What Are the Odds You Survive an Airplane Crash?

George Bibel has written a fascinating book entitled Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes.

I suspect this is one book that you are never going to find in the airport bookstores.

Bibel tells you when planes crash (focusing in particular on DC-10s). Forty-five percent of the crashes happen on landing, but remarkably these crashes account for only 2 percent of all the fatalities. The worst crashes are those when you are climbing or cruising (14 percent of crashes, but 37 percent of fatalities).

He can tell you why each crash occurred, describing the forces at work on an icy runway, the relevant coefficients of friction, and the impact of thrust reversers.

His chapters have uplifting titles like “In-flight Breakup,” “Pressure, Explosive Decompression,” “Burst Balloons,” and “Metal Fatigue: Bending 777s and Paper Clips.”

In spite of all this, it turns out that for most people in most crashes there is a surprisingly happy ending. Take, for instance, crashes that result in “total hull loss,” which means that the crash damages the airplane beyond economic repair. Of the 446 DC-10s ever delivered, 27 of them were involved in crashes that led to “total hull loss.” Overall in these crashes, 69 percent of all passengers and crew members survived. If you throw out the three worst crashes, the survival rate is nearly 90 percent!


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  1. Colin says:

    Technically speaking, don’t all plane crashes occur at landing? Just not the planned one.

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  2. Peter says:

    A “total hull loss” crash doesn’t necessarily mean much. What looks like relatively minor damage can be uneconomical to repair, especially if the aircraft has been in use for several years.

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  3. Lluis says:

    Not really. There is the possibility of an air collision with another plane or building.

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  4. Gavin says:

    I have survived 2 plane crashes that both happened on landing. One in Omaha and the other in Rotanakiri, Cambodia. As soon as we crashed in Cambodia, the pilots opened their cockpit window, jumped out, and ran away. The crash was obviously pilot error, but the local paper said that it was bad weather conditions. It was a sunny day with no wind! I wonder what percentage of crashes are pilot error?

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  5. Kent says:

    I’ve always theorized that it’s not the impact that kills people, but the giant fireball that occurs afterwards.

    I always wonder if it’s not better to just jump out of the plane once your certain that it will crash, to avoid the giant fireball.

    I’ll have to check out the book to see if my theory is supported.

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  6. pablo says:

    Colin – an in-flight collision (crash) wouldn’t occur at landing.

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  7. Matthew says:

    Overall in these crashes, 69 percent of all passengers and crew members survived. If you throw out the three worst crashes, the survival rate is nearly 90 percent!

    When you have a sample of 27 crashes, why you throw out the worst three? If you are going cherry pick, why not throw out the “safest” and the “deadliest” or at least make some claim as to why the three worst would be outliers worthy of removing from the sample.

    Additionally (and I am sure the book goes into this) what’s the focus on DC-10s. What kind of plane is more likely to be involved in a crash, and what kind of plane is more likely to involve fatalities (correcting for capacity)?

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  8. Matt says:

    I’m not sure as I haven’t read the book, but the DC-10 was involved in some particularly nasty crashes
    in the 70s and 80s, such as the American Airlines one in 1979 on takeoff from LAX and the one in Sioux City Iowa in 1986. There are probably others outside of the US that I’m not familiar with (trying to resist urge to use wikipedia as a surrogate memory bank). I also believe the SwissAir crash back in ’98 off the coast of Labrador was an MD-11, a DC-10 offshoot.

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