Who Survives a Plane Crash?


When a jetliner made a water landing on the Hudson River last week and all 155 passengers survived, Levitt wrote that maybe airplane safety briefings aren’t entirely useless after all.

In his forthcoming book The Survivors Club, Ben Sherwood writes that around 30 percent of plane-crash fatalities could have been prevented had the passengers known what to do.

Sherwood is a journalist and the former executive producer of Good Morning America. His book, he says, “reveals the hidden side” of who survives and who dies in crises spanning from cancer to bear attacks.

Below, Sherwood answers our questions about the Hudson River crash and why everyone survived.


Are emergency water landings really such rare occurrences, or is that a misconception?


In commercial aviation, a deliberate emergency landing on the water — known as “ditching” — is very rare. Including USAir 1549, there have only been four intentional ditchings since the beginning of commercial airliner service in 1958, according to AirSafe.com. Of 442 passengers and crew involved in those intentional ditchings, by my own math, 66 percent survived. In general aviation — smaller private planes — ditching is more common. From 1983 to 1999, there were 143 ditchings, according to the government. In 86 percent of the incidents, there were no fatalities.


A misconception you write about in the book is that in a plane crash, people become panicky and animalistic and pandemonium ensues. What can people actually expect in such a situation?


Panic is one of the biggest myths of disasters and emergencies. We’re accustomed to seeing pandemonium and chaos in disaster movies, but experts say that kind of unreasoning fear and hysteria almost never happens in real life.

In fact, one of the most surprising things you’ll encounter in a disaster is inaction. Believe it or not, but most people do nothing. They’re bewildered. In a stupor, they wait for instructions.

Experts say that 80 percent of us are likely to respond this way with so-called “behavioral inaction.” Only 10 percent act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, just 10 percent of us act dangerously or counterproductively.

We also shouldn’t forget that 150 ordinary people without any evacuation training managed to get off USAir 1549 without serious incident. It was “organized chaos,” they reported, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. Pushing and shoving should be expected in a narrow aluminum cylinder that was supposed to land in North Carolina instead of a frigid river.


You mention in the book that certain personality traits can work for or against you in survival situations. How does this apply to, say, someone who is an optimist?


Optimism is a critical survival tool, but only when it’s balanced with realism. This concept is known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The idea was popularized by author Jim Collins in his best-selling book Good to Great. When Collins asked Stockdale to explain which American prisoners did not survive captivity in Vietnam, the admiral replied, “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists.”

Collins was perplexed, but Stockdale explained that the optimists “were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go; and then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale went on: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”


Can a positive outcome to a crash like USAir 1549 change often unrealistic public perceptions of the fatality of plane crashes?


I doubt it. It’s incredibly safe to fly — your chances of dying on your next domestic flight are just one in 60 million — but many Americans are still petrified of air travel.

It’s no surprise: Plane crashes monopolize media coverage. Indeed, one MIT study found that airplane crash coverage on the front page of The New York Times was 60 times greater than reporting on HIV/AIDS per 1,000 deaths; 1,500 times greater than reporting on auto hazards; and 6,000 times greater than cancer.


How much can I really increase my chances of surviving a plane crash?


Up to 30 percent of the deaths in plane crashes are preventable if passengers know what to do, according to experts. In other words, you can make a difference in saving your life in a plane crash (or virtually any situation).

Pay attention to the safety briefing and information card. Rehearse an escape plan in your mind: What’s your primary exit and your backup? Count the number of rows to each of those two exits. If you can, sit within five rows of any exit; your chances of survival are much greater if you’re within that range. Again, if you can, choose an aisle seat for more mobility. And then, try to relax. Experts say that a stress-induced heart attack is a much greater threat on an airplane than a crash.

The other way to prepare for adversity is to know more about your survivor personality and how you would behave in a crisis. To test yourself, you can take the free Survivor IQ Quiz that we developed for The Survivors Club.

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  1. Milton Recht says:


    One of the passengers, Josh, read the emergency landing card and knew how to open the door when others couldn’t.

    The flight attendants also stopped passengers from opening the rear door which would have flooded and sunk the plane.

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  2. Bryan Chambala says:

    The Stockdale Paradox: I’ve not been a prisoner of war, nor have I survived any kind of prolonged physical torture, but I’ve heard this paradox before in the context of “Good to Great” (how are all of those great companies doing now?), and I think it’s bunk. How many factors behind Stockdale’s perception determining survival could possibly be at play in a POW environment? Existing health conditions? Size of body related to nutritional needs? It could be infinite and never known.
    That’s the worst kind of causal thinking: Stockdale lived, and he says it’s because he was a hopeful realist, so voila! That’s the key! Jim Collins’ work is full of that kind of reverse-trending nonsense.
    I’m not a doctor nor a neuroscientist, but telling the public that POWs who died in camps were simply unable to adapt to the conditions because of their respective faulty mental states is insulting to their families and to their memories.
    Sometimes it’s just luck. Maybe even more than sometimes.

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    Thanks Annika,

    Prevention is also important for passenger who is sufficiently alert to see that the wing-flaps, ailerons are not lowered for liftoff. The passenger can signal flight attendant to telephone pilot to stop or lower flaps. I think that several fatalities have been caused by failure to adjust flaps. One case was at Barajas-Madrid last August as I remember it. Killed over 100 people on their way to Canary Islands.

    Another case that I remember was a crack in the fuselage that could have been spotted by boarding passenger and reported in time to prevent fatal accident.

    Passengers should double check the professionals whenever they have nothing better to do.

    Informed consumers can inform pilot.

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  4. Skycop says:

    Prevention is also important for passenger who is sufficiently alert to see that the wing-flaps, ailerons are not lowered for liftoff. The passenger can signal flight attendant to telephone pilot to stop or lower flaps……

    Are you kidding?

    An untrained passenger, alerts a flight attendant who then, informs the Captain and first officer that they have not configured the aircraft correctly….. If anyone thinks the response would be similar to… “wow that was close, go and tell the passenger in 23a I owe him a beer” I dont think so, infact I think it would be closer to “tell that pompus *** **** that weather conditions, fuel, weight, length of runway and finally the pilots will dictate flap settings and not some know it all passenger” should they fail to set the aircraft for basic configuration then, as soon as the aircraft throttles are put into take of postition the cockpit will be filled with bells whistles and warning sounds settings.

    I do believe that last post was a joke!

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  5. Rishabh Sonthalia says:

    i appreciate and acclaim the answers incorporated by the author. The authenticity of the facts and irrepressible presentaion is a very healthy and helpful set of information . arrayed corporate honchos must take a closer look at it !!!

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  6. quoted from Ernie Pyle says:

    Yes, sometimes luck or the fates on your side.

    a quotation from a WW I vet and journalist, Ernie Pyle:

    Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly — but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.

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  7. JD says:

    I think there is also some thought among passengers that the statistic of dying in a plane crash is so minute (1 in 60 million) that there is such little chance of dying on their flight, so they shouldn’t bother to waste any effort in learning specific safety instructions if something does go wrong.

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  8. hal says:

    For those with a fear of flying, statistics have little to no meaning. Fear is seldom quelled by numbers.

    But for those who are reassured by statistics, I’m reminded of the fearful flyer who consulted a statistician, fearing there would be a bomb aboard his next flight. He was not sufficiently reassured to hear the odds were 10 million to one against it. So the statistician suggested he take along his own bomb, because the probability is 10 billion to one there are two bombs on the same plane. Thus are statisticians assured of safety.

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