How to Survive a Plane Crash - 3 Steps to Take
≡ Menu – Mark Blackard

How to Survive a Plane Crash – 3 Steps to Take

Introduction

I travel the world constantly. My travel habits, style, advice, and philosophy continues to evolve as time and experience comes my way. I’ve recently changed the way I do business while flying.

I’ve been flying on commercial aircraft since I was six years old. I’ve ridden on brand new planes, average ones, and some of the shittiest, flying death traps you can imagine. I’ve jumped out of prop-driven planes (from a Cessna 182 to a C-130), jet aircraft, and helicopters. After having had a whole lot of time to think about the what-if’s while taking off, experiencing turbulence, or during the seconds after a rough landing, this is my advice on how to survive a plane crash.

I’m not going to quote a ton of statistics here or get too technical. None of this is 100% scientific and is predominately designed to invoke thought. I’m going to keep things simple, based on the greatest probability in my mind of what I might face one day. I’ll tell you how I’m going to deal with it so I can continue to live, drink beer, and be happy. Pay attention, because it could save your life.

The three main things you need to know and do, are factors mostly within your direct control before and during an emergency incident. Steps 1 and 2 are 100% within your control. Step 3 will be up to circumstance, but it’s the effort, determination, and your overall will to survive that I’ll argue is within your control. Here they are in bullet format up front:

  • Step 1 – Wear Proper Clothing
  • Step 2 – Be Ready
  • Step 3 – Get Out

The bullet points may seem obvious at first, but I’m going to explain in greater detail throughout this post what they mean to me. Don’t start telling me you already know all this. No, you don’t, because we all have different perspectives and ideas. Keep reading.

They say a plan never survives first contact. In my experience, I’ve learned that the more complex a plan, the less chance it has of being successful. Keep things simple and the plan might actually work.

There are other pre-flight factors I’ll discuss but they are not 100% within your control. You can’t always pick the type of aircraft, choose your seat, pick a certain airline, choose the time of day, the route the flight takes, etc. Sometimes these factors are chosen for you by your company or organization. You may be headed to a destination that only has one airline providing service there. You may have purchased a last-minute ticket because of a funeral and had to take the only seat available.

The Real Danger is Fire

If you survive the initial crash, the real danger at this point is fire. Your main mission is to keep your ass from getting barbecued. Many people who survive the initial impact get burned up inside the wreckage. Those who do escape often suffer from some type of severe burn injury. This is what you have to be thinking about. Fire. You’re sitting inside a tin can full of jet fuel. That tin can has about a million ignition sources on board. Once it impacts the ground, something is getting ignited unless the plane ran completely out of fuel.

Water landings are obviously a bit different, but the probability is that if you survive a plane crash, you’re probably on land, and there is probably fire. That’s what I’m focusing on here. Even in the event of an aircraft crashing into the water, the fuel is often ignited and burns on the surface. That’s what you’ll be swimming through if you survive the impact.

Step 1 – Wear Proper Clothing and Footwear

Nobody, except for military pilots, truly prepare themselves for a plane crash when it comes to their attire. Think about it for a minute. They’re the only ones wearing a parachute, a survival vest, a fire-resistant flight suit, a flotation device, and a helmet. They’ve got a loaded handgun strapped to their person for self defense. Don’t forget the radio and GPS tracking devices to let the rescue helicopters pinpoint their location. Military pilots are as prepared as one can be to survive the crash itself and live out in the elements until rescue.

Even bush pilots operating in remote areas aren’t ready to survive a crash. Most of the time they seem to be wearing a pair of shorts (because it’s hot), a t-shirt, and a pair of cool sunglasses. They’re certainly not prepared to exit a burning Cessna while three hungry lions look on. That sounds like most tourists and travelers on a commercial flight. Even the pilots on a commercial aircraft aren’t dressed for an emergency evacuation. Hell, many flight attendants are wearing skirts and high heels!

If I were the president of an airline, my flight crews would be wearing Nomex flight suits. That would include the pilots and flight attendants as well. Both men and women look sexy as hell in a flight suit, so it’s a win-win situation for all. Damn, I’m a marketing genius. Here’s a million-dollar slogan to go along with a commercial airline’s flight crew wearing flight suits:

“Fly our airline. We’re safe and sexy!”

If I told you that today we are going to do a test. We’re going to strap your ass inside an old airplane, set it on fire, and see if you can get out. What would you wear during this little exercise? You damn sure wouldn’t wear a pair of board shorts, flip flops, and a tank top. Don’t feel bad because I used to wear the same touristy-type clothing on most flights as well.

