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So you've had a nightmare of a landing, the plane cabin is all smashed up, it is dark, people are screaming and crying, and you can smell something burning.

All of that is good news rather than bad.  Self evidently, you've survived the landing.

Now to complete the process, you need to quickly leave the plane.

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How to Survive a Plane Crash part 3

Exiting the plane after an emergency landing

As we're sometimes aggressively told, the flight attendants' main job is passenger safety (rather than passenger service).

Hopefully their training will triumph in an emergency, but you can't rely only on them.  There may not be enough of them to man every exit, they may be injured, they may panic, or the noise and crush of people may overwhelm their attempts to direct passengers after a crash.

The information below will make you more self-reliant in such cases.

Part three of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations



Nothing else matters if you don't actually get off the plane.  Surviving the stresses of the landing is great, but if you're unable to exit the plane before it is no longer possible (ie due to smoke/fire/sinking) then your efforts prior to then have all been wasted.

One thing is certain - the sooner you exit a plane after it suffers an emergency landing, the greater your chance of surviving.  And a key part of exiting as soon as possible is to find the best exit to use and then to proceed purposefully to it as soon as you can.

And the best way to help other people exit the plane too is simply to get to an exit and leave the plane, yourself, as quickly as possible.  In a situation where the plane is becoming rapidly uninhabitable, every second of delay you cause potentially means one less person who can exit the plane.

Count your blessings - you're still alive.  Now follow through these steps to maximize your chances of staying alive.

Disclaimer :  This article series contains things which are subjective opinions rather than provable repeatable facts, and deals with probabilities rather than certainties.

Different experts sometimes have differing opinions on the optimum strategies for surviving a plane crash.  I'm not an expert, and my selective endorsement of some opinions over others may or may not be correct.

You are best advised to read what follows with an open mind, then supplement it with your own research, and adopt what you feel comfortable with, adapt what you're not so comfortable with, and improve as best you can to fit your needs and your emergency situation.

Good luck.  Let me know, afterwards, what worked for you!

Planning the Exit to Use

You should decide which is probably going to be your preferred exit either before getting on the plane (if you know where you'll be sitting, can give you a helpful seat map) or shortly after getting on.

You should revise this first decision when you see where all your fellow passengers are seated.

And then, most important of all, if you do have a need to evacuate the plane, you'll want to update your decision as soon as possible.

Write down where your emergency exits are

Don't trust yourself to remember how many rows to the emergency exit.  Instead, imagine yourself in a panicked situation, surrounded by other panicked people, and with the in-floor lighting not working.  How will you know, then, where to go?

Here's a simple solution.  Take one of your business cards and keep it in, eg your shirt pocket, and write on it how many rows forward and aft to your nearest exit rows.  Then you can simply take this card out of your pocket and review the numbers on it when going into your 'alert mode' prior to the dangerous part of each flight.

Choosing Your Best and Alternate Exit

When you're on a plane, decide if your preferred exit row is going to be ahead or behind you.  Five factors will influence your choice :

How Close the Exits are :  Count the rows between you and the exits closest to you, both ahead and behind.

Obviously (?) the exit that has fewest rows between you and it is closest, and scores highest (but only on this part of your four point evaluation - continue on through the other three stages).

Wing or Door Exits :  A door exit can probably handle more passengers evacuating through it per minute than an over-wing exit, for the simple reason that it is a large door with a matching large space around it for people to move to and prepare to leave from.  An overwing exit is narrower and requires you probably to climb up and squeeze through the exit, while also first going down a narrow 'walkway' between two rows of seats.

If I were choosing between a door exit five rows away and a wing exit four rows away, I'd choose the door exit every time.

People between you and the exits :  The emptiest parts of planes tend to be those parts closest to the back.  Maybe the rows of seats are 80% full in front of you, but only 50% full behind you.

This would suggest that an exit three rows in front of you is going to have as many or more people wishing to use it as an exit perhaps five rows behind you.  This favors you choosing the exit behind you.

Exits serving both directions or only one :  The exits at the very front and very back of a plane will probably serve passengers from one direction only.  But the exits in the rest of the plane generally have passengers converging on them from two directions (passengers walking back from ahead of the exit, and passengers walking forward from behind the exit), with the exception being over-wing exits which often exist in paired locations - ie, two exits in two adjacent rows, so that one wing exit logically becomes available for passengers ahead of the exit, and the other exit logically becomes available for passengers behind the exit.

Clearly, an exit that is serving passengers from both directions will be more congested than one serving passengers from only one direction.   If I had a choice between an exit three rows away serving passengers from both directions, and one five rows away serving passengers in only one direction, I'd take the exit five rows away.

