The Wild World of Ejection Survival
It's rare to be thrown from a plane crash and survive. But for those who do, the stories are unforgettable.
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When Asiana Airlines flight 214 broke apart at the end of a San Francisco runway in July, five people spilled out the back. A Korean teenage girl sitting in Row 41, the line of perforation down which the tail section tore away from the rest of the plane, was nearly the sixth.
“Everything in the back disappeared,” the girl told the San Jose Mercury News, speaking in broken English. She told the paper that she did not want to be identified, but was traveling with the same group of teenagers as the two girls who were pulled out of the plane, as were three flight attendants seated behind them. “Before, two toilets behind. After, no toilets. I see light.”
One of the girls ejected, it now appears, was thrown from her seat later in the crash than the other four. She ended up next to the plane’s left wing. Investigators now believe, she was covered in a layer of firefighting foam and then run over by a firetruck arriving on the scene.
The second teenager from row 41 died from injuries she sustained as she skidded down the runway, for perhaps as long as a quartermile.
Miraculously, the three flight attendants all survived (though two still remained critical at the end of August), skidding over 1000 feet until coming to rest near a 747 that had been waiting to take off. A pilot onboard that second plane posted his account of spotting the Asiana flight attendants to a message board on PPRuNE.org.
“I was looking out the left side cockpit windows and noticed movement…. Two survivors were stumbling but moving…. I saw one survivor stand up, walk a few feet, then appear to squat down. The other appeared to be a woman and was walking, then fell off to her side and remained on the ground until rescue personnel arrived.”
They were so far from the main plane that it took rescuers 14 minutes to find them.
Modern commercial jets can carry hundreds of people 10 times faster than you can safely drive on a city street, which is 10 times faster than you can probably walk. Though millions of people witness it everyday, the transaction of physics between an airplane and gravity is unimaginably violent. If your puny body ever actually came face to face with what lies beyond your window seat, you’d die almost instantly, via several horrible mechanisms—hyperbaric trauma, friction, blunt force, hypoxia—competing to be the thing that actually killed you.
And yet, very rarely, someone crosses over into the great beyond of speed and height on the other side of a plane’s thin wall and lives to tell about it. People have survived being ejected from commercial passenger planes flying smoothly at great heights, and from ones that were crashing with them still inside. Some have been blown out by explosions, others torn free from their seats. Some have jumped or been pushed.
Still, don’t go eyeing the exit door the next time your Southwest flight hits a few bumps over Nashville. Surviving an ejection from a commercial airliner is probably the rarest occurrence in all of aviation. That at least three and, at least initially, four people appear to have done it on the Asiana crash is probably unprecedented.
“It doesn’t come up very often,” says Michael Barr, a Vietnam fighter pilot and crash investigator who has taught at USC’s Aviation Safety and Security Program for 28 years. Barr figures he’s studied 500 plane crashes, and can’t recall seeing a single case of someone surviving being thrown out of a commercial airliner during flight, even as it was crashing. “You can reduce the risk, but if you happen to come out, it becomes neither rhyme nor reason. You’d tell somebody like that, ‘Hey, great, you made it. Go to Vegas, go play the slots.’ ”
There are practical reasons why surviving a crash, even if you are tossed from one, is growing more common. When a commercial airliner crashes, the chances are good—one widely quoted statistic is about 80 percent—that the impact will be ‘survivable’, a number that goes up with every new generation of planes. Asiana 214 was a Boeing 777, among the newest and safest planes in service. The 777’s seats that the flight attendants appear to have ridden down the runway are designed to withstand forces of 16gs before breaking loose from the floor. Engineers found that in many previous crashes with less robust seats, “if those seats come loose, they basicly become missiles in the cabin,” said Barr. The burly engineering meant to keep the Asiana seats in place likely also made them a safer sled for the Asiana crew.
Ironically, the earliest documented survival of an ejection from a commercial airline flight bears a striking resemblance to the Asiana crash, minus a half-century of safety science. In April 1965, British United Airways Flight 1030x was descending towards Jersey, an island just off the Normandy coast of France, when the pilot, like those on Asiana, misjudged the approach. Also like the Korean jet, the rear of the plane clipped an object on the ground, sheared off the entire tail section and ejected a stewardess. Dominique Silliere, 22, was found badly hurt but alive near the wreckage, the only survivor.
In the 48 years between Silliere and the Asiana crash, the number of people to have also survived airliner ejections is probably less than 10, tracked only by media reports and amateur databases like the Free Fall Research Page.
Most of the known ejection survivors are featured in a new documentary, “Sole Survivor,” which premiered at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in July. The film recounts the experiences of the 14 people across the world known to be the only survivors of major commercial airline crashes. Tellingly, of the film’s 14 survivors, just three ended up outside their plane.
The director, Chicago-based filmmaker Ky Dickens, said most survivors have searched for explanations or meaning to their experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film is the first time several have spoken in public.
“Society reacts to the survivor like, ‘You’re so lucky!’” said Dickens. “What gets lost is that this was a horrible trauma for them.” If they can avoid it, said Dickens, survivors generally don’t share their stories in their lives. “They have a fear of being judged by people who think they should be doing something inspirational.”
On the other end of the spectrum from Asiana-like mid-crash ejections are two young girls who survived preposterous falls from planes. Best known is probably Juliane Koepcke, a German teenager who, on Christmas Eve 1971, was flung from a plane when it exploded over Peru. Still in her seat, she fell about 10,000 feet before crashing through jungle canopy. Bruised and missing a shoe, she followed streams and rivers for 11 days before finding help. German filmmaker Werner Herzog was supposed to be on the flight and revisited the site of the crash with Koepcke for his 2000 documentary, “Wings of Hope.” Throughout the film, though, it feels like it is Herzog, not Koepcke, who is searching for meaning. She, it seems, has made peace with her unlikely fate. But as Herzog’s film crew combs the jungle for wreckage from the flight, he wonders why he was allowed to not be on it.
Columbian Erika Delgado, 9, survived a similar fall in 1995 when her mother pushed her from a burning plane as it came apart near Cartagena. Exact accounts vary, but another pilot reported an explosion broke the airplane into two pieces somewhere around 12,000 feet. Delgado landed in a swampy marsh near the rest of the wreckage. If Koepcke is at peace with her fall, Delgado, it seems, is not. In “Sole Survivor,” Dickens has another survivor, George Lamson, call Delgado on camera, but she doesn’t want to be in the movie.
“Sole Survivor” began as a coping mechanism for Dickens after a near-miss car crash in which a friend died just minutes after the two traded seats. Haunted by her friend’s sudden death, Dickens contacted Lamson, who was 17 in 1985 when his Galaxy Airlines flight crashed during takeoff from Reno. Lamson’s row of seats was thrown clear and he came to rest upright on a nearby road. The teenager was so sure he had died, said Dickens, and that he was now in some sort of afterlife, that he unbuckled his seatbelt and took off running until he was snapped back to reality by seeing a billboard.
Deconstructing the decisions, physics and odds behind Lamson’s one-in-a-million ejection survival was relatively straight forward. A high school diver, Lamson followed an instinct to tuck his legs over his head, as if entering a somersault dive, when the plane first bounced. As the bench of seats ejected, his legs protected him while his father, seated next to him, suffered fatal head trauma.
That’s the “How.” The “why,” for many, never comes. When Dickens showed an early cut of “Sole Survivor” to Lamson, she said, “He looked disappointed. He said ‘I really thought I’d know after making this film why this happened to me.’
“It’s really just luck,” she said. “We can’t ever know the reason why.”