Air Travel Safety/Airline Crash Survival

The recent fiery Russian airliner crash that claimed over forty lives is a stark reminder that every time you step on a plane – it could be your last flight.  Although air travel is widely considered the safest way to travel (based on miles traveled) it is estimated that 30% of those who have died in airplane accidents did so because they failed to respond better.

The one thing that has killed more SEALs than anything else (by a wide margin) are helicopters.  I often thought it was the most dangerous part of the job.  Many men crammed into a small space flying around in something that has a ton of moving parts and shouldn’t really work. Only to slow down like the giant target it is when it’s most vulnerable (take-off and landing).  Unfortunately it is a necessity of war.


What to wear: Wear long pants, a long-sleeve t-shirt, and sturdy, comfortable, lace-up shoes. Although you may want to be comfortable or professional-looking on a flight, sandals or high heels make it hard to move quickly within the wreckage. High heels are not allowed on the evacuation slides and you can cut your feet and toes on glass or get flammable liquids on or in your sandals if you wear them.

Where to sit

Book the right seats. Because the initial impact is most often survivable, the key to living to tell about a crash is frequently how quickly you can get out. To this end, it’s best to get seats as close as possible to an exit, and aisle seats are generally preferable. In addition, try to sit in the back of the plane. Passengers in the tail of the aircraft have 40% higher survival rates than those in the first few rows.

On the plane

From the time you enter the plane your SITUATIONAL AWARENESS should be extremely high.

  • Condition of plane
  • Condition of pilots/flight crew
  • Passengers – anyone seem nervous, uncomfortable – out of place

Start your mental movie in real time by observing every exit as you pass them. Once you get to your seat immediately find your two closest exits. If you’re sitting in an exit row, study the door and make sure you know how to open it if you need to. In normal circumstances the flight attendant will open the door, but if they are dead or injured, you’ll need to do it.

Make your plan, visualize it, and even rehearse it I you feel the need.

Be ready

Whenever the plane is below 10,000 ft (normally the first five and last ten minutes of the flight, although the latter can be longer if there’s an extended holding time near the destination airport), you should be in “full alert” mode, attentive and fully prepared to respond quickly to any emergency condition.

The two major things that will kill you in a plane crash are:

  1. Impact
  2. Post impact – fire


Lets face it there’s not much that can be done here. Keep your seat belt securely fastened at all times. If the plane crashes while you’re sleeping, you’ll be glad you kept your seat belt on. In any case, make sure it is placed around you snugly before impact.

Every centimeter of slack in your seat belt triples the G-Force you’ll experience in the crash, so keep it snug!

Also, push that snug seat belt down as low over your pelvis as possible. You should be able to feel the upper ridge of the pelvis above the upper edge of the belt.

Brace yourself!

If you know you’re going to crash, brace yourself. The primary function of a proper brace position is simply to place yourself firmly against whatever is in front of you, such that when the sudden deceleration causes you to be thrown forward, you’re already in contact with whatever it is you’ll hit (normally the seat back in front of you). Don’t brace yourself against a video screen; position your head above or below it (lower is generally better).

The secondary brace function is to stop your limbs and head from flailing about, hitting things during the violent motion of the crash. This is why you wrap your head in your arms, tightly clasping your hands/fingers together. If you have a pillow, blanket, or other potential padding handy, use it as a cushion between you and any nearby hard surfaces that you may strike during the crash stop.

Return your seat back to its full upright position and assume one of two “brace positions.”

  1. If the seat or bulkhead in front of you is close enough to easily reach, place one hand palm-down on the back of that seat, cross the other hand palm-down over the first hand, and rest your forehead against your hands (don’t lace your fingers). It is also sometimes recommended to put your head directly against the seat in front of you and lace your fingers behind your head, tucking your upper arms against the sides of your head.
  2. If you don’t have a seat close in front of you, bend forward and put your chest on your thighs and your head between your knees. Cross your wrists in front of your lower calves, and grab your ankles. In either position, your feet should be flat on the floor and further back than your knees to reduce injuries to your feet and legs, which you will need in order to successfully exit the craft after impact. Place your legs as far under the seat as possible to avoid breaking your shin bones.

Post impact – fire

Congratulations you survived the impact but… It ain’t over until it’s over

Fire and, more commonly, smoke is responsible for a large percentage of crash fatalities.

Time to enact your plan. Get out of the airplane as quickly as possible. It’s critical to get out of the aircraft without delay—if fire or smoke is present, you will generally have less than two minutes to safely exit the plane.

Make sure the exit you choose is safe. Look through the window to determine if there is fire or some other hazard outside of an exit. If there is, try the exit across the plane, or proceed to another set of exits. As a rule, there will be less fire toward the front of the plane, and more around the wings where the fuel tanks and engines are (and behind them if the plane was moving forward, trailing fuel and fire).


Get Out!

Time is absolutely critical here. You, and everyone else, need to get through that exit as quickly as possible. At the top of the exit, as soon as you are “next in line”, immediately exit the plane. Do not wait for the person(s) in front of you to clear the slide before taking your turn. Do not sit on the edge of the door and gently lever yourself onto the slide; you are not a child trying a playground chute for the first time. Do not pause, but continue moving through the door, jumping out and into the slide.

Get at least 500 feet upwind from the aircraft. If you’re stranded in a remote area, the best thing to do usually is to stay close to the aircraft to await rescuers. You don’t want to be too close, though. Fire or explosion can result at any time after a crash, so put some distance between you and the plane. If the crash is in open-water, swim as far away from the plane wreckage as possible.

Be a survivor, not a statistic,

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor

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