How Do People Survive Plane Crashes?

Since Wilbur and Orville Wright first took to the skies in 1903, virtually everyone who has traveled by plane has considered what might happen if it falls out of the sky. Plane crashes are rare, headline-making events, but they are not nearly as deadly as big-budget Hollywood movies make them out to be.

Air Plane Crash Survival 101

Despite what you might think, you actually stand a pretty good chance of surviving a plane crash. Among passengers unlucky enough to experience an airplane crash, 95.7 percent survive. This is thanks to the engineering of the plane, its many safety features, and physics in general.

Airplane manufacturers engineer their vehicles for crash safety. Plane crash victims are not plummeting to the ground in free-fall like a skydiver without a parachute. They are riding the inside of a giant tube of metal designed to contract like an accordion when it touches ground during a crash landing. Even without their engines, airplanes are aerodynamic, and will glide (albeit not particularly gracefully) to a crash landing at an angle as a result of their pre-engine-failure inertia through the air. You can thank Newton's First Law of Motion for that one.

But let's say you are unlucky enough to be thrown from the aircraft fuselage, hurtling towards the ground at roughly 120 miles per hour (despite the constant acceleration of gravity, air resistance will keep you from reaching a much higher velocity). If you can't find a nearby piece of debris to ride and use as crash-protective armor, your next best bet is to aim for something soft. At 30,000 feet, you'll have about 2 minutes to manuever yourself towards the most compressible substance you can reach: snow, swampland, and even haystacks are all potentially life-saving choices. Water will not compress, so hitting it will be like hitting concrete.

Whether its the airplane's fuselage, a piece of wreckage, or several tons of soft, fluffy snow, the key to surviving high-velocity impacts is compression. Things that compress in response to force reduce the overall amount of force that travels on. Unsurprisingly, this is also what cars, trains, and commercial buses are engineered to do on impact, and it works.

The Odds Are In Your Favor

In 2016, 325 people died in 19 airplane crashes worldwide. That might seem like a lot, but more than 2,500 left-handed people are killed every year from using equipment meant for right-handed people. Even though more than 40 percent of passengers report fear of being involved in a plane crash, your chance of dying in one is roughly one to 11 million. By comparison, the average person's chances of dying in a car accident are roughly one in 5,000. You stand a higher chance of being struck by lightning, drowning in a bubble bath, or dying after falling out of your bed, but perhaps not quite as high a chance of getting struck by lightning after falling out of your bed into a conveniently prepared bubble bath.

Morbidly curious about crashes? Check out "Plane Crash: The Forensics of Aviation Disasters" by George Bibel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

10 Ways to Survive a Plane Crash

Edited by Austin Jesse Mitchell August 2, 2017

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