I’m now dressed for success for the most critical job at hand while flying. That job is potentially having to escape a burning airplane. Once I get to my destination, the job description changes and I can wear whatever I want. I recommend you adopt this same philosophy.

I’ll tell you what my new uniform is for flying, from the bottom up.

Footwear

I now wear my Belleville 590 USMC Combat Boots on every flight. These boots are leftover from my days in Iraq and are the most comfortable boots I own. They’re lace up which means these boots are not coming off. They’re sturdy and protect my feet and ankles. If I need to kick a flaming seat out of the way, they have enough heft to do the job. I can make it through a burning, jagged debris field and keep running. They’ve got thick soles which should give me a few more seconds of protection before they melt off of my feet. The do have some nylon material in the construction but the nylon area is mostly covered by my long pants. Besides, if these boots were good enough for Iraq, then they’re good enough for escaping a burning aircraft. If you’re not into the combat boot look, check out Carhartt’s line of work boots.

You’ve got to wear something that you can run, jump, and crawl in. You can’t run in flip flops. If there is fire and shit melting down from the ceiling, flip flops aren’t helping you. Your feet will be burned, cut from debris, and therefore you cannot run. You can’t run in high heels or business shoes, either. Running shoes will work, but they can easily get stripped off your feet. If you have to crawl and accidentally lose a shoe, you can’t run through a burning debris field to safety. I recommend you wear some type of lace up boots for the plane ride. Sure, it will take you some extra time going through security. They’ll probably have you take off your boots and put them through the x-ray machine. Who cares? It’s worth the time to me.

Pants

I now wear long pants on every flight. The pants I wear are Carhartt Flame-Resistant Washed Duck Work Dungarees. Laugh if you want to, but I couldn’t resist the little extra protection from their Flame Resistant line of clothing. These pants are sturdy, functional, and they look good, too.

Any type of shorts, nylon material, skirts, and dress pants just aren’t the best attire to escape a flaming aircraft. There’s going to be jagged metal everywhere that’s heated to about 500 million degrees. So, imagine that you have to do some arc welding or use an acetylene cutting torch. I promise you that you’d rather wear my Carhartt pants than what you normally fly in.

Shirt

I now wear a Flame-Resistant Cotton T-Shirt by Carhartt. Again, anything that’s made out of Nylon drips when it burns. I have some very comfortable travel shirts that are Nylon, but I’m no longer going to wear them while on an aircraft.

Jacket

I now wear a Carhartt Full Swing Quick Duck Flame-Resistant Jacket. It’s excellent quality and is constructed from a heavy-duty material. It looks good and keeps me warm on the plane. If I have to crawl through burning jet fuel, melted plastic, and molten metal, I can do it.

It’s usually cold on the plane so you need a jacket, anyway. Wear some type of work jacket from Carhartt. Again, if you were going to do some welding, what would you wear? The typical outdoor gear is built to be lightweight and packable. You don’t want to be welding in a down jacket you bought at REI. Save that for when you actually get to the slopes. Skis don’t catch on fire if you crash. Airplanes do. If you’re wearing one of those coats with the fur, I bet it will go up like a leftover, dried-up Christmas tree in February.

Neck Gaiter

To keep the air-con from blowing on my head and neck, I used to just wear my travel scarf. Now, I wear a Flame-Resistant Neck Gaiter from Carhartt. It serves the same purpose to keep me warm, but will also help my ass escape if the plane catches on fire. You can pull it up over your face to help protect from flame and smoke. The ideal piece of gear to protect your face from fire is a flame-resistant balaclava, but I don’t think that’s recommended on planes these days. Just buy the damn neck gaiter and you’ll be good.

Step 2 – Be Ready to Take Action

My typical model has been to hit the bar and get half drunk before every flight. I’ve changed that order of business. I now drink once the flight has landed. The reason for this is mental and physical readiness. If you’re sober, awake, alert, and not listening to your damn headphones, you’re ahead of the crowd.

In most plane crashes, people die. That’s reality. Seconds of delay can determine whether or not you live or get barbecued. You can shave a lot of this critical time off by being ready to take action.

You can’t always pick a seat near or at an exit row. You can’t always decide if you sit in the front of the plane or the back. You can do these few things to get yourself ready:

Visually Locate All Emergency Exits. Pick one closest to you and a backup. Close your eyes and imagine how you would get there in the dark. If the plane catches on fire, you’re not going to be able to see if the cabin fills with smoke. Memorize which way you’re going to go. Forward or backwards down the aisle.

