6 Surprising Facts About Airline Crashes

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By Peter Weber

It hasn't been a good week for airlines. Or for airline passengers. A day after Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, killing two people and injuring 180 others, all nine passengers and a pilot died in remote Soldotna, Alaska, when their air taxi crashed after takeoff.

And on Monday, a Japan Airlines 777 had to turn around mid-flight after its crew found a leak in the system that controls the flaps.

Flying is still among the safest ways to travel, though: Your chances of dying in a plane crash are about 11 million to 1. That laudable safety record is only so much comfort when you're boarding an airplane, though, especially after a high-profile crash. Here are six other tips and facts that can help make your flight a bit safer—or at least feel that way.

1. Korean pilots rank among the best-trained in the world.

Lots of what you've read about the Asiana crash is wrong, says longtime commercial pilot Patrick Smith at Slate.

First, everyone is making too much of the Korean pilot's relative inexperience flying a Boeing 777. "To me it's a red herring," says Smith. "Pilots transition from aircraft type to aircraft type all the time," and no major-airline pilot takes the control of a new type of jet without a rigorous, often weeks-long training regimen, including "classroom training as well as hands-on instruction in both cockpit mock-up trainers and full-motion simulators."

Worse, people are already starting to murmur about Korean airlines' "checkered past" when it comes to air safety, says Smith:

Let's nip this storyline in the bud. In the 1980s and 1990s, that country's largest carrier, Korean Air, suffered a spate of fatal accidents, culminating with the crash of Flight 801 in Guam in 1997. The airline was faulted for poor training standards and a rigid, authoritarian cockpit culture.... But Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation's civil aviation system. A 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. [Slate]

2. The safest seats are (usually) at the back of the plane.

The rear seats of a commercial jetliner are annoying—cramped, near the lavatory, and you're the last one off the plane. But according to a 2007 Popular Mechanics analysis, those seats are also statistically the safest. The magazine studied every commercial-airline crash since 1973, looking at who died and where they were sitting. In 11 of the 20 crashes, rear-seat passengers fared much better; in five, the front-seat passengers had better luck; three were tossups; and the last had no seating data.

In all, back-seaters had a 40 percent better chance of surviving a crash, Popular Mechanics found. A 2012 experiment—researchers crashed a Boeing 727 carrying camera-equipped crash-test dummies into the Mexican desert—backed that up, says the Los Angeles Times' Paul Whitefield. Every first-class passenger would have died, while 78 percent of passengers in the rear of the plane would have survived.

"Of course, statistics are just that, numbers," says Whitefield. In the Asiana flight, where the airplane's tail hit a sea wall, the two teenage girls killed were apparently sitting at the back of the plane, as were most of the injured passengers.

3. Most crashes occur during the first three or last eight minutes of the flight.

If you want to increase your odds of surviving, no matter where you're sitting, "stay sober, hold off on your nap, and don't bury your face in a book, and follow the plus three/minus eight rule," says Anil Polat at travel site foXnoMad. That's based on the findings of FAA plane-crash expert David Palmerton, who notes that about 80 percent of crashes occur in the first three minutes of a flight and the last eight minutes. Your best-laid "crash plan" won't save you if you're snoozing at the wrong time.

4. You have about 90 seconds to exit a burning airplane.

That minute and a half is called "the golden time," according to the site How Stuff Works, because people who get out of a downed aircraft in that period have the greatest chance of survival. In those 90 seconds, a burning "airplane cabin can reach temperatures that will melt human skin," says foXnoMad's Polat. You're also better off wearing cotton or other non-synthetic—non-melting—clothes, and keeping your shoes on.

A related point is the "five-row rule," airplane-crash survival expert Ben Sherwood tells TIME. British academic Ed Galea studied more than 100 plane crashes and found that "survivors usually move an average of five rows before they can get off a burning aircraft. That's the cutoff," Sherwood adds. If you're sitting more than five rows away from an exit row—any exit row—your chances of surviving the crash are "greatly reduced."

5. Really: Don't bring your overhead luggage on your escape.

The passengers on the Asiana flight—especially in first class—are getting a lot of guff for bringing their carry-on bags with them when they left the wrecked 777. Some passengers are defending their decision, saying their part of the cabin was exiting the aircraft in an orderly fashion, and they needed their passports and cash. But they deserve all the criticism they get, says Patrick Smith at Slate:

I understand that reaching for one's valuables is human nature, and that people don't always behave rationally in a crisis, but lugging your carry-ons down the aisle in the middle of an emergency evacuation, when seconds can mean the difference between life and death, is reckless. You're endangering your own life and the lives of those people behind you. [Slate]

6. People can survive midair explosions, with a little swamp and lots of luck.

Most of the safety tips you'll read assume your flight crashed on the runway, water, or some other terrestrial surface. But Popular Mechanics says that if your airplane explodes at 35,000 feet in the air, you still have a small chance of surviving. It will take you about three minutes to hit the ground, and "you'll probably pass out for the first minute, then wake up and have just enough time to figure out where to land," says How Stuff Works.

If you have a choice, don't aim for water—it's hard, like concrete. Your best bet for survival is actually swampland, though a snowbank is good, too. And don't tuck up into a ball: The best position for falling to earth is face-down, arms and legs stretched out like a skydiver, maximizing the wind resistance to slow your descent as much as possible.

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July 10, 2013 - 8:00pm
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