Great, My Plane's Crashing. Now What?

Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias. Like almost everyone, I suffer from a touch of it. Even though I know logically that I’m safer in a commercial airliner than I am in my own bathtub, I still feel a twist in my stomach when the plane hits a sudden jolt of turbulence. Hearing the news about yesterday’s crash in Libya, which killed everyone aboard except a single Dutch boy, is unlikely to soothe anyone’s nerves.

I’m sure that the next time I get jittery in flight, I’ll think about that boy and wonder: what could I do if this plane started to go down? If there’s only going to be one survivor, how can I increase the chances that it’s going to be me?

Everyone always tells you that the first rule of thumb is: Don’t Panic. As I explain in Extreme Fear, I find that advice ridiculous. When we’re in mortal danger, it’s simply impossible to shut down one’s panic response by sheer force of will. So here’s my alternative piece of advice: Take Action. That is, adopt a positive, pro-active frame of mind. Assume that you’re going to survive. (If you’re wrong, who cares?)

I love the opening chapter of Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber, in which the central character is riding as a passenger in an airplane when the pilot announces that the plane has developed engine trouble and will soon crash. While his fellow passengers weep and panic, Faber calmly begins to examine a map, to calculate their present location, and make plans for what to do once they have escaped from the wreckage. Of course, he has no way to know that he actually will escape from the wreckage, but it’s the only contingency worth planning for.

Taking Action is a great way to avoid panicking. For one thing, it prevents you from engaging in “catastrophic thinking” that can quickly spiral into outright terror, by occupying your mental processes with the here and now. Also, it will help dispel the sense of helplessness that feeds fear. Sure, you’re strapped into a seat, far from the controls, unable to directly affect your fate. But there’s still a lot you can do to improve your odds.

Start by tightening your seatbelt, the tighter the better — you’d be surprised how much slack can suddenly appear in a belt when you’re hanging upside down. Next, look at the laminated safety card in the seat pocket in front of you. Identify the nearest emergency exit. If you’re more than five rows away, and you can do so safely, consider moving closer — the closer the better. Studies have found that if you’re more than five rows away from an exit, your chances of surviving decrease dramatically.

Tie your shoes tightly. If you’re in a cold climate, and you have extra clothes handy, put them on. If you’re over water, put your life jacket on now. If you’re with companions, reassure them that you’re all going to survive. Panic is infectious, but so is calm. And the calmer you are, the better your odds.

Don’t just worry about what’s going to happen next; think a step or two beyond that. Before impact, assume the brace position. Not only will it increase your chances of surviving the impact, but it will reduce the probability that you’ll sustain a broken leg or other injuries that could prevent you from evacuating a burning or sinking aircraft.

So now you’re on the ground, and well clear of the debris. The good news? You’re probably still alive. Statistics show that more than 95 percent of passengers involved in aircraft accidents survive.

Hey, that was fun, let’s do it again!