How to Survive a Plane Crash


Announcer

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark

Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Stuff You Should Know and I'm Josh Clark. And that's Chuck Bryant. Right, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant

That's a very formal introduction, Josh. I like it.

Josh Clark

Should I loosen up a little bit, maybe?

Chuck Bryant

No, you're good.

Josh Clark

Chuck, do you remember we were talking about the worst way to die in a podcast, several podcasts back?

Chuck Bryant

Uh-huh.

Josh Clark

And I said for me, the worst way to die would be a plane crash.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Because you're on your way down and you're fully aware, the whole time, probably of what's about to happen. I can't think of anything worse than dying in a plane crash, personally.

Chuck Bryant

Right, with a bunch of strangers.

Josh Clark

Yeah, you don't want to die with people you don't know.

Chuck Bryant

No way.

Josh Clark

Okay, so one of the reasons I said that was because I've had a terrible experience on a plane. And nothing really untoward happened, like there wasn't a lot of turbulence or anything like that, but I found out the hard way that I'm actually afraid of flying.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

Most of the time, when I fly, it's to - if I fly at all, it's to Europe or to Mexico or something like that, right? So it's a long flight. I'll take a Clodapin and drink some Scotch and then that's it. I wake up and I'm where I'm supposed to be.

Chuck Bryant

It's like a time travel machine to you.

Josh Clark

Pretty much, yeah.

Chuck Bryant

I like that.

Josh Clark

And it works like a champ, right?

Chuck Bryant

Mm-hmm.

Josh Clark

But the thing is I'm never conscious, or at the very least, cognizant or doing anything but drooling the whole way.

Chuck Bryant

Right, you're that guy. I know that guy.

Josh Clark

Right, well on the way back, actually from Mexico, we had a layover in Miami. I had no pharmaceuticals and didn't have - I think it was a cash flight, cash bar flight. I didn't have any money. What's the point? I just shelled out like half of my life savings for this flight from Miami to Atlanta and you can't give me liquor for free, right.

Chuck B

ryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Anyway, this perfect storm of horribleness transpires and I'm in the air. And all the way from Miami to Atlanta, I'm just completely convinced, over and over again, the plane's about to go down, right. And I was actually looking up how fear works, right. And I found out that when you have a fear response, there's two things going on. Number one is this real quick knee-jerk reaction that alerts you to danger and our old friend, the fight or flight response perks up. And then you've got a more thoughtful process that takes a little longer that's really analyzing context and stuff like that. And then if it concludes you're not in danger, it tells your hypothalamus to settle down.

Chuck Bryant

Be rational.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

And then you calm down.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

But this kept happening over and over and over again. So for three hours, it was like every 20 seconds, I was cresting the hill of a roller coaster.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

It was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. So a lesson learned, as far as I'm concerned. I'll never travel unprepared again. But it turns out, from what I understand that the chances of me going down in a plane - this isn't - facts and figures don't make me feel any better at all.

Chuck Bryant

That's true.

Josh Clark

But rationally speaking, I have a very little chance of going down in a plane, don't I?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. Do you want to know the number?

Josh Clark

Hell yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Are you speculating?

Josh Clark

No, I know that you know. I was setting you up right there.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that's a good one. I appreciate that.

Josh Clark

You're welcome.

Chuck Bryant

Your chance of dying - I'm sorry, not even dying. Your chances of even being involved in an airline crash are one in 11 million. And when you compare that to your chances of actually being killed in a car, and this is the one you always here, airline versus car, are one in 5,000.

Josh Clark

For some reason, I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm not driving the plane.

Chuck Bryant

That's exactly why.

Josh Clark

I have no control over it. And a car, I can maybe steer my way out of it. Do you think that's what it is?

Chuck Bryant

Well, that's one of the big reasons. It's not me thinking this. It's people study this. And the lack of control has a huge part it plays, as well as the fact that negative bias. So a plane crash gets a lot of coverage. So it seems like they're dropping out of the sky with regularity because they don't cover the news - the news doesn't cover car crashes like it does plane crashes.

