Question about airplane crash fatalities (morbid)

Whenever there is a major air disaster, there are never any survivors. I’ve always found this unusual from a strictly statistical point of view - you’d think by shear frequency (I realize air disasters are in fact quite rare) sooner or later you’d have an odd survivor - yet larger incidents always yield 100% fatality.

My question is basically what exactly is the mechanism of death and why is it so effective? The question may at first seem obvious - you’re in a large tube plummeting at rapid speed towards ground. But this is a bit of a simplification.

Now, obviously the answer depends on the incident:

  1. In-flight explosion due to fuel or bomb: The plane is destroyed in air. Are the victims killed by the explosion itself? I would imagine this is unlikely and that many (sadly) would survive the blast and free-fall to their death.

  2. High Speed Impact with ground: The plane loses power, mechanical failure, bad navigation - whatever. The plane strikes the ground at a high velocity. THIS scenario I can understand the 100% fatality.

  3. Low Speed Impact with ground: In cases where the pilot is still able to maintain control and perhaps is attempting a landing the plane may hit the ground without self-destructing; or at the very least without the same impact forces as #2. The plane may bounce or roll and a fire or explosion typically results. Not sure how many accidents would fit under this descrption.

Now, regarding free fall, we know there have been incidents where people have survived long free fall distances:

So once again, what exactly is the mechanism of death in these crashes and why is it 100% effective?

Well, your #3 there puts the doubt to your proposition. That crash in Sioux City was about as spectacular as it’s possible to be (that video of the plane bouncing and rolling down the runway is permanently tattooed on my 500,000 mile brain) yet there were survivors there.

So it’s not true that you never hear of survivors.

There are often survivors in scenario #3, although rarely in #2, as you note.

In #1, the explosion may kill some depending on the size and location of it. Then there’s the explosive decompression of the cabin, the lack of oxygen at altitude, and the very, very low temperature. Those not belted in will get sucked out, the others will suffer from hypoxia and acute hypothermia, or trauma from flying debris or sudden decelleration.

The initial proposition is wrong. Click on over to air disasters and you can easily see that many plane crashes have little or no loss of life. In 2003, they list 23 accidents. Six had no loss of life and seven had some survivors.

In Linda Ellerbee’s memoir “And So It Goes” she quoted a Texas coroner who was asked that exact question by a persistent reporter.

“Let me put it this way, son. The plane stopped. The passengers didn’t.”

Redsland summed up #1 pretty well. Let me simply amplify by saying if it’s a fuel explosion, the passenger compartment will be engulfed in a fireball. Between that and all the other things happening virtually simultaneously, the chances of survival are nil.

As for #3, check out this amazing statistic

The survival rate for 26 “serious” commercial airline crashes from 1982-2000 was actually 56%.

Comedian Shelly Berman had a great riff on this. It went something like:

“The seatbelt must be fastened. It’s to protect me should the plane come to a sudden stop…like against a mountain.”

I peruse this site quite a bit – and I’ve noticed in a lot of crashes that the people onboard tend to survive the incident all the way to the aircraft stopping, but tend to die in the fire, smoke, and/or exit panic.

I figured for #3 that there would be incidents of survivors, but I couldn’t think of any particular cases; although I was aware of the Sioux City accident.

Tapioca Dextrin

That sentence by me is, admittedly, rather vague in nature. By major disaster I am essentially referring to cases wherein a large plane with a lot of people falls out of the sky.

From the site you provided, the 6 cases of no fatality were not exactly “major disasters”. However some of the larger incidents do indeed have survivors.

Lets try not to make this a debate about how to define “major disaster”. My ultimate interest is still in the nature of the occurrence of death.

Ah, now this is what I was trying to discuss. In the case of in-air accidents, is it the explosion that kills? The sudden decompression? Do people ever survive all this only to be killed when they strike the water? In ground accidents is it the rapid stoppage that results in deaths? Is it secondary effects like being trapped in the plane? (As Alan suggests)

How often are bodies recoverable in such a state that a useful autoposy can be done? Is there any autopsy information available?

After the Pan-Am explosion over Locherbie, Scotland news reports mentioned many bodies that were found still strapped into their seats. It may be reasonable to assume that some of them may have been alive until they impacted the ground…I don’t know. Horrible to really contemplate that deeply.

Passengers strapped into free-falling chairs did not suffer for long. The relative lack of oxygen at high altitude would cause a condition called hypoxia to set in within 12-15 seconds, resulting in unconsciousness. Death would follow a few minutes later.

Anyone still in the plane may have donned an oxygen mask and thereby avoided hypoxia. But temperatures between 30,000 and 40,000 ft. are between -27C and -59C. Brrr.

Then there’s decompression illness to worry about, what with the nitrogen bubbles in your blood. And the fact that digestive gasses trapped in your bowels are rapidly expanding to four times their previous volume. :eek:

If you’re strapped into your seat at the time of the explosive event and wearing a thick parka and immediately don your supplemental oxygen mask, you’ve got a terrifying ride ahead of you. Otherwise, you’ve barely got time to kiss your rear goodbye. :frowning:

My studies in forensic anthropology pretty much bear out what previous posters have said. However, I have a bit of anecdotal information.

