Article from August, 2011


The excitement of travel and exploration is often tempered by safety considerations and the prudent explorer has prepared for medical emergencies and evacuation. How many of us have felt ready for occurrences we can control but experience anxiety about the travel itself? Flying is almost always involved and whether in domestic or international airspace, travelers have at least subliminal thoughts of air safety.

US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) statistics for US commercial carriers are highly reassuring. Scheduled flights for US air carriers in 2010 logged over 17 million flight hours covering 7.3 billion miles and recorded 26 accidents with no fatalities. This represents over 9 million departures with an accident rate of 0.152 per 100,000 flight hours. Three of the last four years there have been no fatalities with over 700 million enplanements per year.

Commercial carriers operating large capacity passenger aircraft in other major industrialized countries must follow the strictest safety regulations and their accident rate is also very low. According to, the most important indicator of overall safety of an airline is how it is regulated by its nation’s civil aviation authority. In fact, the fatal accident rate for commercial flight has not changed appreciably in the past 15 years. However, the number of flights performed in the world have more than doubled. Airlines from the US, Canada, European Union, Australia, and Japan accounted for about three quarters of all airline traffic, but only 21 percent of the fatal events (9 of 43) occurred in or involved an airline based in those countries.

US Civil aviation statistics demonstrate that in 2010 there were 1474 accidents in private planes in which 274 had fatalities, totaling 469 people. Smaller aircraft are not certified to the same standards as larger ones and different factors contribute to crashes.

The most important factor contributing to a crash is improper actions or inactions by the pilot according to both Dr. Rich Williams FN 03, Chief Medical Officer for NASA and experimental pilot, and Harry Brooks, FN 93, former Marine fighter pilot and attorney who investigates air crashes for insurance companies. “Pilot-related errors account for 60 percent of commercial and 70 percent of non-commercial accidents,” says Williams. Brooks adds, “Common sense judgment is often what fails”.

Mechanical failures have gone way down due to modern, more reliable equipment according to Don Matthews MN 01, Chief Pilot for US Airways and a designer of airports. However, mechanical contributions must still be considered, such as in the Airbus whose computers will not let the pilot override the plane, states Brooks. Max Gallimore FN 82, former Chief Pilot for Delta, points out that almost every crash arises from a series of small missteps or factors that add up to catastrophe.

Helicopters have an accident rate approximately 30 percent higher than the US general aviation accident rate. According to NTSB records, there were 197 helicopter accidents during 2005 in over 2.2 million flight hours. After pilot error, physical structures pose the greatest threat due to flight close to earth or visual flight plans, according to Jay Christy, former US Ranger helicopter pilot. “Wires are notoriously guilty. There is little time to react or fix mechanical problems”, says Christy.


Given that 86 percent of commercial airline passengers and 34 percent of commuter passengers survived crashes over the last quarter century, what advice do the experts offer:

Best position for survival?

All: The “brace” position varies but head pulled down to knees and arms pulled in tight with hands over head; feet braced against a solid structure in front. Backward facing seating is preferred but not often available. Face in the direction of crash to better absorb impact.

Best area in a plane likely to confer an advantage for survival?

HB, RW: The best area to sit in is the rear cabin. If the plane hits at a nose down angle, all the seats are moving forward. When you see pictures of a crashed airplane, you usually see a picture of the tail.

MG, DM: The exit row.

JC: Not applicable to helicopters

Any tips to aid survival and identify exit rows in a crash?

HB, MG, DM, RW: Wear cotton clothes, long pants, shoes, and socks. Read the emergency instructions. Count the number of seats from your seat to at least two exit rows. Know how to open the emergency exit. Stay low to avoid smoke. If the cabin is filled with smoke, you have a very short time to climb over those seats and out the exit. The aisles will be filled with people screaming and trying to retrieve overhead baggage.

JC: Remember to stay low exiting a helicopter as rotary propellers may still be turning.

What should one do after surviving a plane crash on land? In water?

HB, JC, MG, DM, RW: Stay calm, listen to crew instructions, leave the plane rapidly. The military teaches to rendezvous 100m from the plane nose. Someone take charge, attend to injured, activate signaling devices. In water, don your life vest but DO NOT inflate until out of the plane.

Attitude is also important. If you think you are going to die, you may be sealing your own doom. Never give up. The survival instinct is alive and well if you don’t shut it down.

This article was published in The Explorers Journal


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