Water landing issues :  If you're on a flight that goes over the water, you need to consider some extra issues that impact on the best exit to use.  If you're landing in the water, planes typically tend to sink from the rear first, and many airplanes don't allow the rear-most exits to be used after a water landing.  So if you've had a water landing, don't even think about going to the very rear of the plane, and in general, give preference to moving forwards to an exit rather than rearwards.

Additionally consider the issue of life rafts.  The detachable slides on the forward doors of some planes aren't actually life rafts per se - they are merely great big floating things that you hold on to, while in the water yourself.  They act as a further buoyancy aid and as a way for everyone to keep together.  But if the water is cold, you're going to suffer hypothermia from being in the water.

Most planes also have life rafts (depending on if they are rated for over water flight or not), often kept in the ceiling compartments of the plane, and often deployed through the over-the-wing exits.  These life rafts actually allow people to get on board them, and so are massively preferable to just hanging on to the evacuation slide while in the water.

Check the emergency instruction brochure in your seat pocket to see what your plane has in the way of life rafts, where they are kept, and where they will be deployed, and this might influence your choice of exit as well.

In theory there are sufficient life rafts plus one spare for everyone on the plane.  But, in the reality of an emergency landing, who knows how many can and will be deployed.

Updating your exit choice when needing to evacuate

If you need to evacuate the plane, you'll want to check to see if your preferred exit remains your best choice.

If possible, try and see if your preferred exit has been opened, and as you head to it, try and keep checking that people are continuing to use it.  Not all exits may open in an emergency - either because they're jammed, below the water, or because the slide failed to open, or if there is something nasty (ie fire) outside; you'd hate to get halfway to your preferred exit only to find it wasn't able to be used.

And even if an exit door is opened and people start to use it, the situation might change - the exit slide might become damaged, or the situation on the ground might become unsafe, or the life-raft might be full.  If you notice people have stopped going out the exit, consider choosing a different exit.

Secondly, get a sense for congestion and blockage problems in the aisles to your preferred and alternate exit choices.  Panicking passengers, stuff spilled into the aisles, or whatever else (such as the plane splitting in two!) can make the theoretical best choice no longer a good choice.

Thirdly, try to get an understanding of what is on the ground outside.  If you can see flames outside your window, you'll want to be careful which exit you choose on that side of the plane and might choose to instead try your luck on the other side (unless that side is on fire, too).

It is reasonable to expect, in the case of fire, that there will be less fire towards the front of the plane, and more fire around the wings where the fuel tanks and engines are, and behind them (if the plane was moving forward, leaving fuel and fire behind it).

Thinking Three Dimensionally on Twin Deck Planes

If you're on a 747 or an A380, you have exits on both the upper and lower decks.

Depending on where on the plane you are, your best exit might be on the other level.  I don't know for sure, but my guess is that few people will be taking the stairs between one level and the other in an emergency evacuation, so consider going (especially down) the stairs if that is likely to lead you to another exit choice.

What to Expect in a Bad Landing

Firstly, any landing can suddenly/unexpectedly turn bad at any time until the plane has stopped.  Don't relax your alert status until the plane has slowed down to its slow normal taxi speed.

Normally, planes land at about 150 - 180 mph of forward airspeed, and just a couple of miles per hour of downward (dropping) speed.  Is that fast or slow?  Well, it is slow compared to a plane's cruising in the air speed, which is something over 500 mph, but it is amazingly fast compared to the speed you drive your car down the freeway at.  And your car probably is more crash resistant than a plane.

The slowest most passenger jet planes can ever land is just above their 'stall' speed - the slowest speed at which there is enough lift generated to keep the plane aerodynamically sound and flyable.  This speed is about 100 mph, so no matter what the pilot does, you're going to be connecting with the ground at some forward speed greater than 100 mph.

In any sort of semi-controlled landing, you're unlikely to be going any faster than, say, 250 mph, and probably will be going much less than 200 mph.

When you land, you'll immediately start to slow down - either because the pilot uses the wheel brakes and/or the reverse thrust on the engines, or, if neither are possible, just due to the friction of the plane moving over the ground and through the air.

With a fairly aggressive braking program, you'll be braking at 0.5g or more, which means your speed will be slowing down by 10 mph every second.  After ten seconds of this, your speed is going to be something less than 100 mph, and after 20 seconds, you'll be close to stopped.

Better still, after only five seconds of braking, your plane has already lost around half its kinetic energy, making your survivability very much greater.

This is not to say that the plane may necessarily be braking at as much as 0.5g.  If it is on ice, for example, it will have very little traction and the wheel braking will be relatively ineffective, and engine braking alone is a relatively weak form of braking.