I took a class in Water Survival that was required for people who routinely traveled by helicopter to offshore oil rigs. The last exercise we had was a doozy where the instructor emulated a helicopter that made a soft water landing, but upside down. Apparently, this isn’t all that unheard of. We were put in a open box-like contraption with two seats. Two of us were then buckled in with helmets that covered our eyes (since you won’t be able to see if you’re very deep in the Gulf of Mexico), the cage was turned upside down and <<splash>>.

We were taught that if it looked like the helicopter was coming down (and you still had any presence of mind at that point), to keep your right hand on the buckle (for a quick get away immediately after the crash), and your left hand on the arm rest of the seat. The hand on the arm rest was to try to keep some frame of reference when you couldn’t see and when you had little equilibrium: “Let’s see, this is the left armrest, so the aisle is to the right . . . .”

The theory was that most people survived the crash, but drowned while trying to get out. I can understand that. Even when I knew I was only in 8 feet of water, I had to fight panic when I wasn’t quite sure where “up” was, much less the door.

A pretty grisly picture. . .

I have vague memories of a program that mentioned a Stewardess who was the only survivor of a mid-air disintegration, the fact that she was in the toilet - which presumably remained intact - protected her from some of the stuff Redsland detailed, plus a thing called “flail” which I’m guessing is where the tumbling body’s own limbs cause damage :frowning:

Don’t know how she overcame the hitting the ground bit though.

Another example of #3 would be the Japan Airlines flight 123 crash in 1985. Boeing 747 on a domestic flight with 524 people aboard. An improperly repaired rear pressure bulkhead gave way, taking out the vertical stabilizer and most of the hydraulics. Pilots kept the plane in the air for half an hour by controlling engine thrust, but it ultimately crashed into a mountain. 520 people died, 4 passengers survived. Apparently more people survived the crash itself, but the crash happened around sunset and the rescue party didn’t get to the crash site until next morning. I believe it holds the records for most fatalities in a single aircraft crash.

I read that one… apparently the lav was in the tail and the control surfaces on it remained intact enough to feather/helicopter the assembly down. That part of the plane hit a hill and slid/rolled to a stop down the slope.

Untrue, as already pointed out. You do, occassionally, have the “odd survivor” even in catastrophic accidents.

I think it’s effective because there’s actually more than one mechanism at work - an air disaster has so much potential for mayhem that even if you surive one or two threats the third, fourth, or fifth may be lethal. More in a minute.

I presume you mean something like Lockerbie? With the plane at cruising altitude?

You have to remember that airplanes like that are big. Really, really big. People seated right next to/over/under the explosion will be killed by it. OK, let’s be blunt - they’ll be ripped to pieces by either the initial force of it, or sliced apart by flying shrapnel.

However, those seated at some distance, particularly if the explosion is at one end of the plane and they’re seated at the other, will survive the initial blast. They may be injured or even killed (if something large strikes their head) by flying debris either from the explosion, structural failure of the airplane, or the effects of strong air currents arising from sudden decompression. However, at cruising altitude the air is so thin you’ll be unconcious in seconds anyway - about 10 to 15, and probably not thinking too clearly during the latter half of that time span.

A number of passengers certainly will tumble earthward still alive and strapped in, but unconcious. This would certainly be a blessing to anyone set on fire by the initial blast, or by being sprayed with flaming jetfuel or other flaming wreckage. It is possible some may regain conciousness prior to initial impact, but between the thin air, blast concussion, and possible head injuries many, if not most, will be unconcious when they finally hit. Upon impact, the most likely outcome is death, or quickly fatal injuriy, assuming you haven’t already suffered one of the two. Much of the debris will be on fire, flaming and non-flaming jet fuel will also be raining down, setting fires in the impact zone. Assuming a miracle occurs and you wake up in a muddy field still strapped into your seat, you would need to be whole and coherent enough to unstrap and get out of the fire zone, or else you will either burn to death, suffocate on smoke and fumes, or both. That’s assuming you haven’t landed in a lake or ocean and drowned before you could regain conciousness, or if you were concious, before you could reach the surface - which, by the way, may be covered in flaming jet fuel consuming all the oxygen in the area. Bummer.

As you can see, there are many ways to die in this scenario.

Yes, it really IS the sudden stop at the end that kills you. The plane stops - you keep going. This can subject you to forces more than enough to shatter bones. You may survive briefly, Maybe. Very briefly. But you’ll be mortally injured.

Even if you are firmly strapped in, so that your exterior stops when the airplane does, remember that people are basically bags of raw meat and blood. Not a whole lot of internal support. So, the straps stop your skeleton (probably breaking a lot of it) but your internal organs keep going, at least briefly, and smash up against the interior of your ribs and sternum, slam against your pelvis, and, oh, yes, your brain does a mosh pit thing inside your skull. Very bad. The decelaration forces can be severe enough to actually tear loose internal bits. If your aorta, for example, rips loose from your heart (which is basically how Princess Di expired - you don’t even need an airplane for this) you bleed to death extremely quickly. The blood vessels in your brain can also be torn by impact forces, which also brings quick death. Various other bits can rip loose. Take some cubes of jello, put them in a covered bowel, and shake vigorously - that’s more or less what happens to your insides, but with much, much greater force.