Practice Removing Your Seatbelt. Fasten your seatbelt and unlatch it a couple of times. Buckle up and do it again two or three times with your eyes closed. Make sure you know which way the buckle opens. When the plane comes to a halt, you have to be able to get that damn seatbelt undone or you’re going to get barbecued in your seat.

Stay Sober, Awake, & Alert. Don’t go to sleep until the plane is at its cruising altitude. On takeoff and landing, don’t be listening to music, playing games on your cell phone, or reading a magazine. Have all of your senses ready to go. Have your hands free. Look out the window so you know what’s going on.

Don’t fly while drunk and certainly don’t take any fucking sleeping pills or that motion sickness shit. If you get sick while flying, puke in the vomit bag in the seat pouch in front of you. It’s free. You don’t want to be stoned out of your mind during an emergency evacuation because you took a ton of Dramamine or Ambien and can’t even stand up.

Prepare Yourself Mentally That No Matter What, You’re Going to Live. If something happens on takeoff or landing, you will probably only have seconds or potentially no warning at all. If you do have some time, say in case of a mid-flight engine fire, stop worrying about texting your fucking wife to say goodbye. Say your last goodbyes before you get on the airplane. If you really care about your wife, then get your ass mentally prepared to survive. She’d much rather have you come home than get that worthless last text message. It would suck if you died because you were fucking around with your iPhone trying to be a drama queen.

People react differently to stressful situations. People can act primal in survival situations. It’s just nature. You have to be ready to accomplish one task and that’s to get your ass out of the flaming barbecue grill. You’ll be competing with dozens of others, some with the same determination as you. It’s gonna get real fucking ugly when that cabin fills with flame and smoke. It’s time to get tough or you’re gonna die.

Step 3 – MOVE! Get the Hell Out of There!

If you want to live after surviving the initial crash, you’ve got to get moving, immediately. Don’t sit there like a dazed idiot and try to call 911. They can’t help you. The only thing that’s going to save your ass is you and what you do within the next few seconds.

You think the fire department can save you if your plane is on fire? I’m not betting my life on their response time. Just try this little experiment. Go sit on your gas barbecue grill and light the burner. Then call 911. See if you can stay seated on that fucking barbecue grill until the fire truck gets there. Let me know how that works out for you.

Unbuckle Your Seat Belt Immediately. Once that plane and the carnage stops moving, pop the seatbelt. If there is fire, smoke, or the aircraft has broke apart, don’t wait for the Captain to announce an evacuation. His ass is probably dead. Don’t be like all those poor children on that South Korean ferry. They all died because the damn crew made an announcement and told them to remain in their cabins. They died a horrible death because they didn’t question authority, buck those fucked-up orders, and use common sense and get out of the sinking ship. When it’s life or death, be prepared to make your own damn decisions. Get out of that damn seatbelt before your seat catches on fire.

Pick Forward or Backward and GO! Even though you planned to head toward a particular exit, or the nearest exit, that plan may be screwed from the start. Pick a direction and go. It doesn’t matter if it’s forward or toward the rear of the aircraft. Go in the direction of the least amount of smoke and flame if you can determine this. But, you may not be able to figure this out. Anyone who has been in a house fire can attest to this. Visibility may be zero. It’s 50/50. Roll the dice and GO!

Unless you’re sitting right next to an exit door, the exit is not where you are. That’s a given. If you go forward, you will be getting closer to the forward exits. If you move backward, you are getting closer to the rear exits. Look at it that way and just fucking go. Don’t worry about left or right. Most aircraft have exit doors on both sides, directly across from one another. You need to get moving forward or backward. Let the situation dictate whether you go left or right once you get to an exit. If the plane is full of smoke, you’re not going to be able to see. You may not be able to evaluate much of anything. Pick a direction and go.

Get Your Ass Out of the Burning Aircraft! By any means necessary, get the fuck out of the aircraft. Crawl over seats, jump over obstacles, step on dead bodies, and pull yourself out with your teeth if you have to. If you get burned in the process, so be it. If you get cut and begin to bleed, take the pain. If it’s a long way down to the ground for some reason, just jump and see what happens. Any injury and any alternative option is much better than being roasted like a turkey.

Get as Far Away from the Burning Wreckage as you Can. Once you get out, start running. If you happened to break your ankle or leg on the way out, so be it. Broke legs can heal. Start crawling or drag yourself with your arms, hands, and elbows. Use the low crawl or whatever works to make forward progress. If your ass is on fire, do the old stop, drop, and roll. But, just keep right on rolling and rolling.

