Flying and Airplane Safety

By Suzanne Wiley

I’ve been flying all my life. My parents loved to take vacations and it wasn’t just to visit grandma. They liked pretty, pristine beaches—places like Hawaii, Mexico, and the Cayman Islands. At some point in my young life, my dad received his pilot’s license and he bought a small plane. My mom says I used to laugh during turbulence because I must have thought it was fun…or something. Then we moved to Indonesia—a 24-hour plane ride from our home state. We took the trip back once a year. I’ve logged nearly 200,000 miles and 500 hours in the air just flying back and forth to Indonesia. Needless to say, I am very comfortable flying. Even my overwhelming vertigo and fear of heights dissipates when I’m 36,000 feet in the air.

View of a sunset from an airplane
Flying is the safest mode of transportation you can take.

I understand, though, that most people did not have the same opportunities growing up and many never boarded an airplane until adulthood. It is understandable that airplanes and flying scare people. Unless it’s what you do, aeronautics isn’t something we’re taught in school—I mean, I still don’t fully comprehend how a 175,000-pound hunk of metal stays in the air. One of my very close friends is married to a man who flies people around in planes for a living and she’s terrified of flying. And I mean terrified. No matter how much you reason with her, she freaks out for weeks before a scheduled flight.

It’s a fact—flying on a commercial airliner is about one of the safest activities you can do. Yes, activities. Not just transport.  Your odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11,000,000.

It’s so safe in fact that you are more likely to die:

  • By falling
  • Being murdered
  • Unintentionally poisoning yourself
  • A lightning strike
  • From a tornado
  • Bear or dog attack

I’m not going to pretend that planes don’t crash. They do. And some crashes aren’t survivable. However, there is good news for incidents that are survivable—you have a 95 percent chance of surviving these crashes. (National Transportation Safety Board)

As a planner and prepper, what can you do to up your chances of surviving a plane crash? Fortunately, there have been quite a lot of studies done on what you can do to increase your chances of walking away from a plane crash.

Know Before You Go

man sitting on airplane looking out the window
To avoid being injured during turbulence, keep your seat belt fastened.

Turbulence is safe and normal; however, an average of 34 people a year—mostly airline crew members up and about—are injured during turbulence. Turbulence happens when sections of warm air—called thermals or updrafts—rises. These pockets of warm air rise thousands of feet and cause what we experience as “bumps.” Sometimes turbulence is severe. But when we consider the 800 million people that fly annually…34 a year is a drop in the ocean.

The National Weather Service recommends flying in the early morning or close to sunset to avoid turbulence. It says, “In the morning, the sun has not had a chance to heat the surface, so the air should be relatively smooth as long as there is little wind. Another good time to fly is in the evening close to sunset. The sun is not positioned at a good angle to heat the surface, so the energy provided to cause the rising thermals is gone and the atmosphere is more stable.”

You aren’t going to be able to pick what time of the year you travel every single time you must fly but to avoid turbulence, travel during the coolest parts of the day and year.

Picking Your Seat

Okay, so I’m going to be honest with you—there really is no “safer” seat on an airplane. All crashes are different and there has not been any consistent condition to confidently conclude that the front or the back of the plane is safer than the other. Now, that being said, unofficial (non-aviation) studies have found that the back of the plane is “safer.”

In an oft-cited study done in 2007 by Popular Mechanics, which studied all airplane crashes from 1971 on found that the people who sat closest to the back of the plane were 40 percent more likely to survive a crash. Other studies found that the first four rows are the least safe.

Aisle seats are only slightly safer because you can get to an exit quicker. A professor at the University of Greenwich studied 105 airplane crashes and interviewed 2,000 survivors and found that most were sitting five rows from an emergency exit. This is commonly called the “Five Row Rule.” Experts say you have 90 seconds to escape a plane after it crashes, so sitting as close to an exit row as possible sounds logical, right? You usually get more leg room, too.

People on an airplane
Pay attention to the safety briefing, or at the very least, read the safety card.

Despite this, Cynthia Corbett, an expert in airplane cabin safety with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, says, “There really isn’t a ‘safest seat’ on the plane. It really kind of depends on the emergency you’re going to have. Different parts of the plane can be affected in different ways, depending on what the event is. Just reinforce your own propensity for survival by knowing how to get where you need to go. If your first choice in exits is blocked, then you should have a second choice.”

