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 fell out of the sky. Plane crashes are rare, headline-making events, but most aren't nearly as deadly as big-budget Hollywood movies make them out to be.

Air Plane Crash Survival 101

First of all, let's get one thing straight: It is vanishingly unlikely that you'll even find yourself in a plane crash. But even if you do, despite what you might think, you actually stand a pretty good chance of surviving. According to a report from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, among passengers unlucky enough to experience a plane crash between 1983 and 2000, 95.7 percent survived. That's 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 aren't plummeting to the ground in free-fall like a skydiver without a parachute; they're riding inside of a giant tube of metal designed to maintain its integrity 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 whatever angle they were in when their engines quit. You can thank Newton's first law of motion for that one.

But if you want to boost your chances of survival even more, there are safeguards you can take. First, prepare ahead of time: Wear clothes and shoes that are easy to move in. If you can, choose a seat near the back of the plane. A study by Popular Mechanics that looked at every U.S. plane crash over more than three decades (which, to drive the statistical point home, meant only 20 of them) found that passengers in the rear are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the front. Once you're on the plane, don't let yourself doze during takeoff or landing — that's when the chances of a crash are highest. And if you think you're about to crash, brace for impact, as there's some evidence that could up your chances, too.

The Odds Are in Your Favor

In 2018, 561 people died worldwide in airplane crashes. That might seem like a lot, but it adds up to only one death for every 3 million flights. Even though 40 percent of passengers report fear of being involved in a plane crash, your chance of dying in one is roughly one in 5 million — and that's at the high end. By comparison, the average person's chances of dying simply walking down the street are about 1 in 500. You also stand a higher chance of drowning, choking on your food, or dying of sunstroke. In that case, maybe you should be more worried about what you do on vacation than how you get there.

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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.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell August 2, 2017

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