What it's Like Inside a Plane Crash and How to Survive One

By Gizmodo on at

By Wes Siler

Yesterday's insane crash in Taipei got me wondering what it'd be like to experience such an event. So I talked legendary adventurer Robert Young Pelton, who survived a very similar experience. Here's his story and advice on living through it.

Pelton is the author of travel guide series The World's Most Dangerous Places and wrote what's probably the most useful survival guide out there, Come Back Alive. If survival is something you take seriously, start there. He also designs some awesome knives.

IndefinitelyWild: What happens when you crash?

Robert Young Pelton: When you have a plane crash, there's actually two impacts. The first one doesn't feel that bad because you're still moving and you haven't actually hit anything square-on yet. You get thrown up in the air, everything goes weightless and everything inside the plane starts floating around. It's like this bizarre scene where you're like, "I'm in a space movie and nothing's going to happen!" And then, the second impact is actually when you hit shit and all that stuff that's floating around just accelerates and becomes projectiles. When you hit that second time, you realise you're in a flying beer can; it's really just tiny bits of aluminium between you and whatever the fuck you're hitting.

IW: Tell us about your crash.

RYP: The thing I did was just kind of stupid. I wanted to see this remote tribe in the centre of Borneo and no one would fly me there. So, I went from airport to airport in Indonesia and eventually found this oil company plane that belonged to Petronas. A Casa 212 with a ramp across the back.

I said, "How much for the plane?" And they were like, "Uhhh, $12,000 (£7,827)?" Fuck, that's expensive, but I wanted to do it. So, I used my American Express card to put a deposit down, I think six grand, and it came with two pilots.

We took off and immediately got into this huge tropical storm and started getting tossed around. The pilots were saying, "We've got to put down, we've used too much fuel and we can't get back."

This pilot had been telling me this story about when he flew in Somalia and used to do these combat landings where you go straight down with the engines on full, then yank back at the last minute, drop the thing down, get hard on the brakes, kick stuff out of the back and then keep flying.

We came out of the storm into this weird little hole in the centre; it was clear in that one spot. When we do, the pilot points at something and starts arguing with his co-pilot. I look down and there's this kind of square in the jungle. It's not a runway. The pilot says, "Fuck it," and goes into this dive.

So I go "Oh fuck!" and literally walk uphill to the back of the plane and strap myself in as tight as I can. We're going down, down, down and then he realises this is like a clearing, it's the size of a football field and it's actually on the side of a mountain. It's no good as a runway at all. So, he hits the ground fucking hard. I think he was trying to pull up, but he was just going down too fast.

We went into a forest of two or three-inch thick timber bamboo. It beat the shit out of the plane and ripped the wheels off — like, brrrrrrraaaaaappppp — and then we hit something and came to a stop. Everyone was dazed and the pilot was screaming, "Batteries! Batteries! Don't move!"

I look out the window and I see a guy with a gimpy hand, a machete, a conical straw hat and he's got a teapot. And he's collecting the fuel coming off the plane. The fuel is running off of the wings and he's collecting it in a teapot. He doesn't even look inside to see if we're ok.

I'm trying to get the door open, but the door's stuck and then more people come. They grabbed like little pots and things like that and they're collecting all the fuel. Not one of them is talking to us.

We get the door open and we come out and there's this little circus of people collecting fuel and no one even looks at us. The pilot turns to me and says, "You better get the fuck out of here, when the town chief shows up, there's going to be hell to pay."

We spend a few minutes getting our shit out of the plane and, lo and behold, 30 or 40 minutes later this town chief shows up and he wants to fine the pilots and us for illegally landing without a permit. He's basically trying to jack us up.

The pilot was just distraught. He was stuck in the middle of Borneo with nothing but his nice little white shirt and the co-pilot. And I was just like, "Fuck it, I'm out of here. What If they try to put the hole price of the plane on my American Express card?!" So we hired a canoe and just got out of there.

So that's my plane crash story, but most people who die in plane crashes don't have those kind of stories.

IW: So what survival advice do you have?

RYP: First of all, most people do survive plane crashes. It's like 95 per cent according to the reports.

Certain types of flying tend to be more risky than others. Geographically or by plane or by route. There's certain times of the day where you have more turbulence or whatnot. Knowing the statistical probability of crashing is actually a major help.

Certain kinds of flying lends itself to crashing; long haul international flights are safer than walking down the street. So that's one thing and the second is just sit by the fucking exit. I've been in a couple of planes that went down, not a crash but there was like a fire in the wheel well or whatever, and the amount of panic that goes through the people…imagine 300 people all screaming and sobbing and crawling over each other to try and get their fucking luggage out of the overhead while thinking they're going to die.

There's virtue to be sitting right next to the exit and getting the fuck out of there. And with secondary fires and smoke and water coming onboard, sitting by an exit and getting out before all that just makes a ton of sense.

If you fly shitty airlines in shitty places you're going to crash. If you fly Air Emirates from New York to Dubai you're not going to crash.

Illustration: Michael Hession.