Josh Clark

No. You're definitely not going to see that on the NBC Nightly News.

Chuck Bryant

No.

Josh Clark

That's true. I've got another way of looking at it with numbers.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

Do you know you would have to fly on an airline every day for 35,000 years to be guaranteed that you were going to be in a plane crash to become inevitable.

Chuck Bryant

That is an awesome, awesome stat.

Josh Clark

That one came from AirDisaster.com and that is a site that I would never recommend anyone go to if you have a fear of flying.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. Or if you don't, (inaudible).

Josh Clark

Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant

I like to fly. It doesn't freak me out at all. Actually, I don't like to fly. I hate to fly, but it has nothing to do with fear of crashing.

Josh Clark

What is it, just the long process of it?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, the process.

Josh Clark

Taking off your shoes in the security check-point?

Chuck Bryant

Oh, I hate that, and being stuck on the plane next to people and touching strangers and people are obnoxious and the smells. I hate it, man. I hate it.

Josh Clark

So you're not a club rubber. You don't like touching strangers.

Chuck Bryant

No, no.

Josh Clark

No, okay. Well good to know, see, little by little.

Chuck Bryant

Club rubber, I've never heard that.

Josh Clark

Oh, I'll explain it later.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

Okay. Well, all right, we understand that there's very little chance that you're going to get into a plane wreck, right?

Chuck Bryant

True, but they still happen.

Josh Clark

It does happen. Some people have a much closer relationship with fate and coincidence and chance than others. So let's say one of our listeners finds himself or herself in a plane that's going down.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

There's some things that you may or may not want to do. And actually, before you even board, when you're booking a ticket, there's some stuff you want to take into consideration, right?

Chuck Bryant

Very true.

Josh Clark

Well, like what?

Chuck Bryant

Well, before we get to that, real quick, people should know just because your plane crashes doesn't mean you'll die, either.

Josh Clark

You're so reassuring.

Chuck Bryant

I know. In fact, between 1980 and 2000, there were 568 crashes in the U.S. And more than 90 percent of them survived.

Josh Clark

That's crazy.

Chuck Bryant

Most of these, I have to say this, were take off and landing crashes. But of the 26 extreme crashes, and I think that means you're at 33,000 feet and then you go to zero feet, you have more than a 50 percent chance of surviving that, even.

Josh Clark

I would lose my mind. I would lose my mind as I was walking away from that.

Chuck Bryant

You would. So having said that, if you are in a plane and you're a fan of ours and you're going down, we feel very bad for you.

Josh Clark

For future you, unless you're actually listening to this on a plane that's going down. If so, hats off to you.

Chuck Bryant

Wow. Right.

Josh Clark

You've really achieved the trifecta. I don't know what the other two things are.

Chuck Bryant

The first thing most people want to find out about is there a safest seat.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and is there?

Chuck Bryant

Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask the FAA, their official stance is no, there's not a safest seat.

Josh Clark

Well sure.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly, that's what I think is they can't really say that because people would be like I'm not sitting there.

Josh Clark

Exactly, yeah. I don't want to sit in anything but the safe seat.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly.

Josh Clark

This is a death seat.

Chuck Bryant

But people study this stuff like you wouldn't believe. Popular Mechanic's, a great magazine, did a study. And over a 36 year period, they studied data of plane crashes, commercial jet crashes in the United States. And passengers in the rear of a plane are, in fact, by their data, 40 percent more likely to survive than those toward the front of the plane.

Josh Clark

That's pretty significant.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

So I guess any of you guys out there who are about to book plane tickets, look for the back of the plane.

Chuck Bryant

Look for the back of the plane.

Josh Clark

Let all the people who don't listen to this podcast die.

Chuck Bryant

People like sitting up front, though, because you get to de-board. De-board, is that a word?

Josh Clark

Disembark.

Chuck Bryant

Disembark off the plane quicker. And no one likes standing in that long line where everyone pulls their stuff down.

