How To Survive A Crash

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As Singapore Airlines Flight 006 made the sharp turn onto the runway at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport in the middle of a punishing storm on Oct. 31, John Diaz settled comfortably into his first-class seat in the Boeing 747, ready for takeoff. But Flight 006 had turned onto the wrong runway, and suddenly Diaz and the 178 other people on board slammed to earth as the 747 erupted into a giant, terrifying fireball, breaking into three large jagged pieces. Flight 006 ended its last journey 8,000 ft. from where it began, a burning, cracked hulk and the charred tombstone of 81 souls.

But more than 90 people, including Diaz, managed to survive the crash and conflagration. And so, while the investigation continues into why Flight 006 made that wrong turn and collided with construction equipment, aviation experts are also trying to learn how more people could have been saved.

Survivability is a top issue in aviation safety today. The widely held perception is that an airline crash is always a catastrophically fatal one. Yet in more than 90% of airplane accidents, some or all of the people on board survive. That figure could be greatly increased. Crucial problems still exist in safety procedures and equipment, according to a June report on cabin safety by the U.S. National Transportation and Safety Board. Over the past 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration has improved cabin safety by limiting the size of carry-on baggage, requiring nonflammable seat coverings and mandating reliable emergency-door operation. However, safety briefings are commonly ignored by passengers, over-wing emergency hatches (the ones likely to be opened by passengers rather than flight attendants) are often dangerously difficult to open, and smaller planes (fewer than 44 seats) are still not required to meet the standards of larger ones.

The NTSB also found problems with the inflatable plastic slides designed to sweep survivors out of a plane: 37% of the time they did not deploy correctly. Some passengers were momentarily unable to get out of Flight 006 when a slide deployed and knocked them sideways. "It seemed like forever before we got untangled and away from the unbearable heat," says Diaz.

Chance plays a huge role in crashes, so is there any way to enhance the odds that you will walk away from an accident? Helen Muir of Britain's Cranfield University writes that the difference between survival and death is often deceptively simple. "Those who survive are those who paid attention to the safety briefing and used that information in their escape." That means listening closely to the preflight safety briefing, reading the safety card in the seatback in front of you, knowing where the exits are and how far away you are from them. You should count the number of aisles to the exits, since you may have to evacuate the plane in total darkness or in smoke. Look at the emergency hatches, and see how they operate. If you don't understand the instructions, ask a flight attendant to explain.

No part of an aircraft is totally protected in a crash. The midsection is the strongest structurally, but it often sits over or beside fuel tanks. Passengers near the tail may survive the initial impact, but they often have to make their way through an obstacle course of loose seats and cabin equipment to get out of the wreckage. If a passenger lives through impact, the most serious danger is smoke or toxic inhalation.

The FAA requires that most commercial planes be able to effect a safe evacuation--a rather frequent exercise--in 90 sec. or less. In the U.S., on average, an emergency evacuation takes place every 11 days. Passengers are six times as likely to be involved in an emergency evacuation as in a serious crash, according to the NTSB. With the advent of planes with a larger passenger capacity--such as Airbus' A3XX, which will seat more than 650--experts say emergency-evacuation procedures will need to be updated and streamlined.

What else can you do in the meantime? To limit your exposure to fire and heat, wear clothing of natural fabrics. These do not burn so easily and allow for easier maneuverability. Nylon stockings and high heels won't cut it. And leave your bags on the plane. FAA officials were stunned last week at reports that some passengers on Flight 006 stopped to collect their belongings before escaping. If the plane had been more crowded--and not two-thirds empty--that decision could have squandered precious seconds and cost them more than a lost credit card.