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.

thawing out

Dear blue92;

I am not a neuroscientist either. But I will say this, optimism (however it's created) does have positive effects. My daughter was fighting with a friend a number of years back. She called her sister. Poof- that was the end of it. Now imagine yourself in a life threatening situation with others. Just the idea of brothers and sisters may well sustain the group's effort to confront it


> My daughter was fighting with a friend a number of years back. She called her sister. Poof- that was the end of it.

I don't understand your argument, if there is one. Anecdotal evidence is of limited value; suggesting people should depend on the magical cause and effect of "positive thinking" alone because "others have been lucky before" is not practically useful advice, though it may sell in book form to the rubes who believe that "power crystals" or prayer alone will substitute for actual work.

The point of Sherwood's answer is not that "optimism is bad". He explicitly says:

"Optimism is a critical survival tool, but only when it's balanced with realism."

One would think this shouldn't be hard to understand, though if we suppose since our current economic woes were fundamentally fueled by a widespread "irrational exuberance" with respect to property values, it's not particularly surprising.


Dan Yager

I am a private pilot and during my training I thought it was a little odd that even on a small single engine plane the FAA requires the pilot to ensure that all passengers are briefed on the proper use of safety equipment. I had always assumed that everyone would know how to operate the lap belt. . . Then, after I got my license, I took my mother-in-law for a plane ride! :)

The safety briefings are extrememly important and I wish more people took them seriously. At least learn, how to open the doors and remove your restraints!

Dan Yager


Eric M. Jones

#20 "...this post overlooks the obvious: wear a parachute- duh— frankenduf"

Duh--indeed. You need to learn how to use a parachute before thinking it's a good escape plan for passengers. It just is not.

It is also true that over 200 mph or over 20,000 feet a parachute would not be useable. Commercial airliners travel above these speeds and altitudes. If you landed in the water or in a tree or any number of other places, you would be screwed. Unless you just lost your wings or took a missile up the tailpipe, you're much better off staying with
almost any airplane.

Short story: A fellow skydiving friend Lisa went to the skydiving championships in Tahlequah OK. On a small regional carrier she sat down next to an elderly lady who bubbled with excitement since trip to see her son was to be her very first airplane ride. As more people got on board, Lisa found it necessary to squeeze her parachute rig under her seat.

Curious about this, the lady asked her what the strange looking thing was. Lisa answered that it was a parachute....then in a moment of impishness, she asked the lady, "...Didn't they give YOU one...?"


Barry Smythe

Let's get an airplane lawyer.