Six Secrets Of Surviving A Plane Crash

Passengers in an inflatable raft move away from an Airbus 320 US Airways aircraft that has gone down in the Hudson River in New York, Thursday Jan. 15, 2009. It was not immediately clear if there were injuries. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
Written by Ben Sherwood for

I'm an aviophobe: I've been afraid of flying most of my life and practiced all kinds of rituals every time I boarded a plane. I tapped on the door frame, muttered various incantations, and believed that my superstitious efforts helped keep the plane safely in the sky.

Then I began writing The Survivors Club, a book about the secrets and science of the world's most effective survivors and thrivers. Along the way, I interviewed people who escaped from demolished airplanes and attended the Federal Aviation Administration's cabin evacuation course in Oklahoma City. That's where they offer a master class in running from "burning" jets, jumping down slides, and ditching in the water.

The first thing I learned is that most passengers do not die when plane crash. In the last few decades, 95.7 percent of the travelers involved in aviation accidents survived. That's right: 95.7 percent. In the most serious crashes, 76 percent survived. In other words, even in a bad crash, three quarters of the fliers make it out alive.

So what are the risks on your next flight? According to the experts, your chance of dying on your next trip is 1 in 60 million. That means on average you could fly every single day for the next 164,000 years without ever having to run for your life.

If you're like I am, statistics don't erase the fears. Indeed, I figure I'd be the guy whose plane crashes on day one of those 164,000 years. But then I learned that up to 40 percent of the people who die in plane crashes could have survived if they knew what to do and took immediate action. That caught my attention. I wanted to know how to save my life in a crash.

Here are six tips from the experts:

1. Plus 3 / Minus 8
In the first three minutes of flight and the last eight minutes, pay attention. That's when 80 percent of the accidents happen, usually in wet or icy conditions. (The emergency on US Airways 1549 occurred within those first three minutes). So when you get on the plane, don't take off your shoes, put on your headphones, and take a nap. Stay alert. Read the safety card and listen to the safety briefing. The FAA says that 60 percent of us ignore the safety briefings, and the worst offenders are frequent fliers. So listen up. What you hear could save your life.

2. The Rule of 5
Forget about whether the front of the plane is safer than the back - or vice versa. Sit within five rows of any exit. That will increase your chances of getting out in a fire. Experts have studied seating charts in deadly crashes and five rows is the typical cut-off. Beyond that range, your chances of surviving are greatly reduced. Extra tip: Aisle seats are safer than window seats. They give you more mobility and options in a crisis.

3. 90 Seconds
In a crash, you only have 90 seconds to get off the plane before a fuel-fed fire can burn through the aluminum skin of the jet and turn the cabin into a 2,000 degree inferno. Before takeoff, pick your primary exit and count the rows to it. Then pick your backup exit and count the rows. In thick smoke, you may not be able to see the exit, so you need to be able to count the rows by feeling the seats.

4. Forget About Your Roll-On
Believe it or not, passengers in emergencies have actually tried to escape with their carry-on bags. Ask yourself: is your toothbrush or new John Grisham novel worth your life? A roll-on can slow you down and block the aisles or exits. Every second counts. So leave your stuff on the plane.

5. Don't Forget Your Spouse And Kids
In a crash, don't worry about panic, pandemonium and mayhem. Surprisingly, survivors describe a kind of "organized chaos." Sure, there's pushing and shoving for the exits. It's only natural. But in an emergency, most people - around 80 percent of us - end up in a kind of stupor. We sit bewildered, awaiting instructions from the pilot or flight attendant. It's called "behavioral inaction." If you're ready for it - it's an automatic response - you're more likely to snap out of it. And before you flee, remember to take your spouse or kids. Experts say that husbands have been known to run without their wives. And moms have scrammed without their kids. Remind yourself on takeoff and landing who matters to you and what you will do for them in an emergency.

6. Relax
Far more people die of heart attacks on airplanes than in crashes. So, relax. Enjoy the flight. And remember that you can actually save your life.

Ben Sherwood is executive director of and author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. He is a former executive producer of ABC's Good Morning America and senior broadcast producer of NBC Nightly News.

Written by Ben Sherwood for