable to do this if your vest is inflated. You'll have to get out of your vest and leave it inside the plane, and now you're in the water without a vest.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:07 AM on July 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

Mythbusters tested out various configurations of the recommended brace position and determined it does reduce the impact in a simulated crash scenario. So yeah, assume the position. Notice from the little safety card how it's different for short people/children/infants than it is for average adults.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:20 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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