Josh Clark

They also die. Which one is it? You have to hear bye-bye a few more times than the people in the front, but you're going to survive if the plane goes down.

Chuck Bryant

True. So I've got some tips for you, though. If you're on a plane, before the crash ever happens, there's a few things you can do to improve your chances.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

You ready?

Josh Clark

Yes.

Chuck Bryant

And this is something, actually, after I wrote this article, I started doing this stuff.

Josh Clark

Did you really?

Chuck Bryant

Oh yeah, man, definitely. I'm not a - I don't believe in bad luck and jinxes, but I thought I was jinxed after I wrote this.

Josh Clark

Really?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. I'm the guy that wrote the article and then I'm going to be the one, ironically, that perishes from 30,000 feet. So once you're on board, get to your seat. Find the exit row. This is a no-brainer, but here's a little trick. What you want to do is you want to count how many rows are between you and the exit row and cement that number in your head, even if you're hopped up on pharmaceuticals and Scotch. So if you count 11 rows to the exit row, a lot of times you might be in the dark. You might be under water. Think about that. You can feel the seats and feel one, two, three, four, five, up through 11 and then you take a left or a right and you're at your exit.

Josh Clark

Right. And don't be mislead by a detached arm. If you're in the dark, know the difference between a detached arm and a plane seat.

Chuck Bryant

Right. I did not put that tip in the article. I should have. The crash position has changed over the years, and not a lot of people know this.

Josh Clark

Yeah. What's the deal? Did you get an impression of why the crash position changed?

Chuck Bryant

My hope is that it's to make it more likely that you'll survive.

Josh Clark

Well yeah.

Chuck Bryant

I hope there weren't politics or money behind it or anything like that. But I think you used to put your head between your legs and cover your - between your knees and cover your head.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Now, that's not true. What you're supposed to do is you're supposed to extend your arms, cross your hands over each other and put them against the seatback in front of you and then put your head against the back of your hands. So you've got your arms stretched out, pressed against the seat in front of you and your head resting on the back of your hands. That's the new, official crash position.

Josh Clark

Now I could actually see the lobby of the in-flight magazine publisher's association having that changed.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

You're going wow. I can get that for that cheap.

Chuck Bryant

I wonder who does the artwork on those things. It's awesome. It's always the same. There's probably one dude in Vermont that does all that artwork.

Josh Clark

For what?

Chuck Bryant

For the in-flight little brochure you get.

Josh Clark

Oh, the calmest Hindu cows people, the graphics?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

I love that drawing, but it's very standard.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it's one guy.

Josh Clark

Sure, in Vermont huh?

Chuck Bryant

Here's a little tip for you. Before you get on a plane, you should dress appropriately. I know that sounds silly if you're going to Maui, you want to have on your Hawaiian shirt and your flip-flops. But after a plane crash, there's glass everywhere. There's jet fuel. There's fire. You're going to want to be covered. So you should never wear open toed shoes. You should wear long sleeves and long sleeve shirt as well.

Josh Clark

Yeah, it makes sense.

Chuck Bryant

If you're smart. Many people won't heed this advice because like I said, they want to be comfy on the transcontinental flights. If you have a family, say you and your wife have three kids, three or four kids and you're getting on the plane, you want to divide the responsibility up between the parents.

Josh Clark

Sure.

Chuck Bryant

Because it's a lot harder for one, like the father, to try and wrangle four family members and you might get separated. So Dad's in charge of little Timmy and Johnny and Mom's in charge of Sue and Jane.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and if you have a lazy spouse, you may want to reconsider flying as a family.

Chuck Bryant

Right. That's a good idea. Take a car.

Josh Clark

Everything may be on your shoulders, yeah.

Chuck Bryant

And listen, and this is a big one, listen to the preflight instructions. I know that's typically, I guess you're trying to get your Scotch. I'm annoyed wit the people on both sides of myself. But this is when you need to be listening because all planes are different and there actually are some variations and instruction, depending on what kind of plane you're on.

