The US Air Crash into the Hudson River proves that most of the things we believe about surviving airplane accidents are completely wrong. "Miracle on the Hudson" is a perfect headline to describe the pilot's incredible landing and the perfect evacuation of 150 passengers.
But as I learned over the last few years writing a book called The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, the truth about who lives and who dies in plane crashes and other emergencies may surprise you.
First, many people believe that everyone always dies in plane crashes. And there's good reason: the greatest tragedies are ingrained in our memories. It's terrible and true: Everyone died in the most infamous crashes. Valujet 592 in the Florida Everglades. TWA 800 in the Atlantic. Swissair 111 in Nova Scotia. EgyptAir 990 over the Atlantic. Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.
Despite these disasters, the truth about most airplane accidents is that people do survive. In fact, according to the US government, 95.7 percent of the passengers involved in aviation accidents make it out alive. That's right. When the National Transportation Safety Board studied accidents between 1983 and 2000 involving 53,487 passengers, they found that 51,207 survived. That's 95.7 percent. When you exclude crashes in which no one had a chance of surviving--like Pan Am 103--the NTSB says the survival rate in the most serious crashes is 76.6 percent. In other words, if your plane crashes, you aren't necessarily doomed, just like the passengers on US Air 1549 in the Hudson.
Second, many people believe that everyone panics and freaks out in a crash. Panic is usually defined as contagious, groundless, unreasoning fear. Fortunately, that kind of panic almost never happens. It's not groundless or unreasonable to scream or cry when you're told to "prepare for impact." Nor is it hysterical or mindless to push toward the exits. That behavior is entirely rational and purposeful. In emergencies, researchers have found, most people actually freeze until they're told what to do. Some people also engage in what's called situational altruism--they help each other.
So how can you survive a plane crash? After going through the FAA's plane crash survival school in Oklahoma City and interviewing many experts and survivors of plane crashes, here are four key tips:
1. Sit within five rows of any exit. One British safety expert reviewed seating plans in more than 100 crashes and interviewed nearly 2,000 passengers. He concluded that five rows is the cut-off for getting out of a burning plane. Beyond that range, your chances of survival are much lower. People in aisles seats have higher survival rates than people in window seats.
2. Pay attention to the safety briefing and develop your Plan A and Plan B in the event of an emergency. Count the number of rows to your nearest exit and your backup.
3. Focus on your action plan during the first three minutes of flight and the last eight minutes. That's when around 80 percent of accidents happen. In other words, before takeoff and landing, don't take off your shoes; don't put on a face mask to sleep; and don't wear earphones.
4. Relax. Your chances of dying on your next flight are one in 60 million. That means you could fly every day for the next 160,000 years and enjoy the peanuts without a problem.