How to Survive a Plane Crash: 10 Tips That Could Save Your Life

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nearly 96 percent of plane-crash victims survive; knowing what to do during this emergency is crucial to saving your life
  • 40 percent of airline crash fatalities occur in crashes that are survivable, which means many deaths are preventable if the proper steps are taken
  • Getting out fast (within 90 seconds), staying fit, choosing bigger planes and sitting within five rows of an exit, in an aisle seat, can all improve your chances of survival
  • Avoiding becoming complacent, rehearsing your action plan in your mind, staying vigilant during takeoff and landing, and assuming the correct brace position during a crash are also important

By Dr. Mercola

If traveling through the sky going speeds of 500-600 miles per hour, at altitudes of 30 to 40,000 feet, makes you nervous, you’re not alone. An estimated 26 million Americans feel anxiety about traveling by air1 yet many have no choice, either due to their careers or their overriding desire to travel the globe.

Yet, statistically speaking, flying commercially is actually quite safe. In the last five years, a US passenger’s risk of dying via air travel was just one in 45 million flights, which means you could fly every day for 123,000 years without being involved in a fatal crash.2

Furthermore, thanks to the widespread media attention that fatal jet crashes receive, it’s commonly believed that most airline accidents are fatal. In reality, on average the survival rate of crashes was nearly 96 percent from 1983 to 2000.3 Even when fire or other substantial damage occurred, nearly 76 percent of passengers survived airline crashes.

The difference between life and death in such situations may come down to your moment-to-moment responses and how much you have or have not mentally prepared for those crucial moments after an accident occurs.

40% of Airline Crash Deaths Are Preventable

Before you take your next flight, the tips that follow, from Ben Sherwood's book The Survivor's Club, as reported by “The Art of Manliness,”4 are a must-read. The idea is not to make you overly anxious or paranoid, but rather to be smart and prepared in the rare event that an emergency occurs.

According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 40 percent of airline crash fatalities occur in crashes that are survivable. In other words, many deaths are preventable if the proper steps are taken.

How to Survive a Plane Crash: 10 Key Tips

  1. You've Got to Get Out in 90 Seconds

    It's fire, not the impact, that kills most passengers in a plane crash. And it takes, on average, just 90 seconds for a fire to engulf the plane's fuselage. So as soon as a crash-landing occurs, take immediate action to get to an emergency exit and get off the plane.

  2. Stay Fit

    Plane-crash survivors are most likely to be young, slender and male, according to simulated evacuations conducted by the FAA. This is because people who are fit have an easier time navigating the narrow aisles with speed and precision, ultimately cutting their evacuations times by about 31 percent compared to slower, older people with wider girths.

  3. Choose Bigger Planes and Avoid Regional Carriers

    The bigger the plane, the better the survival rate in a crash, as larger planes have more energy absorption (subjecting you to less deadly force) in a crash. Regional carriers, which often hire less experienced (and overworked) pilots, have double the accident and incident rate of national carriers.

  4. Sit Within Five Rows of an Exit, in an Aisle Seat

    People who survive a plane crash are often seated within five rows of an emergency exit; those who have to move more than five rows to get out have a lower chance of survival. Sitting in an aisle seat also gives you better survival odds compared to sitting in a window seat.

  5. Guard Against the “Normalcy Bias”

    The Normalcy Bias, in which your brain assumes things will be predictable and normal, can cause you to stay in your seat after a crash instead of taking immediate action. Frequent flyers are at particular risk of Normalcy Bias and complacency. Guard against it by mentally rehearsing what you'll do in the event of an emergency, including:

    • Knowing how many rows you are from an emergency exit
    • Talking with your travel partner about who will be responsible for which child (if you're travelling with kids)
    • Sizing up your neighboring passengers to determine who might be a roadblock to your exit
    • Not expecting assistance from flight attendants (who might be incapacitated)
  6. Read the Safety Card and Listen to Flight Attendants

    Don't check out during the pre-flight safety spiel. Listening, and also reading the safety card, will keep potentially life-saving safety procedures fresh in your mind, and remind you again where the nearest exits are. As the safety procedures are being explained, formulate your action plan in your mind.

  7. Remember the ‘Plus 3/Minus 8' Rule

    Nearly 80 percent of plane crashes occur in the first three minutes after takeoff or the last eight minutes before landing. During this time, be extra vigilant and ready to take action by not sleeping, having your shoes on and going over your action plan. Be sure your seatbelt is securely fastened (low and tight), and avoid drinking during the flight.

  8. If Your Oxygen Mask Drops, Put It On Immediately

    It takes only a few seconds of oxygen deprivation to cause mental impairment, so if the oxygen mask drops, put it on right away (before assisting others).

  9. Assume the Brace Position

    The brace position can increase your chances of survival in an emergency crash landing. In addition to fastening your seatbelt low and tight, bend over with your forehead over your lap and your arms holding your knees. Alternatively, lean forward so your forehead is touching the head of the seat in front of you, bend your arms and place your hands and forearms against the seat back as well (on either side of your face).

  10. Forget Your Luggage, Remember Your Kids

    It sounds obvious, but when emergency strikes you might not be thinking clearly. Remember to get your kids off the plane with you (and ideally discuss with your travel partner who will take each child beforehand). Leave your carry-on luggage, briefcase or purse behind, even if it seems like you have plenty of time to retrieve it.

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You're Most Likely to Be Injured by Turbulence

Turbulence, or air movement that typically occurs unexpectedly, is actually the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers (and flight attendants) in nonfatal accidents.5 About 58 people in the US are injured by turbulence accidents each year while not wearing their seatbelts. While FAA regulations require that passengers wear their seatbelts during taking-off, landing, taxiing and when the seat belt sign is illuminated, it’s a good idea to wear your seat belt at all times when you’re seated.

Turbulence can occur at any time during a flight due to atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, weather fronts or thunderstorms. It can also occur even when the sky appears to be clear, so fastening your seat belt is one of the simplest ways to stay safe and avoid injury when you’re travelling by air.

Anxious While Flying? There's an App for That!

I've previously featured some useful apps for health and fitness, but if you have a mild to moderate fear of flying you may want to try the “Fear of Flying Flight APP,” which is an app developed by the VALK Foundation that claims to be your “in-flight therapist.”

The app helps to relax you before and during flights by educating you about aerodynamics, flight safety, turbulence and what to expect during a typical flight. There's even a panic button that gives audio and written information to help lower stress levels – and the entire app can be used in airplane mode, ensuring you have full access while in the air.