Josh Clark

Yeah, I never knew that, actually. I thought it was all the same. So it's good advice, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

And if the oxygen mask drops, you know you're in trouble, put it on yourself first. If you love your wife more than life itself, you may have an instinct to put it on her. But you have to save yourself first before you can save anyone else is the general thinking.

Josh Clark

Wow.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Pretty Darwinistic that last one.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Save yourself.

Chuck Bryant

Save yourself, so you can save others.

Josh Clark

Right. Okay. Well, Chuck, as you were saying, there's a substantial percentage of people who are in serious crashes that have survived, right?

Chuck Bryant

Mm-hmm.

Josh Clark

And one of them was - one specific one was made into a movie, one plane crash, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

What was it called, Survive?

Chuck Bryant

Are you talking about the -

Josh Clark

Alive?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

There's some ive.

Chuck Bryant

I think it's Alive.

Josh Clark

Okay. The Uruguayan rugby team!

Chuck Bryant

Uh-huh.

Josh Clark

You want to tell them about that?

Chuck Bryant

I thought you were.

Josh Clark

Okay. Well, actually -

Chuck Bryant

This is your favorite story. You should.

Josh Clark

It's a great story. And it's a great movie, too, actually. This Uruguayan soccer team probably should have known - rugby team, I'm sorry. They probably should have known they were on a plane for Chile. And they were in the Andes Mountains, which is - they should call those things the widow makers. There's always plane crashes there.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, there's a lot of crashes there.

Josh Clark

Yeah. And it was Friday, October 13th. If there's a day to not fly, it's that day.

Chuck Bryant

Why's that?

Josh Clark

Friday, the 13th, in October, that's a bad day.

Chuck Bryant

Oh yeah, bad luck, sorry.

Josh Clark

It's not good. Sure. Okay, so their plane goes down, right. There's 45 people on board. It's not just the rugby team, but there's some others. And basically, for, I think, 72 days -

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

The survivors, some of them slowly died off. I think 12 initially died in the crash, and then over the course of time, another 10 died, over the next 72 days.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

They didn't have any food or anything. So they ended up, very famously, resorting to cannibalism.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Before they were finally found.

Chuck Bryant

Which is your favorite topic?

Josh Clark

Yeah, you know I love cannibalism.

Chuck Bryant

I know.

Josh Clark

And yeah, the movie was, Alive, made in 1993.

Chuck Bryant

Ethan Hawke.

Josh Clark

We hear rumors that there may be a follow-up documentary about it coming. They're unsubstantiated, but keep an eye out for it.

Chuck Bryant

I think there has been a previous documentary at some point, too.

Josh Clark

Yeah, they just had some reunion, I believe. What was it, maybe 25th reunion or something or the 35th, 35th reunion because a lot of these guys are still alive?

Chuck Bryant

Oh yeah.

Josh Clark

And they reunited for a I don't ever want to be around you people again tour.

Chuck Bryant

Right, exactly.

Josh Clark

All right. So what other things can you do to maybe stay alive, besides cannibalism, unless you're forced to resort to it?

Chuck Bryant

Right, well let's say your plane has crashed and you're on the ground. The first 90 seconds is vital.

Josh Clark

The golden what?

Chuck Bryant

They call that golden time.

Josh Clark

Okay.

Chuck Bryant

And airlines are responsible for getting everyone off in those 90 seconds. That's the goal for the airline industry. So that's what you really need to be concerned about. There's going to be fire, potentially, jet fuel, nasty stuff burning. So you want to get down low because the fumes from the stuff is more likely to kill you than being burned.

Josh Clark

Sure. What are airplane seat covers made of?

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Chuck Bryant

Yeah, exactly.

Josh Clark

Not good stuff.

Chuck Bryant

Nothing you want to put in your pipe and smoke. You know what I'm saying? So you've got all this nasty, toxic stuff in the air, so you want to get low, just like they teach you at home, stop, drop and roll.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Well, I think that's if you're on fire, yeah. But they teach you to get down to go under the smoke.

Josh Clark

Right.

