Sole Survivor: How Often Does Only One Person Survive a Plane Crash?

An eight year old Dutch boy appears to have been the sole survivor of a deadly plane crash this morning at Tripoli Airport in Libya. How often is there a sole survivor?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

A ten-year-old Dutch boy appears to have been the sole survivor of a deadly plane crash this morning at Tripoli Airport in Libya. Some 103 people are believed to have lost their lives when a relatively new Airbus 330 crashed while landing a little after 6 in the morning.

"The child is in good condition and is in the hospital undergoing checks," the Libyan transportation minister told a news conference at the airport.

How did the boy survive? And what should you know before you take your next flight? What follows are a few key questions (and answers) raised by the crash of Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 and the Dutch boy's astonishing survival.

1. How often does only one person survive a plane crash?

Including the Afriqiyah crash, there have been 15 airliner crashes since 1970 with a sole survivor, according to data compiled by Dr. Todd Curtis, director of the Foundation. Six of those survivors were minors and four were crew members, accounting for 66 percent of the total.

"I can't figure out for the life of me why crew members and children tend to be disproportionate in these sole-survivor events," Curtis tells CNN.

"You scratch your head and wonder why is that? Is it because children can best survive crash forces? Is it because you only have small survival spaces in an aircraft and the smaller you are, the more likely you are to survive?" Curtis told ABC News. "Those are plausible explanations ... but no one has done any sort of analysis that I like to call vaguely scientific or mechanical."

The most recent sole survivor story involved a 13 year old girl named Bahia and a plane crash in the stormy Indian Ocean in June 2009. Bahia barely swim and didn't have a life jacket. Her plane - an Airbus 310 with 153 people on board - crashed in rough weather while preparing to land in the Comorros, the tiny island nation. Bahia was rescued after clinging to debris for around 12 hours in shark-infested waters.

Bahia returned home to France, where her father, Kassim explained she had been ejected during the crash and "found herself beside the plane." He described her as "fragile" and said she could "barely swim".

"She is a very, very shy girl. I would never have thought she would have survived like this. I can't say that it's a miracle, I can say that it is God's will," he said.

One of the most extraordinary sole survivor stories involves Julianne Koepcke, a 17-year-old who was flying in South America on Christmas Eve 1971. Her Lockheed turboprop encountered a lightning storm that destroyed one of the wings. Koepcke fell more than two miles into the Amazon jungle but survived with only minor injuries. Ninety-one other people aboard Flight 508 died. Today, Koepcke is a zoology librarian in Munich. She tells CNN the experience still haunts her, especially after tragedies like Air France 447 that crashed off the coast of Brazil. "It just horrifies me," she says. "I only hope it all went quickly for those on board."

[For a list of the top 10 sole survivors of plane crashes, click here.]

2. Do Most Passengers Perish Plane Crashes?

No. I call this the Myth of Hopelessness. Many people believe that everyone always dies in plane crashes. And there's good reason: the greatest tragedies are ingrained in our memories. It's terrible and true: Everyone died in the most infamous crashes. Valujet 592 in the Florida Everglades. TWA 800 in the Atlantic. Swissair 111 in Nova Scotia. EgyptAir 990 over the Atlantic. Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

Despite these disasters, the truth about most airplane accidents is that people do survive. In fact, according to the US government, 95.7 percent of the passengers involved in aviation accidents make it out alive. That's right. When the National Transportation Safety Board studied accidents between 1983 and 2000 involving 53,487 passengers, they found that 51,207 survived. That's 95.7 percent. When you exclude crashes in which no one had a chance of surviving - like Pan Am 103 - the NTSB says the survival rate in the most serious crashes is 76.6 percent. In other words, if your plane crashes, you aren't necessarily doomed, just like the passengers on US Air 1549 in the Hudson.

3. How Safe is Air Travel?

Air travel is extremely safe, but your exact odds really depend on where you're flying. In a nutshell, jet travel in the US is significantly safer than jet travel in the rest of the world, especially less developed countries, according to Professor Arnold Barnett of MIT, one of the world's foremost experts on aviation safety statistics. Your chance of dying on your next flight in the US is one in 35 million, Barnett calculates. If you're traveling internationally in the industrialized or "first" world (i.e. Europe), your chance of dying is one in 10 million. And if you' re flying in the developing or "third" world (i.e. Africa), your chances are one in two million.

4. Are Some Airlines Safer than Others?

Definitely. According to Clive Irving in The Daily Beast, "more than 160 airlines are on (the European Union) black list, meaning that they are not allowed to fly into or out of E.U. countries." Irving notes the list includes "air carriers registered in Kazakhstan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Angola, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo -- you get the picture. More significantly, it also includes all carriers 'certified by the authorities with responsibility for regulatory oversight' in Indonesia, which is hardly a Third World country, but which has a record of sloppy enforcement of safety standards."

[According to news reports, Afriqiyah Airlines is not included on the EU's black list.]

5. Is it safe to fly on an Airbus?

There are some 650 Airbus 330 jetliners in operation around the world today. Afriqiyah 771 first flew on August 12 of last year and was delivered brand new to the Libyan airline in September.

The Libya crash is the second in 12 months involving an Airbus 330. Last June, Air France 447 - an Airbus A330-200 - crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 people on board.

Over all, Airbus planes are very safe to fly, experts say. And there's is no reason to believe the recent Airbus 330 crashes are connected.6. Which is the safest seat on an airplane?

There's quite a bit of contradictory evidence about which is the safest seat on an airplane. Some data suggests that sitting toward the front of the plane is safest. Some evidence suggests sitting toward the back is safer. Indeed, Popular Mechanics reviewed 20 airplane crashes and concluded: "Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front."

Many aviation experts dispute front vs. back distinctions, arguing that every crash is different.

So what should you do to improve your chances? Follow the Five Row Rule, says Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich in London who has studied more than 100 plane crashes and their seating charts. He has also interviewed thousands of survivors and flight crew. After examining all the data, he recommends sitting within five rows of any exit. The closer you sit to any exit -- front, middle or back -- the better your chances of escaping in a survivable crash, Galea says. Aisle seats are marginally safer than middle or window seats because they afford more mobility and choices.

Finally, what else can you do to increase your chances in the unlikely event of a crash?After going through the FAA's plane crash survival school in Oklahoma City and interviewing many experts and survivors of plane crashes, here are four key tips:

> Pay attention to the safety briefing and develop your Plan A and Plan B in the event of an emergency. Count the number of rows to your nearest exit and your backup.

> Focus on your action plan during the first three minutes of flight and the last eight minutes. That's when around 80 percent of accidents happen. In other words, before takeoff and landing, don't take off your shoes; don't put on a face mask to sleep; and don't wear earphones.

> Leave Your Roll-On Behind and Don't Forget Your Family. That's right. Investigators say that evacuees frequently try to bring their carry-on luggage. That's a big mistake because that can slow you down when every second counts. Experts say that passengers also have been known to flee, leaving behind husbands, wives and even children. So safety experts actually suggest rehearsing what you would do in a crash and how you want to behave.

> Finally, relax! And enjoy your flight. Experts say that stress and anxiety related to fear of flying are more injurious to your health than the air travel itself.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot