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How to Survive a Plane Crash part 4

More ways to increase your chances of surviving an emergency landing (aka plane crash)

A typical illustration from a typical safety card.  But some experts believe the brace position shown here is incorrect and in a severely bad landing (which is of course when a brace position is most needed) may result in you breaking your ankles.

Part four 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



Do you know how to brace if called upon to do so in an emergency?  Have you ever tried bracing so you know how much you need to adapt the suggested brace position to fit the space around you, and your own physical dimensions?

Good bracing is a vital part of surviving a crash landing.  This last part of our four part series discusses bracing, plus a number of other factors that can increase your chances of surviving.

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!

Bracing for Impact

There are two main parts to surviving a crash.  The first part is withstanding the effect of the crash itself, the second is swiftly evacuating the plane after the crash.

The most important thing you can do to increase your chances of surviving a crash is to brace yourself for the shock of the impact and not to lose consciousness.  Have a look at what happens to crash dummies in test impacts, and then try and prevent those same things happening to you.

A key part of your brace position is simply placing yourself hard up against whatever is in front of you, so that when the sudden deceleration causes you to be thrown forward, you're already up against whatever it is you'll hit.  So the seat back in front of you is actually your friend - get nice and close to it when bracing.

Another key part of your brace position is to stop your limbs and head from failing about and hitting things during the shocks of the plane crashing to a halt.  So you want to, for example, wrap your head in your arms and tightly clasp your hand/fingers together.

This Wikipedia entry gives a lengthy discussion on how and why to brace, and is useful reading.

There's a new consideration these days when you're bracing.  Don't brace yourself against the seat in front of your video screen (assuming there is one).  That would be a very bad idea indeed.  Position your head above or below (lower is generally better) the video screen.

One more thing about bracing.  If you have an airplane pillow or blanket, use this as part of a cushion between you and any hard surfaces about you which you're likely to hit during the crash stop.

Protect Your Legs

If you break a leg, you're probably not going to get out of the plane alive.  Even if you don't break a leg, if you harm your legs so you can't easily walk as you otherwise would, you're massively reducing your survivability.

So, when bracing for an impact, think about your legs as well as the rest of your body.

Air accident investigators have sometimes commented on the prevalence of post-crash passengers with one or even both their legs broken below the knee, and it is thought this happens because passengers tuck their legs underneath them when bracing.  But the tremendous forces in a crash cause the legs to fly free and forward, where they then slam up against the bottom corner of the seat in front, and with such a strong impact that the legs break.

Perhaps it is better to keep your legs stretched out in front, close to the bottom of the seat in front, so that they won't travel as far and won't break.

Protect Your Hands

Here's a vital but subtle additional consideration.  You'll need your hands after the crash - to undo your seat belt, perhaps to crawl along the floor, to support yourself, and so on.

So what do you do with your hands as you brace for impact?  Most people clasp them over their head - but there is a right way and a very wrong way to do that.

The wrong way is only subtly different to the right way.  Be sure you know the difference.

You don't want your hands to be on the top of your head.  You want them to be on the back of your head.

The reason for this is due to what happens in the impact.  Your head is going to fly forward and collide with the seat back in front of you.  You must be certain that the part of your head that will hit the seatback is not the part you have your hands holding, because you don't want your hands to become crushed between a seat back and your skull.  In such a case, you'll likely break some fingers, which means you'll be much less dexterous and less able to quickly undo your seat belt, move out into the aisle, and proceed quickly to evacuate the plane.

So, if your hands are on the back of your head, they'll be safely out of the way, but if they are on the top, they are liable to be crushed by the impact of your head on the seat in front.

Seat Belt Tight

Don't just fasten your seatbelt, but massively tighten it too.

And practice releasing it - sure, you might think this is an amazingly simple thing to do, but after accident reports consistently show that some people forget how to release their safety belts.  Remember that airplane seat belts generally need you to lift the buckle/release lever, which is the opposite of most car seat belts that need you to push in the release lever.

Because airplane seat belts are held in position by a friction roller, they work loose fairly quickly.  You'll want to cinch it tight again several times as you come in for a crash landing.

One study suggests that you get triple the G-force acting on you for every half inch of slack in your seat-belt.  This is why air force pilots don't have cushions on their seats but instead sit in a hard uncomfortable metal seat - if the ejection rockets fire, they want to be right up against the seat frame rather than have it slam into their backside.