If the aircraft is not on fire initially, it probably will be within a matter of seconds. Explosions are possible and probable. If it explodes, fragmentation is going in all directions. Don’t think that you’re safe because you only see a small fire. An explosion could send pieces of superheated metal through your head and it’s game over for you, my friend. Distance equals safety. Put some distance between you and the threat.

Don’t Try to Be a Hero. When trying to escape a burning aircraft, you can’t play the hero. The best thing you might possibly be able to do is help one person or a child while on your way out. You have to get away from the danger zone and get your wits about you first. If you are injured and losing blood, at some point you may pass out and become part of the problem. The smoke can overtake you in a matter of seconds. You’ll pass out from smoke inhalation and then burn to death.

It’s the same principle as putting on your oxygen mask first, before helping others. Listen, take a look at the Miracle on the Hudson. Sure, the flight crew are all heroes. But, it’s only because the situation after impact allowed them to be heroic. As heroic as they are, they still breathe air. They’re human. If that plane had sank to the bottom of the Hudson in twenty seconds flat, it would have been every man and woman for themselves at about the 3 second mark. The minute the cabin filled to the brim with water, there would have been no more heroics. Nobody had SCUBA gear on board that flight. Many people would have died in that scenario, no matter what their fellow passengers or the flight crew tried to do.

So, unless you’re sitting in Seat 9C wearing a fireman’s suit, a helmet, and an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) already strapped to your back, with a fire hose in your hand, don’t try to be a hero. You don’t have the proper equipment to play hero on a burning aircraft. The choice is already made for you in this difficult situation. Save yourself and help others who have already made it out on their own.

So here’s my advice on this step in bullet points:

  • When the crashing stops, unbuckle your seat belt immediately.
  • Move forward or backward. Just pick a direction and go.
  • Exit left or right depending on the situation.
  • Run, walk, or crawl far away from the wreckage.
  • Evaluate your own injuries & assess the situation.
  • THEN, decide if you are in a condition to help others.

Other Possible Advantages That Are Not Always Within Your Control to Implement

Here are some factors that, in my opinion, MAY influence the probability of you being involved in a plane crash in the first place, and/or help you survive after the initial crash itself. Some of this has evidence to back it up and other parts are just me talking out loud. Some of the points actually conflict with one another. This article is designed to invoke thought and nothing more. Do your own research and make your own decisions.

Sit in the Back of the Aircraft. This has many benefits and you can do your own research on the topic. Here’s why I like to sit in the back. First of all, I can see what everyone on the plane is doing. I can stare at the emergency doors in front of me so they become familiar in my mind. Second, I’m close to the rear emergency doors. I’m already oriented to where I need to go. I’m automatically going backward unless it’s blocked. Third, the tail section has broken off in several crash incidents and separated from the rest of the fuselage. The majority of the survivors during those crashes were found to have been seated in the tail section. The aircraft carries fuel in the wings. If I’m in the back, I know I’m away from that extra mass of fuel. Plus, as several comedians have put it, “When’s the last time you heard of an airplane backing into a mountain?” I love sitting in the absolute last row of the aircraft. I don’t mind the inconvenience of being last in line at immigration.

Don’t Always Fly the Cheapest Airline. Flying the cheapest airline is like staying in the cheapest hotel. It may be a pleasant experience and the flight crews may be the nicest folks, but what happens where there are unexpected maintenance issues? For example, I got ate up by bed bugs staying at a cheap-ass hotel one time in the Philippines. Now, any hotel, even a 5-Star resort can have bed bugs. The difference is that the 5-Star resort has the budget to hire a pest control company, replace mattresses, do some deep cleaning, etc. The 5-dollar a night hotel has no money to do anything. The bed bugs will always be there. The same applies to any business. Budget airlines mean budget maintenance programs. Their employees are paid less. There is less supervision. It’s all relative. Numbers don’t lie.

Back when I was flying as a Federal Air Marshal, I used to look at my schedule and find out what days I had to fly on a certain budget airline. Those were the days I called in sick, scheduled my doctor’s appointments, dental appointments, vacation days, etc. Flying that particular airline was like being on an old Greyhound bus with wings. I could detail a number of incidents, but that’s not the purpose here.

The point is that cheap is not always the way to go. Here’s a bulleted list of professionals that I’m not searching by rates, to help put this concept into perspective. I don’t want to hire or use the cheapest:

  • Neuro Surgeon
  • Dentist
  • Vasectomy Doctor
  • Laser Eye Surgery Doctor
  • Heart Surgeon
  • Divorce Attorney

You can get away with having a cheap phone, cheap car, cheap shoes, and cheap shampoo. None of those items will kill you or severely fuck you up.

A poorly maintained aircraft has a greater chance of crashing than one with a proper preventive maintenance program. Maintenance costs money. So why do most people shop for flights by price?

I’m a bit more cognizant of which airlines I fly these days. I’ve got a few that I won’t fly.

Try to Book Flights that are NOT Full. I like taking flights that are light on people. First of all, it’s less of a hassle if the plane only has a handful of passengers. You don’t have to fight for overhead bin space and you can spread out if the seats beside you are empty. That’s obvious. Plus, the flight attendants are much nicer when there are fewer people.

But, the safety factor says that if a plane is not overloaded passenger wise, it’s probably not overloaded weight wise. A plane that has a full load of people and their luggage, along with the normal cargo and fuel, it’s probably near its maximum capacity already. Once you start adding bad weather, short runways, turbulence, an engine failure etc., it can’t help the situation that the plane is overloaded to begin with. On whatever route and destination you’re taking, if your schedule allows, book the least crowded flight.

Not convinced? Well, remember the plane that went down in the Andes Mountains where people resorted to cannibalism to survive? If you listen to the testimony of the pilots who flew that particular aircraft, they all claim it was severely underpowered. The engines weren’t strong enough to properly power the aircraft. Logic says that if the aircraft has a full load, you are worsening this flaw by factors of whatever. Again, this article isn’t very scientific. This is just the wheels in my mind turning.

If there are less people on the flight, there are less people to compete with in the case of an emergency evacuation. There is less traffic to get in your way. It’s the difference of traveling on the I-5 during rush hour on Fridays vs. driving through there early on Christmas morning. Personally, I’ll take Christmas morning to drive through L.A. traffic.

Book Flights that Fly Into Less Busy Airports. If you have the opportunity to fly into one of the smaller airports, then do it. There is less air traffic around these airports, and therefore, less stress on the controllers. When controllers, pilots, ground crews, etc., have to rush to meet tight turnarounds, mistakes get made. I’d rather fly in an atmosphere where the crews are relaxed, laid back, and don’t appear to be rushed. Research for yourself about how many crashes have been caused by an overworked air traffic controller.

The overall flying experience will be much better as well. For example, if you fly into Manila NAIA, it sucks. Everything about this damn airport sucks. It’s crowded, the air-conditioning sucks in most areas, there aren’t enough restrooms, and the list of negatives goes on and on. I can’t stand flying into and out of Manila. If possible, I fly into Clark which is about two hours north of Manila. It’s much less crowded in every way. I’ll take a bus down to Manila and sacrifice the time just to avoid dealing with crowded conditions.

Don’t Sit Near the Engines. If the engines are located under the wings, don’t sit near the wings. If the engines are at the rear of the aircraft, don’t sit in the rear. It’s simple logic. The engines are dangerous in themselves as they’re being fed by highly flammable jet fuel. The blades inside the engines are rotating at around 10,000 RPM. If the engine fails structurally, shrapnel is going in about a million different directions.

This happened recently during an engine failure at 30,000 feet. A window was blown out on Southwest Airlines flight 1380. A female passenger died after being partially sucked out of the aircraft.

The engines can also be the source of a fire. The engines should be considered a danger zone.

Get an Exit-Row Seat by the Window. If you can afford an exit-row seat, get it. You don’t have to crawl, climb, or compete with others. You don’t have to rely on anyone else to get the door open. It’s in your hands. This isn’t always possible and you may not be able to afford the upgrade. Those are the advantages to sitting in an exit row.

This advice is debatable and conflicts with what some folks now believe, due to the recent incident on Southwest Flight 1380. Many people are requesting aisle seats because they are afraid to sit by the window. Well, that may be the case, but I will still argue that the greater probability is that you will be involved in some type of ground mishap that results in fire, vs. the engines failing and causing structural damage during flight. Again, all of this is my personal opinion. Do your own research and decide where you want to sit.

Conclusion?

I hope this article at least invokes some thought about how you approach flying in general. I think it comes down to the question of:

“How much is your life worth?”

(There’s an interesting story behind that question. Maybe I’ll write a post to explain how it came about.)

What risk factors do you worry about when flying? How do you mitigate them? Maybe you just don’t care and leave it up to fate. Drop a comment below and let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by.

What Do You Think?