Narrator: On Christmas Eve 1971, lightning struck a commercial jet flying over Peru. It exploded. The only survivor out of 92 people on board? 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke. Still strapped in her seat, she fell two miles into the Peruvian rainforest. Thanks to the survival skills her father taught her, she emerged 10 days later with a broken collarbone, ruptured knee ligaments, and covered in deep gashes, but still very much alive.
Now, not all of us are trained survivalists, but there are certain things we can do to increase our chances of surviving a plane crash. After all, plane accidents, in general, have a 95% survival rate.
1. Dress appropriately
You can start before you even get to the airport. Experts recommend wearing tight-fitting clothing when you fly. If there is an accident, loose or baggy things are more likely to snag on jagged edges and slow you down. Plus, long, snug jeans and shirtsleeves can protect your limbs from sharp objects and fire.
Double down on fire safety by wearing clothing made from cotton or other natural materials. They don’t burn or melt as easily as synthetic ones. And your shoes should be just as practical as the rest of your outfit. Boots, sneakers, and other shoes that won’t fall off your feet are the smart choice when it comes to a safe escape.
2. Choose a middle seat in the back
Officially, the Federal Aviation Administration says that no seat on an airplane is safer than any other, but the statistics disagree. In 2015, Time studied airplane accidents from the previous 35 years. It found that the seats in the back third of the plane had a 32% fatality rate, compared to 39% in the middle and 38% in the front. And if you narrow it down even further, middle seats in the back had the best odds of survival, and the aisle seats in the middle of the craft had the worst.
3. Five-row rule
An analysis by the University of Greenwich professor Ed Galea found that sitting within five rows of an emergency exit will drastically improve your chance of survival. Galea analyzed the seating charts from more than 100 plane crashes, interviewing 1,900 passengers and 155 crew members. He found that most survivors only had to move five rows or less before escaping the plane. Any more than that, your odds of survival drop.
4. Put your small carry-on under the seat
Giving up a little legroom is a small price to pay for some extra protection. Broken feet and legs are very common in plane crashes. Protecting them is pivotal to a quick evacuation. Putting your carry-on under the seat in front of you closes that gap, so your legs can’t slide under and get caught. It can also pad your shins if they fly forward during an impact.
5. Pay attention to the safety presentation
If you fly often, you might not always pay attention to the preflight safety briefing. The US National Transportation Safety Board surveyed almost 500 passengers that were involved in a plane evacuation between 1997 and 1999. A little more than half of them said they paid attention to only 50% of the presentation or less. 13% said they didn’t watch at all.
Of the passengers on the infamous 2009 US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson, only about 30% of them watched the briefing. After the impact, only 10 out of the 150 people on board grabbed their life vests and evacuated with them. The most cited reason for ignoring the briefing? Frequent fliers thought they were already familiar with the equipment on board.
6. Brace for impact
The FAA has been testing brace positions on crash-test dummies since 1967. The postures have changed and updated throughout the years, but the general idea has stayed the same. Lean forward and keep your head close to the seat in front of you. This serves two purposes. One is to keep flailing to a minimum, and the other is to reduce the chance of a secondary impact. Secondary impact is a head injury on top of a head injury, like what might happen if your head hits the seat in front of you multiple times during a crash. The FAA recommends holding your head against the object it may hit and flexing or bending your limbs inward to keep them in place.
7. Stay attached to something
In the rare event that an accident occurs while the plane is cruising, you could be faced with a free fall. Surviving a six-mile plummet is highly unlikely, but not impossible. And if you stay attached to something, your chances are a little bit better.
“Wreckage rider” is a term coined by amateur historian Jim Hamilton. Hamilton developed the Free Fall Research Page, an online database of nearly every instance of humans falling from great heights. The record for the longest survived fall without a parachute is held by a wreckage rider.
In 1972, a Serbian flight attendant named Vesna Vulovic fell 33,000 feet after the plane she was on blew up over Czechoslovakia. Wedged between a catering cart, her seat, a piece of the plane, and the body of a fellow crew member, she crashed into a snowy incline severely injured but still alive.
People often have fatalistic attitudes when it comes to plane crashes, which can lead to apathy when it comes to safety briefings. But the NTSB says plane accidents, which are when a plane suffers substantial damage or someone suffers serious injury or death, have a 95% survival rate.
So the next time you hit turbulence and start thinking about all the ways you could die, think about all the ways you could live instead.