Surviving a Plane Crash – When It Happens

Paul Pinkerton


If, like me, you fly frequently, it must cross your mind at some point that there is a chance one day you may be the victim of a plane crash. Some crashes cannot be survived, others, (in fact, the vast majority) can be survived. A US government study found there were 568 plane crashes in the US between 1993 and 2000, involving a total of 53,487 passengers and crew. Of these, 51,207 — or over 90 percent, survived.

Even of the 26 crashes deemed the worst, the study found that more than half the passengers and crew survived. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be in a plane that crashes, there are things you can do to better your chances; assuming the crash is survivable.

The main killers are:

1. Not bracing correctly for the crash.


2. Panic – tonic immobility: Not putting on an oxygen mask – not being able to release the seat belt – not following evacuation instructions.

3. Dealing with smoke – not being able to find an exit.

4. Not getting out of the plane quickly enough and leaving the crash–zone fast enough.

1. Bracing for the crash:

The internationally accepted position for bracing

Currently, on the Internet, there is a lot of chatter about whether or not the brace position is any protection against injury. Some suggest it could even be a fatal thing to do. What are the facts and what should one do?


The most incorrect thing to do is to ignore the brace position in the belief that you are going to die anyway, so why bother? The fact is, there is a good chance of survival for most in a survivable crash, but there is also a very real chance of serious injury if you do survive. Adopting the brace position will reduce the chance of serious injury (not eliminate the risk entirely). The main impact–injury risks are to the head, neck and legs. The brace position is designed to reduce injury to all three areas.

If there is insufficient room for you to brace correctly, you should sit up straight and push against the seat in front of you. In any event, you are trying to do three basic things by bracing. Get your torso as low as possible to reduce the jack–knife effect at impact; stop yourself from flying forward and hitting the seat or other parts of the aircraft interior; and preventing injury to your legs and ankles that will hinder your escape from the aircraft. It is wise to place soft hand luggage under the seat in front of you, because on impact, the feet will fly forward and many have sustained broken shins and ankles when the legs hit the seat in front. Your soft hand luggage bag will protect your shins and ankles. Your feet should be firmly on the ground and placed back towards your bottom, further back than your knees, not straight or stretched out in front of you.

It is wise to place soft hand luggage under the seat in front of you, because on impact, the feet will fly forward and many have sustained broken shins and ankles when the legs hit the seat in front. Your soft hand luggage bag will protect your shins and ankles. Your feet should be firmly on the ground and placed back towards your bottom, further back than your knees, not straight or stretched out in front of you.

Injury to the head is caused by the head falling back and then smashing forward into the seat in front. Even in the brace position this will happen, but the force of the impact is cushioned a little by the seat in front of you.

One thing to beware of: If the seat in front has a fold–back tray (most do), position yourself so you do not smash into the plastic catch that sticks out. You also risk head injury from flying objects, another reason to adopt the correct brace position and cover your head with your hands.

If you can, add additional protection for your head — a pillow or coat, for example; this will also give you some protection if the person next to you smashes sideways into your head. Be sure that you have removed any dentures, pencils or other sharp objects from around your person. Also be sure to hold the brace position until the plane has come to a standstill — often there will be additional impacts after the initial one.

Injury to the neck is whip–lash, as in a car crash. Adopting the brace position may reduce the effect of this. Everything depends on how the plane crashes and how much force is transmitted along the fuselage towards the passengers. You can only try to give yourself the best possible chance.

People who are too fat, or physically unable for any reason to bend forward to reach the seat in front must bend forward as far as possible and follow all the other rules for bracing.

2. Panic – tonic immobility:

It is well documented that after a plane crashes everyone is in a state of shock, passengers and crew alike. Some people freeze and sit there waiting to be told what to do; some do not react even when they are told what to do. For everyone, there is a risk of confusion. The world has suddenly turned on its head. Both hearing and sight may be impaired. Simple tasks in those vital few moments become labored and the mind plays tricks.