Flame Resistant and Appropriate Clothing

Fire is an ever-present danger in an airplane emergency, and you might find yourself needing to dash through flames on your escape.

For these reasons, it is best to wear flame resistant clothing, and preferably clothing that covers as much of you as possible.

Avoid synthetic materials, and - ladies - it is better to have bare legs than to have nylons on.

Wool is probably the best material for clothing, followed by linen, and then cotton/silk.  Wool will catch fire at 600C, compared to cotton at only 255C - some synthetics actually catch fire at higher temperatures than cotton (eg polyester at 560C), but rather than forming ash that drops harmlessly away, they melt and may melt onto your skin, giving you severe burns.

Ideally you should have trousers to protect your legs, and a long sleeved shirt to protect your arms.

Your clothing should not be liable to get snagged or caught on things as you're stumbling through the chaotic shambles inside a plane that you're needing to do an emergency evacuation from.

Weather Appropriate Clothing (everywhere on your route)

The good news - you've survived an emergency water landing.  The bad news - it is below freezing, and you die of exposure an hour later.  Or perhaps you're on a flight between Los Angeles and Europe in summertime, but the flight takes the polar route, lands on the ice, and there you are in t-shirt and shorts, again dying of exposure on the ice an hour or two later.

Make sure you have - at hand, not in the overhead - any clothing items you might need outside while taking off and landing.  You can probably leave the items in the overhead if they're there for a 'just in case' somewhere along the way (as in the example of the summertime flight via the north pole).

Wool seems to be a good choice under this heading, too, and can also help if you're in the water because it won't get too waterlogged while still providing some insulating properties.

Generally, accidents are more likely to occur in the dark, and in bad weather.

Shoes Too

Your mobility is an essential part of your ability to survive.  You want to protect your legs during a bad landing, and then be able to walk to the exit and, once out of the plane, away from the immediate crash site.

After a bad landing, anything could be on the floor in the cabin.  Broken glass, shattered fittings, liquids, who knows what.  Similarly, there could be anything on the wings of the plane and on the ground from where you get out of the plane.

Consider sensible sturdy lace-up closed shoes rather than open sandals, and no high heels for the ladies.

Keep your shoes on your feet during the danger periods (5 minutes after takeoff, 10 minutes before landing); there's no way you'll have the time or opportunity to put them on after something bad happens.

Flashlight (and Cabin Light)

The wonderful new LED technology has made powerful and long-lasting flashlights amazingly small and light. I have several that are made from metal and so are very sturdy, while using a single small battery as a power source, and so are very tiny and lightweight. Small size notwithstanding, they cast a very powerful beam of white light, and cost less than $40.

I always travel with one of these flashlights, and regularly change their batteries (for this reason my favorite is not the smallest, which uses expensive watch type batteries, but rather a slightly larger one that uses a single very inexpensive AA battery).

Many airplane emergencies involve the loss of power, and therefore, the loss of lighting in the cabin. So having your own light source in your pocket is prudent good sense, as well as being very convenient even when no emergency is present. If you've ever tried reaching up into the overhead bins during the night part of a flight, you'll know just how dark it can be up there, and how useful your own little flashlight can be.

Choose one that is sturdy and made of metal so that it won't break, and choose the biggest one that you can comfortably travel with in your pocket or handbag. There's no use to you in having a larger better flashlight if you don't have it with you when you need it - better a smaller one at hand than a larger one left at home.

I've been very happy with the LED Lenser light, and my favorite measures a mere 4" long and uses a single regular AA battery to give a strong light. Highly recommended, and available from Amazon and doubtless elsewhere too, for about $35.

You should also consider turning off your overhead lights during your alert periods, if it is dark outside the plane, so as to help your eyes pre-adjust to the darkness if there is an emergency. Most planes these days dim their cabin lights for nighttime takeoffs and landings, and you can take this a step further by turning off your at-seat light(s) too.

Life Jackets

Delay inflating these until you are out of the plane.  They inflate rapidly, and if you inflate them too soon, they just get in the way and make it harder for you to make your way to the exit.

They're also more vulnerable to being ripped/punctured if they're already inflated.


