Coping with crash landings

28 Jan 2009

As frequent travellers, we’ve all heard the term “in case of a water landing”, which forms part of the spiel in those flight safety demos and videos required during take off. Fortunately, only a handful of us have ever experienced the real thing.

On January 15, 155 passengers on United Airways flight 1549, however, joined that unique circle, becoming veterans of an air incident that necessitated a dive into the icy Hudson River after their aircraft ran into a flock of geese. Thanks to a combination of pilot experience (and coolness under fire) and extreme good luck, everyone survived.

Contrary to common belief, not everyone dies in a plane crash. Huffington Post columnist Ben Sherwood, who wrote the book, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, quotes US government figures which have 95.7 percent of passengers in air accidents making it out successfully. This excludes serious crashes where no one could possibly survive such as Valujet 592 in the Florida everglades, TWA 800 in the Atlantic, Swissair 111 in Nova Scotia, EgyptAir 990 over the Atlantic and Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

Another misconception is that panic will spread from one passenger to the other, causing chaos. Sherwood debunks it, saying “it’s not unreasonable to scream or cry when you’re told to ‘prepare for impact’, nor is it unexpected to push toward the exits. “That behaviour is entirely rational and purposeful,” he says.

He said researchers have found that “most people freeze until they’re told what to do”, while some even help others in what is known as “situational altruism”.

Sherwood stresses you can save your life by simply being prepared, offering four tips he picked up from the Federal Aviation Administration’s plane crash survival school in Oklahoma City.

First, sit within five rows of any exit. Beyond that range, your chances of survival are much lower. People in aisle seats have higher survival rates than those in the window seats.

Second, pay attention to the safety briefing and count the number of rows to your nearest exit. (This is where checking websites such as Business Traveller’s comes in handy.)

Third, be focused during take off and landing, which is when 80 percent of accidents happen.

Fourth, relax. Your chances of dying are one in 60 million, meaning you could fly every day for the rest of the next 160,000 years.

Business Traveller’s aviation guru Alex McWhirter also advises passengers to have their seatbelts fastened and keep their shoes on – no matter how tempted they are to kick them off.

For an aircraft to land safely in the water, certain conditions that have to be met. The plane has to slow down. If time permits, the pilot needs to burn as much fuel as possible.

With wind flaps extended, the pilot has to fly into the wind which helps slow down the aircraft, provided there is still power in the engines and the wind is more than 25 knots. It’s essential that both wings remain level with the water upon descent. Otherwise, one wing clipping the water might cause the plane to cartwheel or break into pieces. It also helps if the waters are calm and not choppy.

Finally, as both wings are horizontal, the tail end has to be the first to hit the water with the nose at an approximate 12-degree angle. Ideally, the aircraft will “sit” there before starting to sink.

For more details, visit

Peter Rajendran

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