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Crash Course

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When Korean Air Flight 801 crashed on Guam on Aug. 6, all but 26 of 254 passengers were killed, tragically underscoring a question that haunts air travelers: Does fate alone decide who survives—or can passengers actually do something to improve their odds of walking away from survivable airplane crashes? The answer, says Charles Chittum, 64, an expert at the world’s foremost aircraft-crash survival research program, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, can be found in one astounding statistic. “Seventy-one percent of the people who die in survivable crashes,” he says, “die after their aircraft comes to a complete stop.” Chittum recently spoke with PEOPLE’S Laurel Brubaker Calkins about how to tip the scales in favor of survival.

What’s the safest seat on a plane?

That depends on the type of accident. If you’re worried about impact, sit in the back. If you’re worried about a fuel fire, sit forward of the leading edge of the wing. I sit by the over-wing exits. The fuel is carried in the wings, so structurally that’s the strongest part of the aircraft, the part that will break up last. Even assuming the exit nearest me is not usable, I’ve got half the distance to go either forward or rearward to another exit as I would sitting in the front or the back of the plane.

What sort of clothing should people wear when they fly?

I recommend natural-fiber, tightly knit fabrics. They don’t catch fire as easily, and they don’t melt. Also, keep as much of your skin covered as possible with long pants and long sleeves. If you have to come down a long evacuation slide in shorts, you’ll burn all the skin off your legs. I wear a long-sleeved cotton shirt, blue jeans, leather cowboy boots with leather soles, and a heavy felt cowboy hat so when those little molten-polycarbon fireballs are dropping down on my head, I’ve got some protection.

Should you always keep your seat belt fastened?

The most important thing passengers can do is sit in their seats, put their seat belts on and leave them on until the aircraft gets to where it’s going. Without belts, people have been sucked out of planes by rapid decompressions. Young children should be restrained in an airline-approved safety seat—the ones with the little airplane symbol.

Even if your kid is fussing and bothering other passengers?

Well, what’s more important to you—making another passenger irate or protecting your kid’s life?

After it crashes, how long do you have to get out of a plane?

Usually, if there’s an external fuel fire, there’s a flashover within two minutes: Vapors explode, windows blow out, and, as temperatures rise thousands of degrees, oxygen is rapidly depleted. If you get caught in it, you’re going to die. For FAA certification, airlines in the U.S. must demonstrate that aircraft carrying more than 20 passengers can be evacuated—fully loaded with people, under nighttime conditions, with debris in the aisle, with half the exits blocked—in less than 90 seconds. It can be done faster. Motivation is a lot greater when you’ve got fire going up your rear end.

Why then do so many people die in survivable crashes?

What happens is they don’t pay attention to the flight attendant’s briefing. They don’t read the briefing card in the seat-back pocket. They don’t know the number of rows to the nearest exit. They don’t pay attention to their surroundings. There’s a lot of things they don’t do, so they succumb to toxic smoke.

How do you avoid inhaling smoke?

If you can hold your breath for 30 seconds, which—if you know what you’re doing—is how long it should take to exit the aircraft, you can probably get out alive. The danger of breathing gases isn’t only that they are poisonous and can kill you. Every gulp of smoke you take slows down your psychomotor abilities and your decision-making abilities.

What’s the dumbest thing that people typically do?

Trying to get their belongings out as they leave a crash. I’ve even got videos of passengers on a hijacked Air Afrique DC-10 on the ground in Geneva showing passengers throwing luggage out the doors before they start jumping down the slides. There’s a madman at the back shooting people, but they’re worried about duffel bags.

What should people know about life vests?

Where they are, how and when to put them on. On a hijacked plane that ditched in the Indian Ocean, people drowned because they inflated their life vests too soon and couldn’t dive down into the water filling the cabin to reach the exits. The ones who hadn’t inflated their life vests got out and lived to tell about it. People can at least read the briefing cards, think it through, be ready. Passengers who are prepared to survive a survivable accident usually do.