Yesterday’s incident of a crash landing on the Hudson River where there was a 100% survival rate got me thinking about airplane crash survival and prep. Apparently several others were thinking about it too, there are several articles out in the last (less than) 24 hours about surviving a plane crash. Hopefully I can provide a useful summary and some fresh thought on this topic.
The NTSB released a study of plane crash statistics and survivability in 2001 they analyzed data for crashes from 1983 to 2000. I’ll be summarizing and referring to it frequently, the entire report can be found here. I was surprised to find that, overall, plane crashes are indeed survivable. Just as with surviving a nuclear war, I had assumed or thought I knew (without any research at all) that if a plane crashes you’re pretty much dead. With that foregone conclusion, I had not really looked into it at all. Here’s a quick shot of data from the NTSB study regarding crashes in a year and the number of survivors from those crashes:
- 2000 – 54 accidents – 92 fatalities – 4,108 survivors
- 1999 – 52 accidents – 11 fatalities – 4,286 survivors
- 1998 – 50 accidents – 0 fatality – 4,550 survivors
- 1997 – 49 accidents – 6 fatalities – 5,264 survivors
- 1996 – 37 accidents – 350 fatalities – 3,552 survivors
- 1995 – 36 accidents – 168 fatalities – 3,921 survivors
In this study, the year with the highest fatalities is 1985 with 525 fatalities. Interestingly (as it coincides with my previous assumptions) in 1992 the Civil Aviation Authority of the UK found that people rated aircraft accidents as the least survivable type of transportation accident. We should be able to discern from the above data that that is not the case – you can survive a plane crash and in fact, the chances of doing so are very high. For the data included in the NTSB’s report, they found that 95.7% of those involved in a plane accident survive.
The FAA studied a set of survivable plane accidents (meaning that at least one person survived) between 1990 and 1995 and found that 68% of fatalities died as a result of injuries sustained during postcrash fires. In the NTSB study, they found the following causes of death in 26 serious accidents (there were 2,739 passengers involved)
- 340 (12.4%) Unknown causes (autopsy reports did not specify)
- 131 (4.8%) Fire/Smoke
- 28 (1.0%) Other (included drowning, mechanical asphyxia and trauma)
Hopefully from this data you draw the same new conclusion that I have – an airplane crash is very likely survivable and beyond the impact of the crash, your greatest threat is fire. So, now that we can conclude that if we’re involved in a plane accident there is a good chance we can survive, let’s look at things we can do to increase our chances and what preps we can make to do so.
Airplane Fire Survival
The interior of the plane began to fill with intense, heavy black smoke, which was extraordinarily painful to breathe and very toxic. . . . It quickly became pitch black in the cabin from the heavy smoke, in spite of the bright light from the fire on the left side of the plane. I could only make out the vague outlines of people directly in front of me. As I moved down the aisle, I encountered a mob of fighting, frenzied people jamming the aisle trying like myself to get out of the burning aircraft. By this time, I was feeling very faint and I later guessed I only had about 15 to 30 seconds of consciousness left. Every breath caused me to convulse and was extremely painful. I crawled and stumbled away from the plane and ran about 30 yards before stopping. My lungs hurt terribly and I coughed and choked badly for about 5 minutes before I could breathe normally again.
David H. Koch, USAir Flight 1493 Survivor
Take a few hundred people, put them in a long, narrow, aluminum tube, seat them closely together, surround them with thousands of gallons of jet fuel, give them only a few exits to use, and you have what may be a fire safety official’s worst nightmare.
—Jeffrey A. Marcus, Civil Aeromedical Institute of the FAA
As in any fire survival scenario, but perhaps even more so in this case, smoke is the most dangerous part of the situation. On a plane the only provided protection from smoke is the drop down respirators that hopefully drop down and work. But what about your eyes? Not only do you need to keep smoke out of your eyes, but in the situation of David Koch, it was pitch black.
After researching and considering all this, I’ve decided there are two things that I’ll always carry with me whenever I board a plane – the MyXcaper Personal Smoke Mask Kit and a good flashlight. I’ve never used the MyXcaper but having looked at a lot of options in the last day, I really want to get one and give it a try. The kit comes with a pair of form fitting goggles and the MyXcaper Smoke Mask. What I like about the MyXcaper Smoke Mask is that it is a moist filter system. From their site:
The revolutionary Xcaper moist filter delivers unparalleled protection by absorbing hazardous toxins including Carbon Monoxide and nearly 100% of particulate matter common to smoke from fires. The moisturizing agent, a 100% all natural plant extract allows for easy breathing. (Kit includes: Xcaper Smoke Mask, Xcaper Goggle, MyXcaper Carry Bag (6” x 9”). When filled with all items, the bag is only 1” thick. It fits easily in a purse, briefcase, backpack, etc. This filter has a 3 year shelf life.Now Only: $29.95
So for 30 bucks you get the mask, goggles and a carry case. Thinking more on this, if I like it once I try it out, I think I’ll get several of these for the house, one for my BOB, one for my EDC bag and at least one for the office (carpet puts out a LOT of toxins when it burns). I really like the idea of carrying one of these.
In addition to carrying the Xcaper system, carrying a compact flashlight with a tight, bright beam is another thing I’m going to start doing whenever I fly. I believe that current flight restrictions would be ok with this but I’m not sure – I’ll find out next time I fly!
I’m starting to think a lot more about an airplane survival kit and I think I’m going put one together over the next couple weeks. The key features of it I think are that it be very compact so that when you’re flying you can just put it in the seat pocket in front of you. That it contain the previous items and some first aid stuff like guaze bandages etc that you can treat wounds with, most likely for someone that’s been hit by an object thrown from impact.
Other Safety Precautions
There are some other good articles I found in my research that discuss different safety precautions. I’ll summarize them here but link to them as well.
- Actually LISTEN to and Pay Attention during the safety presentation, I know it’s boring and the cool stuff in the magazine in the seat is more appealing but you don’t want to be going down and thinking “Now, what did she/he say to do?”
- On awareness of upcoming impact, tighten your seatbelt as tight as possible
- Know where the emergency (and other) exits are and how to get to them from your seat. Note which ones are easiest to get to based on passenger density
- Count rows, know how many are between you and the exits – then you can count them on your way out if you can’t see
- On awareness of impact, make sure projectile and loose objects are removed from your person and area
- On awareness of impact, put on your smoke mask and goggles if you have them, or use the plane’s. Put your flashlight in your pants pocket.
- Brace yourself on impact, there are a lot of ideas on what is best here
- Once the plane comes to rest GET OUT!
- Once you’re out, put as much distance between you and the plane as you can
- There is some belief which seems to be somewhat substantiated that the rear seats of the plane are the safest. Might be good to sit in those.
Here are some of the articles that I found most useful. If you’re interested in further reading, I recommend them.