Chuck Bryant

Same principle here. If you do make it off the plane, which is the ideal scenario, you want to get the heck away from there because it could blow up. Any number of things could happen. So you want to get as far away from the plane as you can, safely, and get behind something if there's something there. If there's a huge rock or a big tree, you just want to try and shield yourself, in case there's a big explosion.

Josh Clark

Yeah, that makes sense.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. And do not, do not try and get your baggage off, your carry-on bags.

Josh Clark

What if you have a pet on board?

Chuck Bryant

Oh boy, you're asking the wrong guy. I would try and save my pet. But they say no matter what it is, leave it behind. It's not worth it. And man, I wasn't anticipating that.

Josh Clark:

That would be a rough one

Chuck Bryant

You really caught me off guard there.

Josh Clark

Sure, yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Luckily, my pets don't fly, so I won't ever have to deal with that. They also say don't drink.

Josh Clark

I saw that. No, I just can't.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

I can't.

Chuck Bryant

The choice is yours.

Josh Clark

I can't fly normal.

Chuck Bryant

Right. That makes sense. I don't like to drink on board a flight. It kind of - I don't know. I don't like it. The pressure and maybe it's the expense and those little bottles. I don't get into it.

Josh Clark

I love those little bottles.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, I know you do. They also say not to inflate your life vest until you're outside the cabin because it can restrict your movement.

Josh Clark

What you don't want when you're running out of a plane on fire.

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Chuck Bryant

No, you don't want to be at the exit and then your life vest gets hung on the seat before the explosion.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

And I think that's about all the tips I have for you, Josh.

Josh Clark

Well you know I do have one more thing, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

What's that?

Josh Clark

People who survive plane crashes actually tend to score better on emotional quotient tests, things like post traumatic symptoms.

Chuck Bryant

I've heard that, right.

Josh Clark

Than people who have not been in plane crashes. They actually score significantly higher. There was a 1999 Old Dominion University study of 15 crash survivors across the United States. And these people just basically had a more positive outlook on life and didn't show signs of stress, like these people who served as a control group and flew, I think, five times a year more and who'd never been in a plane crash.

Chuck Bryant

That makes sense.

Josh Clark

Yeah, it makes sense. They theorized that it was because they'd been through this huge ordeal and they kind of learned not to sweat the small stuff.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, seriously.

Josh Clark

It makes sense, doesn't it? And people, again, who had shown control, who were in control, like you were suggesting, they actually had the highest score of all if they thought of themselves of having stayed in control or maybe helped somebody off the plane. Apparently, you just cannot have a better outlook on life than if you've helped someone off a burning plane when you survived a plane crash.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

So let's seek it out.

Chuck Bryant

I wish I knew what that feeling kind of felt like.

Josh Clark

Yeah. Kind of, but at the same time, kind of like -

Chuck Bryant

Kind of not.

Josh Clark

Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant

There's just one more quickie, Josh.

Josh Clark

We will never let these listeners go.

Chuck Bryant

I would be remiss if I didn't say try to stay calm. That's the number one thing you can do because panic, people can't even unbuckle their seatbelt, many times, because they're in such a state of panic. Stay calm, if you can.

Josh Clark

Chuck, you may have just saved some lives.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

You should feel good about yourself.

Chuck Bryant

If we have any plane crash survivors that survived because of my advice, please let me know and I might feel like that guy that saved the person from the burning plane.

Josh Clark

Yeah, talk about a positive outlook on life. And before we let you go, let us just give you a little peak at what Chuck and I think is the coolest article on the site. It's called, "Do we really get wiser with age."

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

It is by our colleague, writer Molly Edmunds, who is just a dynamo. And her article is pretty cool too.

Chuck Bryant

She is a dynamo.

Josh Clark

She really is. And her article is super cool, too. So both Chuck and I give that one a thumb's up and strongly recommend it. And you can find that article, "How to survive a plane crash." Chuck's written a whole slew of survival articles. And you can find them all by typing in some clever words into the search bar at HowStuffWorks.com.

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