If you're holding an infant in your arms, their chances of surviving a hard landing are very low indeed.  But if they're in an approved infant seat (preferably rear-facing) they're at least as likely as you are to survive the landing.

You'll have to decide if you're willing to pay extra for a separate seat for your young children, or if you think the risk of a crash landing is so low as to make the extra cost unreasonable.

Smoke Hoods

A smoke hood could potentially be a life saver for you.  But if you buy one that doesn't work as promised, it could be a 'false friend' and lull you into an undeserved state of over-confidence.

A smoke hood needs to be four things to be practical :

Easily carried :  If a smoke hood is big and bulky and heavy, you're just never going to bother carrying it with you, are you?  Sure, you might once or twice, but they you'll start forgetting.

So size/weight is an essential factor in evaluating smoke hoods.

Easily put on :  The wrong time to practice putting on a smoke hood is after a crash landing.  You'll be panicking, disoriented, it may be dark, it may be filling with smoke, and you'll be desperate to exit the plane.  You need to be able to put your smoke hood on in the worst of such situations, so you'll want a practice one as well as the 'real' one you carry, and you'll want to be able to successfully put on a hood with your eyes shut (to mimic the disorientation and possible darkness).

Effective protection against flames :  A smoke hood isn't going to provide a substantial barrier against the heat of flames, but it can provide a very thin protection against naked flame, for example, it will be harder for your hair to catch fire if there aren't flames directly burning on your hair.

You also need to be sure that the hood won't simply melt when confronted with a flame itself.

So check what the melting temperature is of the material the hood is made from.  The higher, the better.

Effective protection against 'smoke' :  I put quotes around the word 'smoke' because the smoke that you see is actually one of the most benevolent parts of the byproducts of combustion.  The nastiest things are things you can't see, and sometimes even things you can't smell either (for example carbon monoxide).  Fires - particularly ones burning the sorts of things to be found in an airplane interior - may produce hydrogen cyanide (the gas they use in gas chambers), various nitrogen and sulfur chemicals, acids, ammonia and acrolein.

Your smoke hood must be able to filter out not just particulate matter (ie the smoke you see) but these gases as well.

Note also that smoke hoods generally have a finite life and an expiration date; so if you do get a smoke hood, be sure it remains current and has not expired.

The one good smoke hood I had found some years ago has been discontinued, and I'm currently unaware of any other suitable smoke hood.  If you think you've found a good one, let me know, please (and perhaps wait until I've replied before buying it).

Emergency/Improvised Smoke Hood

Tying a moist handkerchief around your mouth and nose may provide some beneficial effect.

In such a case, you'd want to pre-purchase a large sized handkerchief that would readily be large enough to go around your face and be double-knotted at the back, and to consider traveling with a 3oz bottle of plain regular water as part of your carry-on liquids.

Some people have advised to simply urinate on a handkerchief or whatever if you don't have water present.  I don't know about you, but for me, the time it would take to do that, and the possible difficulty of succeeding in the task, would make the suggestion nonsensical.

Oxygen Mask Emergencies

If the oxygen masks suddenly fall down from their storage spaces above you, relax.  This does not mean the plane is about to crash and burn.

It simply means there has been a possible or actual loss of cabin pressure, and that the oxygen masks are falling down to give you supplemental oxygen until such time as the plane descends down to a safe altitude where there is enough oxygen to breathe without needing the masks.

Here's the one important thing to remember with oxygen masks.  Put your mask on first, before doing anything for anyone else.

You have a surprisingly short amount of time before you lose your concentration, then lose consciousness, if the cabin pressure has dropped.  Losing concentration and losing consciousness are both okay - a person will quickly recover from either, but only if oxygen is got to them quickly.

So don't worry about your spouse, or aged parent, or young child losing consciousness.  It is essential that you protect yourself first so that you will then be conscious and able to attend to them second.

Some rows of (eg) three seats will have three masks, and some will have four, so if a mask fails, there's probably a spare in the row ahead or behind you.  These spares are also essential for infants traveling on a lap.

How to be a Hero in an Emergency

There are two parts of any emergency when you can help.

Before the bad thing actually happens

As soon as it is clear that things are becoming serious, you can massively improve your chances of survival by calming the people around you - especially the people who will be ahead of you in the rush to an exit once the plane has come down - and sharing your own survival plan with them.

