Staying Alive During a Plane Crash

This report originally aired on November 3, 2006.

There were 309 people onboard an Air France jet that overshot the runway upon landing and burst into flames at Toronto's Pearson Airport one night in August 2005. Somehow, everybody survived and the incident became known as the Toronto miracle.

A clearly shaken survivor told reporters after the crash, "When I was inside the plane, I think I will be die." He thought he would perish because his only experiences of air disasters were what he'd seen in the movies. And in the movies, people die. But between 1983 and 2000, more than 95 percent of people involved in U.S. plane crashes survived.

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So what can you do to avoid being part of the 5 percent fatalities?

An accident on the tarmac of an English airport in 1985 set one man on the path to find out what it takes to survive a plane crash. He is Ed Galea, an Australian professor.

"Why did 55 people die?" he asked himself as he studied the fire that engulfed the fuselage. "Why could 55 people not escape?"

Since 1985, Galea has pored over interviews with 2,000 survivors of 105 plane crashes, analyzing their behavior, searching for the keys to survival.

Traveling With Your Family

"People started panicking. We, everyone jumped out of their seats," said Lauren Langille, one of the survivors of the crash in Toronto. Lauren, like 50 percent of airline passengers, was traveling in a group.

Galea's first piece of advice for fliers: "If you are traveling in a family group, you should insist that the airline does not separate you throughout the aircraft. Why? It's only natural that if you're involved in that sort of situation that you're going to want to reunite the group before you evacuate. If you do that it's going to cause havoc."

Take, for example, a family of four -- two children and two parents. That family should sit together but be prepared to split apart in a smoke-filled cabin.

"Perhaps you have one adult who is responsible for a particular child and the other adult who is responsible for the other child," says Galea. "So now you have essentially two groups of two people. The groups should be prepared to evacuate through different exits if necessary."

It sounds a bit frightening for children, but they should be made aware of the escape strategy before takeoff. "Each child should know which parent is going to be looking after them in that situation."

The Seat Belt

This might sound ridiculous, but it's very serious: Remember how to undo your seat belt. Galea's research has shown that in the heat of the moment, even airline employees have been known to get this wrong.

"Your mind goes almost into autopilot. So when you go to release the seat belt you're not really thinking about that," he says. "And what's your most common experience in undoing a seat belt? Its in your car. And how do you undo your seat belt in your car? You press a button." In a plane, you lift a latch. If you can't undo your seat belt then, you can't evacuate and your chances of survival plummet.

Does It Matter Where You Sit?

Sadly, there is no magic seat on an aircraft. There is, of course, an element of luck. If you sit in the back and there's a fire in the back, then you're in trouble. If you sit in the front and there's a fire in the front, same result. But in evaluating where 2,000 survivors were sitting, Galea has some general rules of thumb.

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