For sure, a bad landing may be terribly bad, and may be very noisy and involve extremely violent jerkings, up and down, and side to side, but try to just calmly count down the seconds.  Get to five seconds, and your survivability has greatly increased.  Get to ten seconds, and the plane is hopefully now traveling at less than 100 mph.  Get to twenty seconds, and you're almost there.

And here's a bit of good news to cling to.  Every violent impact you suffer during the landing roll absorbs energy from the plane, and helps it to bleed off more speed.  It is arguably better to have some major bangs and scrapes because this helps the plane slow down more quickly - each minor impact on the ground reduces the remaining energy for a potential future catastrophic major impact.

So, tell yourself, during the potential hell of an emergency landing, that each gut-wrenching move of the plane is a step closer to walking off the plane.

Don't stop your bracing until you can tell the plane has almost stopped.  Ideally you'd wait until it has completely stopped, but you'll probably be a bit impatient, so wait as long as you can.

Steps to Take to Evacuate the Plane

Most important - obey instructions given to you by the flight crew.

Even if the instructions seem wrong, you probably should do what they order you to do, because it is a really bad time and place to try and debate the best evacuation strategy, and you'll likely find your fellow passengers will not welcome your independent thinking.

Preserving order is an important thing, and you don't want to be the spark that changes an obedient group of passengers into a rebellious rabble.

1.  Wait until the plane has massively slowed down before ending your brace position, and, if you can, wait until it has completely stopped before releasing your seat belt.  For all you know, just as the plane is about to stop, it might run off the runway and/or plunge into a huge ditch or down a vertical cliff edge; you can't predict what might happen next when the plane is landing in a bad/adverse situation, so keep your seat belt fastened as long as possible.

2.  If you can, look out a window to familiarize yourself with what is happening outside the plane.  Do you see any flames or other issues that might prevent you safely evacuating from your side of the plane?  Anything outside that might cause you to choose one of your emergency exits over the other?

3.  Don't panic.  Even if you see the wings ripped off the plane, even if the plane is on a terrifying angle, even if it has broken in two, even if it is upside down, even if it is dark and people are screaming all around you, don't panic.  You're alive.  You've made it through the landing.  That was the truly hard part.  Now all you need to do is get out of the plane.  Congratulate yourself for having survived the landing, and now proceed to purposefully evacuate the plane as best you can.

4.  So, when you are able to start your evacuation, gather the emergency survival things you have with you, and turn on your flashlight (whether you need it or not - it makes you look more an authority figure).

5.  Take a quick look around you and then toward your preferred exit.  Is the path to that exit passable?  Is someone opening the exit?  Good, but also quickly check your secondary exit choice - maybe the path there is unexpectedly better.  Decide which way to go and head that way, but stay ambivalent about your choice of exit until you can tell that people are using it and leaving the plane.  Don't confuse people bunching up with people actually leaving the plane.

6.  If you are traveling with other people who are next to you, make sure they are coming with you.  If other people are traveling with you and are on the way to your exit, then watch for them as you pass where they were sitting.  But if they are the 'wrong way' or in an entirely different part of the plane, they're on their own.  You can't block other people or 'go against the flow' of people.  You have a responsibility to yourself, and to all the other passengers, to quickly leave the plane and not impede other passengers who of course wish to do the same thing.

7.  The closer you get to the functioning exit you plan to use, the more certain you can be of your probable survival, and you can consider, if everything else seems appropriate, pausing to help other people on the way.  But don't slow down the other people behind you - it is not for you to decide 'I'm going to reduce the chances of the 20 people behind me of getting off the plane so I can help one other person'.

When you're actually at the exit, you can decide if you want to immediately leave the plane or if you may choose to stay to help people leaving the plane for a short while.  Only choose to stay and assist if there are not other people already doing that, and if there is a flight attendant present, get their agreement for you to stay and help.

The main thing to do is to speed people through the door and onto the wing or down the slide.  You want to be averaging one person every second, and so if you can speed things up by the slightest tenth of a second, you are increasing the number of people going through the door by 10%.  On the other hand, a person who wastes time indecisively and takes two seconds has 'used up' one other person's time as well as their own while leaving.

The most important part of the evacuation is to have people flowing smoothly through the exit and jumping without pausing onto the slide.  Keep people jumping onto the slide, without waiting for each person to get clear at the bottom.

8.  When you have evacuated the plane, decide if you can be helpful at the bottom of the slide, catching people as they come down and pulling them clear so as to encourage people still on the plane to continue coming down quickly.  If this isn't an issue, move well clear of the crash site, and encourage other people to move clear with you.

