I’d like to give credit to the German science magazine Welt der Wunder and television magazine TV 14 as my sources for this article.
Every second, a plane takes off somewhere around the world.
99.999997 percent of them reach their destination without an incident.
But what about the other .000003 percent?
Will I survive a plane crash?
Cars are constantly being crashed to examine their survivability, but what about airplanes? The first airplane crash test was performed on 1 December 1984 in the Mojave Desert, CA. It took NASA 4 years to prepare the first controlled airplane crash. And the result was catastrophic. The Boeing 720 slid along the rugged terrain, crashed into a wall, caught fire and ended in a huge fireball. It took firefighters more than an hour to extinguish the fire. The catastrophic part wasn’t the crash itself, but the crash test was supposed to prove the safety of a kerosene supplement (Avgard), meant to prevent exactly those types of fires. This is presumably the reason why it would take 28 years for another crash test to be conducted.
On 27 April 2012, a team of researchers conducted a controlled crash of a Boeing 727. This was just the second crash test of airplanes in history and it was a 1.5M dollar experiment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will now start our descent. Impact in 2 minutes”, announced by the captain. Subsequently, the captain requested passengers to “assume the bracing position. Lean forward, place your hands on top of your head and your elbows against your thighs. Ensure your feet are flat on the floor”. But all 170 seats were occupied by crash test dummies, wired and monitored by dozens of cameras. Instead of making the final announcement, the captain donned his parachute and began evacuating. He abandoned the airplane, alias Big Flo, and made the 750-meter jump into the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico. Big Flo’s destiny was now in the hands of a second pilot, 100 meters away in another, smaller aircraft. He controlled the $400,000 jet via remote and finally sent it on its last path towards the ground.
What happened next was a typical airplane crash scenario: An almost 500-meter per minute descent (100-fold of a regular landing) until the airplane crashed into the ground with a slight forward incline. A huge crack tore the first eleven rows and the cockpit out of their bracing. Seat 7A was hurtled about half a kilometer. Passengers without a fastened seatbelt were catapulted uncontrollably through the cabin. But there was no fire and most of the structure remained intact. It looked worse than it was and most passengers would have survived.
What happens during an emergency landing?
If there is no appropriate runway to land on, pilots must consider several factors, such as airplane structure and the terrain.
Is the terrain very rough? The pilot will probably leave the landing gear retracted to induce a belly landing. Treetops or rocks may suddenly stop the airplane one-sidedly, which could lead to the twisting of – and the landing on one side of the plane. This would be a disaster. In emergency landings, the body should land as parallel to the ground as possible. Additionally, the captain ideally powers off all electric circuits on board and stops the fuel flow approximately one minute before landing. This is to prevent a potential fire.
More than two thirds of plane crash casualties are not due to the rough landing, but rather because of a subsequent fire – usually because the pilot skipped that last step to cut the fuel supply.
On open sea, the body of the plane should be aligned parallel to the waves. To hit a wave from the front is comparable to a head-on collision with a solid wall. Before landing, the pilot must ensure that every outlet and sensor-opening is shut. By doing so, the plane can float for several hours.
Where’s the best place to sit?
Believe it or not, the most desirable seats on an airplane are also the ones most likely to get you killed in the event of a crash. As described in the scenario above, the area where premium seats are usually located offered zero chance of survivability. The chances for survival increased the farther back you’d sit, with an almost 100 percent survivability in the very back seats. So much for “First Class”. If you like to sit by the wing, expect a few broken bones, but no life threatening injuries.
In the event of an emergency landing, the term “Premium” goes out the door. In the case of seat 7A, literally. Flying is widely considered the safest method of transportation. But when something does happen, results can be catastrophic and can cost hundreds of lives. However, according to this test, it doesn’t have to be catastrophic, provided the pilot takes all the appropriate steps to avoid a fire, or a head-on collision with a wave. The most important thing you can do is to remain buckled up during the flight and follow any and all instructions from the crew as well as from the pilot. Even seemingly insignificant orders like removing the shoes can mean the difference between walking away from the crash, or being carried out on a stretcher by paramedics. Stay safe and please listen to the safety instructions before takeoff. Complacency easily kicks in once we think we’ve heard it a hundred times. But in case of an actual emergency, the last thing we want to be doing is trying to remember the details of that safety brief.
Will this knowledge influence your decision on where to sit on your next flight?