Surviving a Plane Crash: 20 Tips From 20/20

Learn how to save your own life in a plane crash.

BySean Dooley
May 12, 2011, 11:40 AM

May 12, 2011 — -- Mommy blogger Stephanie Nielson's survival and recovery after a tragic plane crash has proven inspirational to her fans worldwide. But the fact that Nielson did survive the crash is less unusual than you might think.

Ben Sherwood, the author of "The Survivors Club -- The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life" and the president of ABC News, says that plane crashes are highly unlikely and the odds are that you will survive.

"You could fly every day for the next 164,000 years and not have an airplane crash," he said.

In the unlikely event of a crash, he said, we should all take comfort in the knowledge that we have the power to save ourselves.

"If a plane crashes it's very likely that I'm going to survive it, and if I do the right thing, if I pay attention, if I have a plan, if I act, the chances are even better," Sherwood said.

Here are some of Sherwood's favorite tips to keep in mind the next time you board a plane:

1. Know the statistics. There may be an urge to feel a sense of hopelessness in a crash -- accepting the worst case scenario as a given. But believe it or not, the survival rate of plane crashes is 95.7 percent. Don't ever give up and know that the probability of survival is actually very high.

2. You have only 90 seconds to get out of the plane -- just 90 seconds. Any longer and the fire can burn through the aluminum skin of the plane and engulf everything.

3. "Plus Three / Minus Eight" -- In aviation lingo this refers to the first three minutes of your plane ride and the last eight. It's during these 11 in-flight minutes that 80 percent of all plane crashes occur. So this is the time to pay extra close attention and be alert. Don't fall asleep, take off your shoes, listen to music, or take a sleeping pill during the plus three, minus eight period of your flight. The plane that carried Stephanie and Christian Nielson crashed during its initial ascent.

4. Formulate an action plan. In many cases survival is entirely up to you and Sherwood says that the moment you board a plane you should begin devising your emergency plan. Memorize where the exits are and count how many rows away they are. Also have an idea of how you would get to these exits if the passageways were blocked.

5. Being in shape helps. Although it won't always save you, being agile, fast and strong can make a huge difference in how fast you are able to get out of a burning plane and save yourself. Both Stephanie and Christian Nielson were young, fit and had an active lifestyle.

6. Being slim helps even more. In a crash you will often have to squeeze through tight spaces to get yourself out of the plane. The thinner you are, the easier that will be.

7. Don't panic. Panic is the enemy of survival. Most people in an emergency actually do not panic or act irrational, but they freeze and await instructions. Try to stay calm and make sure you are focused on your action plan so that you don't freeze.

8. In most emergencies, there are 10 percent of people who have the ability to think absolutely clearly and instruct others on how to save themselves. If you find yourself unwillingly frozen and you come in contact with one of these impressive 10 percent of people, listen to them and follow their instructions.

9. Have a plan B. It's not enough to locate one exit and plan on reaching it in the case of an emergency. Locate a second way out of the plane in case your first one is obstructed or inaccessible.

10. Actually pay attention to the flight attendant's safety briefings. Most people ignore the standard safety explanation at the beginning of a flight and continue reading their book or talking to their neighbor. The information being provided is important and could help save your life.

11. Internalize the most important points in the safety briefing. Even more important than just listening to the flight attendant's presentation is remembering the most vital instructions. For instance if a plane decompresses at high altitude you only have a few seconds to get your oxygen mask on - so make sure you understand how to do it correctly.

12. Even if you're a frequent flier it's important to listen to the safety briefing and have an action plan. Often people who travel a lot think they already know everything they should about flight safety, but that can hurt your chances of survival in an emergency.

13. Always wear comfortable shoes when flying. Women should leave their heels at home. Stephanie Neilson, for example, wore suede moccasins that protected her feet -- one of the few areas of her body that was not burned.

14. Don't drink alcohol on a plane. As tempting as it can be to kick back with an in-flight cocktail while flying, try not to. You want to be as alert as possible in the case of an emergency and alcohol will impair your most important abilities.

15. Face it, in a plane crash you are going to hit something, so be as prepared as you can for that impact. Have your seat belt fastened firmly across your waist. It's a good idea to avoid bulkhead seats because those walls don't have the give that another seat in front of you does. And know how to get into the brace position. It is designed to minimize the force of impact on your body and head. During her crash, Stephanie Nielson got herself into the brace position before her plane hit the ground possibly preventing her from breaking any bones.

16. Forget about your carry-on luggage. Investigators say that, while fleeing a plane, passengers frequently try to bring their bags with them. If you are involved in a plane crash the only thing you should be thinking about is how to get off that plane. Just remember anything in your bags can ultimately be replaced.

17. Try to sit within five rows of an exit. There is no conclusive evidence that any one area of a plane is the safest place to sit. Each crash is different and in many cases survivors and victims are found right next to each other in the same section. What can make a difference is how close you are to an exit.

18. If you're traveling with family or children discuss what each person's role will be in your action plan and make sure everyone understands what he or she will do in case of an emergency.

19. Remind yourself at take-off and landing who matters to you most. Investigators say that in emergencies people can forget the most basic things -- husbands flee without wives, parents without children. If you are in an emergency consider even reciting a mantra to yourself like, "I've got kids, I've got kids."

20. Ask yourself, "How committed am I?" Remember that survival is not just about physical fitness but mental fitness as well. In a crash you cannot have even a moment's hesitation. Be prepared to climb over seats, crawl on the floor, to do whatever is necessary to reach the exit.

Stephanie and Christian Nielson both thought of their children.

"This feeling in my heart told me...think of your children, they need you to be well," Christian Nielson said.

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