One of the strangest findings of research into crashes and passenger behavior is that over and over again people struggled with what you’d imagine would be the easiest of tasks — undoing their seat belts. The reason is that in times of stress people revert to learned, normal behavior and when it comes to seat belts, normal and learned behavior comes from unfastening a car seat belt.

Following a crash, investigators found that many people scrabbled around to find the push–button release on their belts, as this is the release with which they were most familiar. Aircraft seat belts unbuckle. As for the belt itself, pull it as tight as possible. For every bit of slack on the belt you are increasing the potential g–forces to which you’ll be subjected. Practice opening your belt one–handed with your eyes closed.


Seconds count after the impact; it is a moral dilemma just how much you choose to help those in trouble around you. Surviving the crash is stage 1. Stage 2 is to get out of the crashed plane as fast as is humanly possible. Stage 3 is to get as far away from the plane as possible in the shortest possible time.

One of the keys to survival can be to listen to and follow the crew’s instructions, but if they (or your immediate neighbors) appear to be in a trance, then you have to make your own moves and decisions. In a similar vein, stunned passengers were often found to have remained seated waiting for instructions that, for whatever reason, didn’t come. Move.

Not all survivors are heroes – there will be panic as passengers attempt to get out of the crashed plane. If someone is endangering you or those around you, be prepared to deal with them, decisively if necessary. However, a word of caution, even in a fraught situation like this, you are still legally liable for any injury you wilfully cause another person.

3. Dealing with smoke:

A third of all plane crash victims die through smoke inhalation; a smaller percentage from first–degree burns. Most of the smoke victims would have survived if they’d had smoke protection, or at least taken certain precautions. What is really frightening is that smoke protection for passengers is not a requirement for public transport aircraft. The crew, however, have smoke protection hoods. There are many unanswered questions relating to the safety of passengers on public transport aircraft and providing smoke hoods under the seats (along with life vests) is one of them.

The airlines have some reasons for not providing smoke hoods. For instance, an incident took place on a UK Flybe flight from Birmingham to Edinburgh in 2005 when smoke started to enter the aircraft.


The report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said the smoke prevented the cabin crew from seeing the length of the cabin. The report also said that passengers who were suffering from smoke inhalation asked for smoke hoods but they were refused them. The crew complained the smoke hoods had, ‘severely hindered communications with passengers.’ It added that the hoods had proved a barrier to, ‘both hearing and being heard.’ As a result of the hearing difficulties caused by the smoke hoods, the cabin crew did not hear the landing calls made from the flight deck.

The airlines could argue that if all the passengers were unable to hear instructions from the crew, panic and uncertainty would kill more people than would otherwise have died. The truth of the matter is: survival, is really down to you. Knowing that smoke is the main killer and that airlines do not provide any smoke protection for passengers, consider carrying your own smoke hood. When you are not flying it is a good safety item to have in the office or in the home.

Smoke Hood

Emergency smoke hoods are readily available for purchase from specialist supplier and can be bought over the internet. Make sure they are suitable for use on an aircraft, that they are small, portable, fit anyone and can withstand high temperatures without melting all over the head. Be aware that some cheap smoke hoods give adequate protection from smoke, but not from heat. A smoke hood must be made from flame–retardant material or it will kill you in a fire onboard an aircraft.

A smoke hood that is meant for a one–off emergency will come in a sealed, pocket–sized packet. Keep it in your pocket or hand luggage and place your hand luggage under the seat in front of you so you can quickly get at the mask and put it on. Make sure the filter material can handle toxic gasses, such as, cyanide or carbon dioxide. The dense smoke in an aircraft fire is mainly caused by burning seats which are foam–filled and which release cyanide when burning.

