A Plane Crash in the Hudson—a Miracle, but not a Surprise

When I saw the tail sticking up out of the water, I had a terrible feeling. Today’s crash of US Airways flight 1549 in New York was unnervingly similar to the crash of Air Florida flight 90, almost exactly 27 years ago to the day. Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River in Washington, DC, on a frigid day, just moments after take-off. It was extremely difficult for people to get to the surface before the cabin filled with water and sank—and human beings do not generally do well in extremely cold water. Back then, of the 79 people onboard, 74 died. 

But this would be different. Everyone made it off the US Airways flight. And I realize now I should have been more optimistic. Most people involved in serious plane accidents survive, for one thing. And for another, we know that people in disasters can perform very well if they are given clear directions.

As soon as I heard everyone had survived, I knew the crew had done a tremendous job. We now know that the pilot managed to warn the passengers to “brace for impact” before the plane hit the Hudson River. Getting some warning—any warning—is crucial for people in all kinds of disasters.

Most of us become incredibly docile and obedient under extreme duress, especially in an unfamiliar environment like an airplane. The brain does not handle new information well in this state. Thinking becomes extremely challenging. One of the biggest dangers is that we will shut down and stop moving altogether—a phenomenon reported in every kind of disaster, from sinking ships to plane crashes to terrorist bombings. We go into a sort of stupor—not unlike animals playing dead—and it does not serve us well in modern calamities like plane crashes.

But there is good news: all the research shows that we respond very well to clear, aggressive orders. Flight attendants are now trained to scream at passengers to “get out!” in airplane evacuations. And it works—helping to snap us out of this stupor and get us moving. (Research has shown that if they don’t scream these orders, they have the same effect as if they were not there at all—which is to say, no effect.)

Look, the truth is, plane crashes are extremely rare. And water landings are so rare they are almost not worth talking about. But when they do happen, plane crashes are more survivable than we expect. And our behavior matters a great deal. Of all passengers involved in serious plane accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived. (“Serious” is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe injury, and substantial aircraft damage.)

It’s good to be reminded that all is not lost if you happen to be unlucky enough to be in a plane crash. Remember: the more information you have given your brain before anything goes wrong, the better you will do. Translation: read the safety briefing cards and listen to the flight attendants. The National Transportation Safety Board has found that passengers who read the safety information card are less likely to get hurt in an emergency.

In a plane crash at Pago Pago in 1974, all but 5 of the 101 passengers died. All the survivors reported that they had read the safety information cards and listened to the briefing. They exited over the wing, while other passengers went toward other, more dangerous but traditional exits and died.