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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!