What to do if you do not have a smoke hood:

Priority one is to get down low under the smoke. The smoke can kill in a little as 20 seconds, so don’t think too long about it. You must cover your nose and mouth with a cloth. Use clothing, a handkerchief or rip the seat cover off the seat in front of you and use that. You must wet it for it to be effective. Any water will do, including urine. Do not crawl along the ground; you will be trampled on and injured or killed. Walk along in a crouch position, as illustrated below.

Walk in a crouch position; tell others to do the same

The golden rule is to keep your head down, mouth and nose covered but stay on two feet. Climb over seat backs only if gangways are blocked.

4. Getting out of the plane quickly and leaving the crash–zone fast:

People do the most remarkable things after crashes, one of the strangest of which is trying to retrieve some, or all of their possessions. You don’t have time, the possessions will slow you (and others) down, and you will need both hands free, whether it’s to remove obstacles, hold a pad over your nose and mouth or fight off the flailing fists of others.

This said, don’t push (you won’t get through any faster) or lash out yourself — you’ll slow everything and everyone down and invite retaliation: and in a stressful fight–and–flight situation such as a crash, people find extraordinary strength — you could be knocked out or otherwise injured.

The “golden period” for escape lasts only up to about two minutes. Listen to flight attendants, get to an exit fast, check quickly that it is viable both inside and out, then get out and move as far away from the plane as fast as possible. If you pause as you exit, even for a moment, you risk being pushed out of the plane. And whether you stop to help others? Well, that is up to you, and to the reserves of courage and compassion you may or may not have in the situation.


Once out of the aircraft don’t block the exit for the people coming behind you. Move away. In fact, get 150 m away (unless instructed otherwise) to protect yourself from a late explosion. Upwind is better to keep away from any poisonous fumes.

If you’re in the water:

Don’t inflate your vest until you need it to keep afloat. Swim into the waves and wind; the wind will carry fire and smoke away from you; wave action will carry floating fuel away from you. If fuel is burning on the surface of the water, dive down. To surface and take your breath, extend one hand out first and sweep the surface (quickly not to get burnt) to clear an area of burning fuel. Take a deep breath and dive back down as quickly as possible. If there is a danger of underwater explosions grab hold of anything floating and pull yourself out of the water; if you can’t, you may reduce the risk of injury by swimming on your back.

Save your energy:

If you are in the water and have nothing to help you (life jacket, floating wreckage) keep afloat, it is important to save your energy. Unless you can swim to shore (within a reasonable distance and the current isn’t against you) you should avoid swimming and save your energy as much as possible. The density of the human body is much lower than the density of salt water (and for women density is lower than men). This means that it is easy to stay afloat. However, fear often causes people to drown as exhaustion and frenzied breathing leads to swallowing water. A few sips can cause you to drown.

It is important to relax. The easiest way to save energy is to float on your back. You can become more buoyant by taking deep breaths. Some people might have difficulties with this technique. If so, lie on your stomach with your face in the water and spread your arms apart. When you need to breathe, push your arms through the water and raise your head just long enough to breathe.

If the sea is too rough, these two techniques might not work. Use the second technique (float on your stomach), but let your legs dive in. You will almost be in an upright position (more stable in the waves).


Keeping your head underwater until you need to breathe will save you a lot of energy (you don’t need to fight to keep your head out of the water). Relaxing and controlling your breathing is the key.

If you get a cramp (likely in cold water with added fear), relax and use one of the techniques above. Try to press your cramped muscle using your thumb or the palm of your hand. If a second person can help, apply pressure first, then stretch the muscle.

Watch for life rafts being deployed; some planes are equipped with them. Hang onto the life raft if you are not injured; reserve the raft space for children and those who are injured. But stay with the rafts; they will be spotted more easily by rescue workers than a single person floating in a life vest.


Thanks to James Mandeville for this article.  Jame is an ex-Army survival instructor and runs the popular survival website site Survival Expert.

He has many years experience in difficult terrain, notably the Amazon, the African bush and climbing in various mountain regions including the Drakensburg Mountains and the Andes.

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