Surviving a Plane Crash

Planes almost never crash. When they do, most people survive. In this way, at least, the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at SFO on Saturday was no exception.

Of all the people involved in serious plane crashes between 1983 and 2000, over half survived. To be clear, these crashes all involved fire, serious injury and major damage to the aircraft. And yet, as with the Asiana flight, most people emerged from the wreckage.

So what determines who lives and dies? Luck matters. Or fate or whatever you like to call it. But human behavior matters, too. More than we think.

People who move quickly, leave their carry-on baggage behind--and, importantly, take note of theie nearest exit before the crash, perform better, according to aviation safety research and all the plane crash survivors I've ever interviewed. The initial instinct is to do nothing. To shut down, to await direction, which almost never comes

Survivors, of all kinds of disasters, do not typically wait for directions. They take action. And as we can see from this excellent Wall Street Journal story about the moments after impact on Flight 214, humans are capable of remarkable grace in the most wretched of moments:

"'She was a hero,' he said. 'This tiny, little girl was carrying people piggyback, running everywhere, with tears running down her face. She was crying, but she was still so calm and helping people.'"

We did not evolve to survive plane crashes, it's true. But we're getting there.