Perhaps the most dangerous myth that movies perpetuate is the idea that you're completely screwed no matter what you do in a plane crash. In Fearless, the movie's hero leaves his seat during an emergency landing to walk around the cabin and spread his Zen-like acceptance of death to the rest of the passengers. In reality, most plane crashes are totally survivable as long as you do exactly what the flight attendants advised during that speech you slept through. We've covered before that 95 percent of people survive plane crashes, and one of the main reasons is that "kiss your ass goodbye" landing position. In Australia, a plane crashed while the 16 passengers aboard were sleeping. The only survivor was the one who woke up and assumed the emergency crash position.
Between December 2001 and June 2013, if you were on a commercial airliner like the ones you see in any of the above movies, your chances of dying in a fatal crash were zero. Not virtually zero. Literally zero. The crash landing of the Air Asiana flight that killed three people in San Francisco to end that streak was a horrifying tragedy. But it was also the first fatal accident in North America involving a major airline since 2001. Guess which aspect was endlessly covered by the national media!
Maybe you've seen articles like this one from AOL Travel.com, with the headline "Qantas Flight Loses Pressure, Drops 26,000 Feet." A different title reporting the same incident declared "Passenger terror as another Qantas jet fault causes plane to plummet 25,000ft mid-flight." That makes it sound like, in the middle of a flight, the plane just up and went into free fall. The writer of that headline doesn't want you to know that the story is actually about an air conditioner failure. The 26,000 feet were "dropped" on purpose by the pilots, as part of a controlled descent to get the plane to lower, more breathable air. By those standards, every flight you've ever taken has "dropped" at least that many feet. You're a survivor!
"This is your captain speaking. If you'll look out the left side of the plane, you'll see your eminent demise."
The truth is commercial airplanes like the ones movies always show plummeting out of the sky like a stone are pretty much incapable of doing that. Their bodies are designed to have a gliding ratio of 15 to 1, which means they will glide 15 feet forward for every one foot they fall, even without anything pushing them but the air over their wings. Even if your plane tried falling out of the air in mid-flight, the aerodynamics of its carefully designed body would cause the air it was falling through to pass over its wings and keep it flying.
This isn't a hypothetical design feature. Pilots have glided completely full commercial airliners over 100 miles to safe landings. It's called a "dead-stick" landing, as opposed to emergency landings that still have at least one engine working, which are referred to as "precautionary landings." That's right, if three of your four engines flame out on takeoff, and the pilot decides to turn around and land the plane, he's considered "precautionary."
Carl is a full-time military pilot and a part-time smart ass. He occasionally says something worthwhile on Twitter and writes for non-dick-joke publications such as Small Wars Journal and the Marine Corps Gazette, among others.
Related Reading: For a list of planes just as deadly as Hollywood wants every 747 to be, click this link. That crash in World War Z won't seem so bad once you've read about the plane that MELTED PEOPLE'S FACES. Next, lighten things up and read about the time a fist fight between the pilot, co-pilot and crew left a flight unmanned for ten minutes. Close out your study in aviation with this look at the most badass pilots in history.
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