Icky-poo, if you ask me.

And, oh yes, if your skeletal bits DO break in this scenario, if they break up into sharp bits, it’s like adding razor blades to that bowl of jello.

SERIOUSLY icky-poo.

Quite a few.

Actually, there have been instances where the plane landed intact and no one got out alive. One notable instance being in Saudi Arabia, but I can’t recall all the details off the top of my head.

If the touch-down is such that most people survive the impact fire frequently results. Airplanes, beyond just the fuel, are flammable. Remember that jet fuel burns hot enough to soften and buckle steel - this lights up a lot of stuff. Anyhow, lots and lots of thick, black smoke is generated. Most of it is HIGHLY toxic between the hydrocarbons in the fuel and the burning synthetics elsewhere on the airplane.

So - assuming you are uninjured enough to leave your seat (as opposed to have two broken arms and two broken legs), in order to survive the fire you have to drop to the floor and find your way out of a pitch-black, smoke and fume filled cabin cluttered with seats, debris, and, oh yes, a hundred or more completely freaked out and panicked fellow passengers. Good luck - you will need it. A few, very few people have pulled this off. Typically, they seem to either be right on top of an exit, or near a hole in the fuselage that allows escape. People have staggered out of burning airplanes only to expire later from either burns or the poisonous effects of toxic smoke or both.

Looking at all these situations, you have a number of means of dying - explosion, flying debris, fire, smoke, lack of oxygen, high speed collision with a planet, drowning if you land in water, followed by more opportunities for death by explosion and fire and inhalation of poisons.

You know, a better question might be how anyone ever manages to survive a crash. Because people do survive sometimes.

Broomstick great answer as always. And thanks for bringing up Saudi Arabian Flight 163.

For those unfamiliar with this, it was an L-1011 that took off, got a warning of a cargo fire and returned to land at Riyadh. Total flight time of around 10-11 minutes. The airplane landed intact with everyone on board alive. But because of poor crew procedures the airplane was not evacuated immediately, and the fire spread. Eventually everyone on board perished (301 people) on an aircraft sitting on the ground surrounded by firefighting equipment.

The flying environment is so dynamic that any attempt to quantify “This is what will kill you” will be meaningless. You can have percentages that say 50% of deaths are caused by blunt force trauma, but then you have an airplane burn on the ground where people die but there was no blunt force. In fact there was a 737 in England that never got airborne but managed to kill 55 people.

So my answer to the OP is that it depends on the specific accident…each one is different. Not very dramatic, but it’s true.

As to the autopsy question - yes, by all means they are done. They can often yield very useful information. If everyone who died has some sort of toxin in their system, smoke is the most likely cause of death. Even with mangled bodies pathologists can determine if they were alive at impact or not, which can be very important.

And count me as one of the people who “never say never” (as in “no one ever survives”). You can fly a 757 into a mountain and still have 4 survivors.

I vaguely recall reading something years ago about this issue, to the effect that while the seat belts were required to stay attached to the seat up to a certain number of Gs, the bolts holding the seats were required to withstand only half that number. Which supposedly accounted for a large number of incidents in which the plane would be found with a mostly empty passenger compartment and a big tangle of seats and gore wedged up in the front.

At the time it seemed plausible, but I was much younger. Now it strikes me like a “pumping oxygen into the casino” exaggeration, one of those things that get repeated because they’re interesting whether or not they have any basis in fact. Is there anything to it at all?

Two things:
The survivability of a landing is inversely proportional to angle of approach. Shallow angle of approach = large chance of survival. Steep angle of approach = low chance of survival.

In the ongoing battle between tubes of aluminum going hundreds of miles and hour and the earth, the earth has yet to lose.


Well, if you want to know the honest truth it’s that the seats should be mounted facing aft.

Airplane decelerations are almost exclusively from forward motion to none, and the current seat configuration does not help this. In a rapid deceleration the only help you have is the straps holding you to the seat. Up front we have five-point harnesses (similar to what Formula 1 drivers have). In back, all you have is a lap belt.

For a deceleration, you know which one is best. When was the last time you bought a car that had only a lap belt available?

As to the strength of belts vs seats, I’m not sure that what you’ve described is a bad thing. Both are designed for a max deceleration, and will fail at a specific point. Is it better to get let loose by your belt to hit the seat in front of you, or to stay with your seat as it comes loose? The limits of the seat and the belt are designed to be within human tolerances; ie you don’t want a seat and belt that will hold you in place during a 40g stop. Your hips would be in the seat but your head would be 5 rows forward.

If you really want to be safe, start lobbying for aft-facing seats. :wink:

Yeah, I know it will never happen…