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Staying Alive: How to Survive an Air Crash

02/26/2009

The recent successful ditching of a US Airways Airbus in the Hudson and crash landing of a Turkish airliner at Amsterdam emphatically underscore something lots of flyers don’t realize: most airline crashes are survivable. Matter of fact, the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) www.etsc.eu estimates 90 percent of airline accidents worldwide fall into that category.
 
Prior to US Airways Flight 1549, the most dramatic recent evidence of this was the 2005 crash of Air France Flight 358 at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. All 297 passengers and 12 crewmembers managed to evacuate the massive A340 in between 90 and 120 seconds when it crashed on landing in bad weather. Everyone lived.
 
The Canadian Transport Minister called it a “miracle.” Sounds a lot like the reaction to US Airways. But the absence of death in both instances was also very much a matter of superbly-trained crews making a life-saving difference. 
 
“Flight attendants are specifically trained to evacuate a plane in less than 90 seconds,” says Corey Caldwell, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants www.afanet.org. “It’s second nature to them.”
 
What’s not second nature to flyers, however, is preparing themselves for something that will probably never happen. The best thing you can do is pull out that safety card from the seatback in front of you and take a long, hard look at it. “See how things work,” says Caldwell. “Panic comes from the unknown.”
 
“Every time I get on an airplane, I pick that safety card out, read it and study it.” The words are those of the late C.O. Miller. No mere frequent flyer, Miller was the director of the Bureau of Aviation Safety at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) www.ntsb.gov. “Even if you’re sitting next to an exit, you should have alternate avenues of escape,” he said in an interview with this reporter. “You can’t depend on any given exit being available to you.”
 
Indeed, before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) www.faa.gov okays an airliner to carry passengers, it mandates the aircraft be able to be evacuated within 90 seconds – with half of it’s exits blocked. 
 
If most people assume most accidents aren’t survivable, they also assume sitting in the tail is some sort of high-tech talisman, potent protection from the ravages of a air crash. “The tail does have, given the total spectrum of crashes…a safer position,” said Miller. But he cautioned, “The improvement is so small, I think it’s outweighed by other factors.” Factors such as a bumpier ride, engine noise – especially in rear-engined jets such as the CRJ-200, and MD-80. Those rear engines can also be the source of fire, the number one killer in otherwise survivable accidents.
 
There’s a robust debate that about whether commercial airliners should be fitted with smoke hoods for passengers. The FAA says not, that requiring them to don the masks would delay evacuation. Manufacturer. Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the United States Department of Transportation  www.dot.gov begs to differ. “Smoke hoods should be on every airplane around the world,” she contends.
 
You don’t have to wait for governments to take action. You can buy your own protection. The price of a smoke hood can be significantly less than the cost of joining an airline club – and it could just save your life.
 
Before you buckle up for your next flight, up your odds of staying alive should the unthinkable occur. Do what the folks up the cockpit do, run through your own survivability checklist:
 
+       Read the safety card. Locate the two exits (on different sides of the cabin) closest to you. Count the number of seats between your seat and those escape portals;
+      If there’s a fire, and you don’t have a smoke hood, crouch as low as you can to the floor. That’s where the good air is. Follow the lighted paths to emergency exits. If those lights don’t come on, fall back on the row count you made;
+       Try to carry a leather coat with you when you fly. You can use it as a temporary shield against fire while you escape. This is precisely what one savvy flyer did in the April 4, 1977 crash of a Southern Airways DC-9. It saved his life;
+       If you’re in an exit row, practice in your mind how to open the overwing exit. Some of those exits are heavy. Make sure you can handle them before sitting in an exit row. Instead of just opening the hatch and putting it on the seat next to the opening, many experts advocate throwing it out the opening. That way it doesn’t block other passengers from escaping;
+       Before you open the hatch, or the emergency exit door, look out through the window to make sure there’s no fire immediately outside the exit area. If there is, fall back to the second exit you identified; 
+      When you get to the door, do as you’re told. Don’t freeze at the exit. Cross your arms in front of you and exit in a sitting position. Don’t grab on to the emergency evacuation slide; 
+      Don’t panic. Listen to what the flight attendants have to say, and follow through immediately. Don’t even think about trying to evacuate with a carry-on bag or laptop. Leave them behind;
+     If flight attendants aren’t able to tell you what to do, don’t just sit there. Don’t succumb to what experts call “negative panic,” and vegetate in semi-shock waiting for someone to rescue you. Remember. Get out of the airplane fast. It’s your key to staying alive;
+       If, like the passengers of US Airways 1549, your flight has to ditch, know where your lifejacket is. Not all aircraft have them. But most have seat cushions that can be used for flotation. If your aircraft does have lifejackets, put yours on before leaving the airplane, but do not inflate it until you get out of the aircraft. Otherwise, you risk getting stuck in an exit. Seat cushions are Velcroed to the bottom of the seat frame. Just pull the cushion loose, and put your arms through the straps on the bottom and hold it to your chest. Again, wait till you leave the aircraft before doing this.
 
The key to staying alive is knowledge, something more than a vague idea of what to do if things go wrong. Run through your own checklist in mind before buckling up, just as the pilots and flight attendants do.

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