Reassure people about the probability of surviving most emergency situations, and even the probability of surviving most crash landings.  Suggest which exit people should go to, and remind them not to delay their exit while trying to take anything with them.

Tell them when they get to the exit they should not pause, not wait for the slide to be clear, but immediately jump out and onto the slide, and help talk them through assuming a brace position.

Create an island of calm in what may be a sea of panic.  If the people around you act in a calm rational and efficient manner, you're not only helping their chances of survival, but you're helping your own chances too, because you'll all get to the exits and out more quickly that way.  You'll also remove some of the raw fear and emotional searing that runs through a person when things first start to go badly wrong.

After the bad thing happens

Okay, so you've now landed, and it is time to exit the plane.  You'll quickly be able to assess if you're in a fully developed emergency, where seconds are precious and if you can't exit the plane in a very short period of time, you'll not be able to survive the adverse effects of smoke/fire/water/whatever.

Even if it seems to you that this was just an overly cautious 'emergency' - eg, due to someone smelling some smoke or something, but no flames visible anywhere - don't now relax and treat things as a harmless joke.  A harmless seeming smoke smell one minute can become a raging fire all around you the next minute.  And a safe emergency landing for a miscellany of reasons might suddenly go wrong - overheated brakes might set fire to something inflammable, and all of a sudden, your plane is unexpectedly blazing all around you.

However, until there is a clear and present threat that is threatening your survival, you can be in Hero Mode 2.  When there is a clear and present threat, you need to switch to Hero Mode 1.

Hero Mode 2 :  Your primary responsibility to yourself and your fellow passengers is to get yourself off the plane as quickly as possible and without impeding your fellow passengers and their ability to get off the plane, too.  On rare occasions, you can sacrifice a small amount of time to help other people get off the plane also.

Hero Mode 1 :  This is when you have to be a super-hero and accept a very difficult mandate on your behavior.  Your only priority now is to get yourself off the plane as quickly as you can and without impeding your fellow passengers and their ability to get off the plane too.  If you see an injured person, or someone that needs help, you must ignore them and press on in Hero Mode 1.

Why should you abandon all concepts of helping other people and why is this a heroic thing to do?  Think through the issue.  In this life threatening time critical situation, it is possible/probable that not everyone will be able to safely exit the plane before it becomes no longer survivable inside.  So here is the choice you must confront :  If you delay your exit and the exit of the people behind you to help an injured/incapacitated person to exit the plane with you, you might be saving one life, but that delay you have caused may result in two or more other people now not getting out of the plane in time (remember - every second represents the ability of another person to exit the plane - a two second delay means two fewer people who can exit the plane before it becomes unsurvivable).  You have saved one person but killed two others.  Does that make you feel good?

And what say the delay you cause results in you, too, becoming a casualty?  Isn't your first responsibility and obligation to your family, your friends, your work, and all the other people who know and rely upon you?  An attempt (possibly even unsuccessful) to help a stranger to live while sacrificing both your life and that of other people behind you in the plane is selfish and inappropriate.

You don't have the right to choose who lives and who dies, and it is not your job to help strangers.  Be an unsung hero and simply get off the plane as quickly as you can.  You can assist, if you feel the need and if you can actually help, getting people onto or off the slide at the exit, but don't cause more problems than you solve by delaying your exit off the plane.

This might seem harsh, but it is a harsh situation.

The Most Effective Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Being in a Plane Crash

The first thing to do is to try and fly non-stop wherever you're going.  Remember that nearly all aircraft accidents occur during take-off or landing.  If you minimize your take-offs and landings (ie by flying non-stop rather than via connecting cities) you also minimize your exposure to potential risk.

The second thing to do is not travel if you don't need to.  Maybe plan your business trips so you go once a month instead of once every two weeks.

However, be careful not to end up substituting driving time for flying time.  You're much more at risk in a vehicle on the road than you are in an airplane in the sky.

Reference Material

Here is a great multi-part series produced by the BBC on How to Survive a Plane Crash.  It gives you visual presentations of what to expect and reinforces the material in this two part web article.  Highly recommended.

Here is a link to purchase my favorite travel flashlight on Amazon.

Here is a video that shows how to exit a plane in an emergency.  You should watch several of these types of videos to give you a feeling for what to expect.

Part four 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 0ther 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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