Surviving a plane crash is surprisingly common

I'm a nervous flyer. But I'm a lot better at it then I used to be. That's because, a few years ago, I learned that it's actually pretty common to survive a plane crash. Like most people, I'd assumed that the safety in flying came from how seldom accidents happened. Once you were in a crash situation, though, I figured you were probably screwed. But that's not the case.

Looking at all the commercial airline accidents between 1983 and 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 95.7% of the people involved survived. Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%. Yes, some plane crashes kill everyone on board. But those aren't the norm. So you're even safer than you think. Not only are crashes incredibly rare, you're more likely to survive a crash than not. In fact, out of 568 accidents during those 17 years, only 71 resulted in any fatalities at all.

I was talking about this fact with a pilot friend over the weekend, and he mentioned one crash in particular that is an excellent example of the statistics in action. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 lost all its hydraulic controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa, going more than 100 mph faster than it should have been. You can see the plane breaking apart and bursting into flames in the video above. Turns out, that's what a 62% survival rate looks like. (All the pilots you can hear talking in the video survived, too.)

Read more about United Airlines 232 on Wikipedia

Read the full NTSB report from 2001

In 2007, Popular Mechanics examined 36 years of NTSB reports and found that the majority of surviving passengers were sitting in the back of the plane. But that seems to depend a lot on the specifics of the crash and may not be a reliable predictor of future results.

Thanks, Shav!


    1.  How many deaths would the equivalent passenger-miles traveled in automobiles “cause”? Over long distances, air travel burns less fuel per passenger mile than a car, especially if you drive alone. A 747 burns 50 gallons of fuel per passenger on a 4,000 mile trip, a 30 MPG car would burn 133 gallons of gasoline. Which means if you only have two people in the car a 747 is more efficient but if you put 3 or 4 people in that same 30 MPG car it’d burn less fuel per passenger mile.

      1. I think ssam is confusing aviation travel and shipping by container ship. And I find it hard to believe you can really link 50,000 deaths to particulate pollution released tens if not hundreds of miles from shore. Yes, pollution is bad, and should be reduced. But to say “this death was from some particle of sulfur dioxide released from a container ship at sea” is a bit of a stretch. Do they allow smoking in bars or restaurants or other enclosed public spaces in those same countries where these premature deaths are taking place? If so then stop worrying about sulphur emissions at sea, as that is not what’s causing those premature deaths. 

        And Aviation fuel is not the same as marine diesel. Aviation fuel has much stricter sulphur standards. 

        So yes, marine shipping may be causing more deaths per year than plane crashes. But indoor pollution people inflict on themselves and sometimes others is causing far more premature deaths.

  1. Always try to sit less than six rows from the nearest emergency exit.  Your chances of survival in a plane fire increase dramatically at row five.

    1. See now, don’t go ruining my comfortable fatalism about flying.  I always took the attitude that:

      (a) any effect of my seating choice on my chance of surviving a crash is minuscule, compared to its effect on my view out the window, leg room, and access to lavatories, and

      (b) planes accidents are so astoundingly rare – the cab ride to the airport was far more dangerous than the flight I’m taking now –  that the likelihood that any survival-effecting decision I make will never become relevant, compared to the 100% chance my leg room-affecting decision will be relevant.

      The tiny number from (a) multiplied by the tiny number from (b) lets me ignore safety completely when I choose my seat.

    2. In a plane fire maybe — I haven’t seen any statistics on that, but logically it makes sense. That said, I have seen studies of air accidents in general that found no correlation whatsoever between injury/survival and where you sit.

  2. Wow! That’s really changed my mind about safety as a contrainducement to flying!  All that remains to keep me from doing so is the TSA, crappy customer service, comfort level, baggage constraints, shitty food, and unexplained delays

      1. There was a very interesting book that came out about 25 years ago on aviation safety called “The Final Call”, his recommendations  fly clean airplanes (if they cannot be bothered to wash them, what else are they cutting, and get a smoke hood (also useful in hotel fires).

  3. There was a fantastic documentary on Channel 4 in the UK a couple of weeks ago about the science of air crashes. They wanted to find out exactly what happens during air crashes, but the only data is from looking at the remains of crashed planes. So they bought a Boeing 727, fitted it with a remote control system and crashed it into the Mexican desert. It’s a really amazing piece of television.

    1. That same documentary has been airing on The Discovery Channel in the states. It was really interesting but I wish they had spent more time on the results.

    2.  The video is blocked for me.  Could you give more information so I can find it somewhere else online?

      1. It’s called ‘The Plane Crash’. It aired on UK Channel 4 on October 11th, and someone above said it was on The Discovery Chanel in the US. Here’s channel 4’s page on it
        If you want to fool the internet into thinking your computer is in the UK there’s an app called Tunnelbear, I use it when I want to watch region-blocked youtube vids and the like.

    3. Agreed, it was fascinating show and a tremendously valuable experiment.  They descended at 1500 feet per minute (600 fpm is normal descent for that plane) and while the nose of the plane separated and tumbled, the fatalities were limited to the first class section and the flight deck. Severity of probable injuries lessened the further back the seats were located.  Passengers in rows 8 through about 14 would likely have received moderate injuries, passengers in rows further back would likely have had minor to no injuries.

      They also determined the “brace position” would probably prevent a concussion; in the event a fire had broken out you would have been conscious and able to escape.

      There’s a little more info here:

  4. My understanding is that “crashes” include relatively trivial incidents in which an aircraft skids off the runway or the landing gear collapses on landing. They might even include incidents in which one aircraft strikes another on the taxiway. Casualties in these “crashes” are few, and they skew the statistics.

    Cases where an aircraft actually falls from the sky following a mechanical failure or has what’s known in the trade as “controlled flight into terrain” (aka “who put that mountain there?”) are very much less survivable. Moreover, hearing that two-thirds of the passengers and crew survived doesn’t tell you anything about how badly hurt the survivors were. If a crash kills 40% of the people onboard, it’s a safe bet that the remaining 60% didn’t just dust themselves off and stroll casually away from the wreckage.

    If you want to reassure yourself, don’t think about survivability (where numbers are skewed by inclusion of trivial incidents), but focus instead on the fact that catastrophic crashes are actually extraordinarily rare.
    TL; DR: People don’t survive really bad crashes in large numbers – but really bad crashes are very rare indeed.

    1. It’s almost as if you didn’t read the post before commenting.

      >  Even when they narrowed down to look at only the worst accidents, the overall survival rate was 76.6%.

    2. Although there are accounts from the Sioux City crash of rescue personnel thinking that the crash was unsurvivable until they DID see passengers strolling out from the cornfields…

      1. Airbus seems to have fixed the 320 and / or pilots have learned its fly by wire “quirks”.  I’d stay away from new airbus models until proven and NEVER get on an airbus demo at an airshow.

        Airbus seems to suffer from the “hey watch this! ” redneck’s last words syndrome.

    1. They don’t call it the “Death Cruiser 10” for no reason (also why they call the MD-11, its successor, the “Mega Death 11”).

  5. A fellow I worked with a few years back was one of the engineers in charge of creating a system to automate control via engine power in the event of catastrophic loss of control. Really interesting stuff. All of those things that the Sioux City pilots had to learn “on the job” during an emergency are now automated. The same guy also worked on the wind shear early warning and technique improvement systems… I don’t know if many other folks are old enough to remember but there was once a time when it seemed oddly common to have horrific accidents that were the result of wind shear and yet now I can’t think of one in even distant memory. It does seem to be one of the few industries where we do an astonishingly good job of learning from our mistakes.

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