Staying Alive During a Plane Crash

Safety expert creates a must-read survival guide.

January 8, 2009, 12:14 AM

Jan. 17, 2007— -- 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.

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.

"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."

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.

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.

"What we've found is that the average distance a survivor will travel in an evacuation is seven seat rows," he says. So sit within seven rows of an exit and count exactly how many rows you are from the nearest two exits. Count so that you can find an exit in the dark. And why two exits? Because the nearest exit to you might not be "viable." That's airplane speak for unobstructed.

And should you ask for a window or an aisle seat? "What we've found with our data is that there is a marginal benefit of sitting in the aisle seat as opposed to the window seat, or, in fact, any other seat," says Galea. A marginal benefit because its easier to get into the aisle and on your way to an exit if you're sitting in the aisle seat. If you're in the window with two people between you and the aisle, it will take longer to reach the aisle. Time is of the essence.

We would all be safer if airline seats faced backward. But, as Galea explains, "the difficulty with this is that the majority of the traveling public doesn't like traveling with their back facing the direction of travel."

That's the way they do it on military aircraft, but not for us civilians. Why? Because, says Galea, "You'd have to redesign the structure of the seat completely. You'd have to redesign the floor structure that the seats are bolted into."

On a train you can sit with your back to the direction of travel. And yes, you guessed it, that's Galea's favorite seat. "I will always travel with my back facing the direction of travel and I'll try to sit somewhere where there isn't someone sitting opposite me as well," he says. Why? "Because in the event of an impact the person in front of me is going to be thrown onto me and could cause me injury."

I mentioned time is of the essence. And that's because if you survive the impact, then smoke and flames are what you have to worry about.

"Smoke contains toxic gases, narcotic gases. It contains irritant gases. If you inhale enough of them you will die," explains Galea. That's what did it for the 55 people in the plane fire that got Galea interested in this topic in the first place.

He carries a smoke hood but warns that if you're going to follow his example you must learn how to use it. Otherwise you'll waste time trying to put it on -- time that could be used for making an exit.

Listen to the preflight briefing by the flight attendants and read the safety card. Don't do the crossword or flip through the in flight magazine. Be prepared. And if you're about to crash, do adopt the brace position -- head down, ankles behind knees.

"The brace position is one of the most important things a passenger should take on board when they fly," says Galea. "It's designed to reduce your chances of being knocked unconscious during a heavy impact, and you must be conscious, obviously, to evacuate."

So the myth isn't true: The brace position isn't designed to kiss your behind goodbye.

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