Boarding and Before Take Off

  1. When you board, note your closest exits. After a crash landing, it will be human instinct to move forward, but the nearest exit might not always be forward. Go to the back if you must.
  2. Store your stuff under the seat in front of you and not in an overhead bin. This way you can use it to provide some cushioning between your legs and the seat in front of you upon impact.
  3. Read the safety card provided. This will show you the proper brace for impact position, as well as the closest exits and how to use your oxygen mask.
  4. Check for a life vest under your seat. If there isn’t one, ask for one from the flight attendant.
  5. Buckle your seat belt and pull it tight. Keep your seat belt on for the entire flight, even when you are sleeping. Remember, they do not operate like your car’s seat belt. You unbuckle it, not push a button to release it. Travel agency, The Flight Expert, writes, “When you fasten your seat belt, pull it as tight as you can. Every centimeter of slack in the belt triples the g-force you’ll experience in a crash. Pull the belt down over your pelvis as much as possible, with the upper ridge of the pelvic bone above the belt. This will keep you in place much more effectively during a crash than if the belt was over the soft tissues and organs of your abdomen.”

What to Wear

I get it, you want to be comfortable when your flying, or relaxed and dressed for vacation, but flip-flops are horrible footwear to escape a wrecked airplane. Flight attendants and pilots recommend close-toed shoes that tie, jeans or long pants, long sleeves and say, “bring a jacket.” Clothes should be cotton or wool, not synthetics or other highly flammable material. Pack a bandana in your carry on, which you can use to cover your mouth and nose in a smoky environment. The majority of people who have survived the initial impact of a crash, but died after, died of smoke inhalation.


Exiting the airplane as soon as you can is KEY to survival.

Like any survival situation—remain calm. Have a plan. You have only two minutes to react and get out of there. Your course of action is:

  1. Brace for Impact
  2. Locate exit.
  3. Unbuckle your seat belt.
  4. Leave your stuff behind.
  5. Exit.

If you have crashed or emergency landed in the water, do not inflate your life vest until you have left the airplane. Once you are out, get as far away from the plane as possible.

Though the airline crew has trained for this moment their entire career, they might not react like training has taught them. Do not wait for them to give instructions—get out of there!

Advice from a Pilot

Shows an airplane wing flying over the ocean
If you land in water, do not inflate your life vest until you exit the airplane.

I went directly to the horse’s mouth and asked my friend’s husband—a commercial airline pilot—how to be a safe air traveler.

Don’t Ignore the Safety Briefing

He told me that when you look at pictures of Southwest flight 1380, people were either not wearing their mask or wearing their mask incorrectly. (It goes over your mouth and your nose—just FYI.) He told me that fortunately captain Tammie Jo Shults got the plane down quickly or people would have started passing out. He stresses how important it is to pay attention to the safety briefing at the beginning of your flight. He said, “This is huge, and it doesn’t take long.” If you aren’t going to listen to the flight attendants, at the very least, read the card.

Know Your Exits

When you get on the plane, note where you closest exit is—count the rows in between your seat and the exit. The closest one to you might be behind you and, on most airplanes, there are both right and left exits.

Since 9/11, the TSA has placed heavy restrictions on what you can carry on an airplane. Though I appreciate the increased level of security and safety, it is a little frustrating to have innocent nail clippers and lighters confiscated. There are TSA-approved items you can pack in a carry-on that will suffice for a ‘get-home bag.’

TSA-Approved EDC

  • Water filter straw
  • Water purification tablets
  • Flashlight
  • Emergency blanket
  • Medications
  • Paracord
  • Emergency whistle
  • Collapsible water bottle
  • Firestarter
  • Tactical pen
  • Multi-tool without a blade designed especially for travel—DooHicKey, Gerber Shard, CRKT Viva
  • Duct tape

One in four travelers is afraid of flying. If you are one of them, you can try these therapists’ suggestions on how to relax:

  • Take a distraction—a good, engrossing book, calming music, download movies and tv shows on your device
  • Tell a flight attendant—they will usually check on you during the flight.
  • Use visualization and a meditation app.
  • Focus on deep breathing.
  • Avoid caffeine.
  • Arrive early at the airport—this gives you plenty of time to check in, pass through security, grab snacks and a drink and relax.
  • Drink plenty of water and juice before and during the flight.
How do you prepare for travel? Tell us your travel tips in the comment section.

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