Even if the plane isn't on fire, you have no way of knowing that it mightn't suddenly explode in a spectacular fireball like you see on television.  Maybe some inflammable material is dripping onto something hot, maybe something is smoldering and about to burst into open fire, maybe part of the plane is about to collapse, thereby breaching fuel tanks; maybe many things might go wrong.  Move clear of the plane - experts suggest 500 ft upwind is a safe minimum distance.

9.  Normally it is best to remain moderately (safely) close to the plane wreckage and wait to be rescued, because that will be the easiest thing for search and rescue teams to spot.

Even if the pilots were unable to send a distress call, the authorities will probably notice the absence of the plane fairly soon, depending on where the plane is, and will soon after that start sending out search parties along the flight's expected path, moving ahead from its last known position.  Emergency locator beacons would speed this up still further, although it can take five minutes or more for a beacon to communicate to the central monitoring service its position.

Bottom line - it shouldn't be too terribly long until someone comes looking for you, and hopefully not much longer after that until they find you.

Making Your Way to the Exit

Some authorities suggest you should crawl along the floor if the cabin is filling with smoke.

If there's no-one behind you, maybe that is a valid way to proceed.  But otherwise, if you've more people urgently pushing behind you, the last thing you want to do is get down onto your hands and knees and risk being trampled underfoot.

Keep your head as low as you can to avoid smoke, but don't risk being pushed over and then getting trampled on.

If there is a massive blockage in the aisle, consider climbing over seat backs, but if you do this, be alert for people in the seats you're climbing over.

How to Exit the Plane

As mentioned in point 7 of the Steps to Take to Evacuate the Plane section above, time is absolutely critical here.  You, and everyone else, need to get down that exit as urgently quickly as possible.

Two points are most important.

At the top of the exit, as soon as you are 'next in line', immediately exit the plane.  Do not wait for the person(s) in front of you to clear the slide before taking your turn.

To exit the plane, do not delicately sit down on the edge of the door then gently lever yourself onto the slide, like a young child might do when going on a slide for their first time, in a playground.  Do not pause, but continue moving to the door and jump out and into the slide.

Think of the slide as a giant trampoline.  You'd never hesitate to jump onto a trampoline, do a similar sort of jump onto the exit slide.

It is very regrettable that airlines don't include a graphic video presentation of how to exit the plane as part of their safety briefing, because actually getting out of the exit is the most critical part of successfully evacuating a plane in the shortest time possible.  Fortunately, due to the wonder that is the internet and YouTube, we can compensate for this critical omission.

See this video for a good example of an emergency exit drill and how to exit a plane quickly.  On the right of the page there are links to more similar videos.  Watch several to get a feeling for different types of exits and slides - some are wide enough to handle two people at a time, others are one person at a time exits.

Here's a video of an AA evacuation at LAX last year - there was some sort of burning smell which caused the plane to be evacuated, and it gives an example of a more typical rate of evacuation in a semi-emergency (the best part to watch is from 2 minutes into the video).

How Will People React

When there is an emergency on a plane, survivors report a range of different responses.  Some people may mindlessly panic and become hysterical and unresponsive to normal situations.  Others may just freeze in place and do nothing at all until someone tells them clearly and simply what to do - this is apparently more common than people becoming hysterical.

Assuming that you keep your wits about you, you will likely confront some of these other types of people as you make your way off the plane.

If they are not impeding your own progress off the plane, ignore them.  I'm sorry, that sounds harsh, but the last thing you want to do for yourself, for your family and others who rely upon you, and for the people behind you, also urgently keen to get off the plane, is to slow your own progress off the plane.  Your first responsibility is to yourself and those who rely/depend on you, your second responsibility is not to interfere with other people and their orderly evacuation of the plane.  You do not have a responsibility to people you've never met before and will never meet again.

If you come across people who are impeding your progress off the plane, you need to speak to them loudly, in short clear phrases, using a 'command voice', just like the police (and flight attendants) are taught to use.  People have a natural instinct to obey, and if you give clear simple commands, they may follow them.

Clear simple commands would be 'Stop!'; 'Turn Around!'; 'Go Left!'; 'Keep Moving!' and other such things.

Note, if you say 'Stop!' you better quickly come up with another course of action for the person, because they won't stay stopped long.

Now is not the time for politeness.  Don't trample people in a stampede to get off the plane, but don't stop in the aisle to tighten your shoelaces either, and don't allow other people in front of you to dawdle either.  In particular, don't let people get anything out of the overheads if you're in a time critical evacuation.

Part three of a four part series on how to survive a plane crash.  See also :

1.  How likely are you to be in a plane crash, which are the safest planes, and when are the most dangerous times on a flight

2.  The safest seats

3.  Exiting the plane

4.  Bracing and other considerations


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Originally published 30 Jan 2009, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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