The Good Plane Crash

On Tuesday night an American Airlines jet from Miami careened off a runway in Jamaica—but everyone walked away alive. Aviation expert Clive Irving on what went right and how the rain saved lives.

12.23.09 10:23 AM ET

It looks bad, very bad: an airplane wrecked as it hurtles beyond the end of a runway and nearly into the sea. The engines tear off the wings, landing gear crumples, the fuselage is cracked. It happened Tuesday night to American Airlines Flight 331 from Miami as it landed at Kingston, Jamaica in heavy rain.

And yet this is exactly what is supposed to happen in a crash. All 154 passengers walked away, albeit shaken up and a few of them needing hospital treatment.

Your seats may look slender (and feel cramped) but they are designed to withstand the impact of hitting the ground at well over 100 mph.

The biggest killer in a crash of this kind is not the first impact but fire. A jet engine that is still functioning is basically a furnace, and the most likely first source of ignition. The two engines on the Boeing 737-800 in this crash sheared from the wings, as they are designed to do under impact of this severity. The other fire threat lies in the gas still in the tanks—the tanks easily rupture and a single spark is enough to cause a fire that can engulf the airplane in a matter of minutes.

But in Jamaica there was a powerful fire suppressor—the heavy rain. The weather that most likely caused this crash was also probably a big life saver. Given that the American Airlines cabin crew did their job and evacuated the airplane within seconds of it coming to rest this was another example of just how survivable even a serious crash can be. Consider these examples:

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Toronto, August 2, 2005: Air France Flight 358, an Airbus A340 carrying 297 passengers makes its approach to Pearson International in conditions very much like those in Kingston Tuesday night, except that it is in daylight—in the middle of a heavy storm. Because of difficult visibility, the Airbus lands “long”—that is, it touches down so far along the runway that it runs out of tarmac and ends up in a ravine. The ravine inhibits the engines from tearing away, and within seconds smoke appears. Yet all the passengers are evacuated in an exemplary performance by the cabin crew within 90 seconds and walk away; minutes later fire destroys the plane.

Chicago, December 8, 2005: Southwest Airlines Flight 1248—like the American Airlines flight in Jamaica—is a Boeing 737. It is snowing, but the runway at Midway Airport has been swept and the pilots commit to a landing. They also land “long.” They need 5,300 feet of runway to stop and they have only 4,500 feet left, and even with engines used in reverse to brake the speed they don’t make it, skid across a road and hit a car. A child in the car is killed but all 103 people on board walk away.

Denver, December 2, 2008: Another Boeing 737, this time Continental Flight 1404, is taking off in wintery conditions with blustery winds. The captain aborts his takeoff at a late stage because he’s beginning to drift from the center line of the runway, the airplane bounces hard, careens off the tarmac, crossing a service road and ending up 2,300 feet from the runway. The landing gear shears away as do the engines. The fuselage cracks open. The right engine bursts into flame. Yet all 115 passengers walk away, although 38 have impact injuries and all of them are terrified.

This level of survival reflects a lot of technical advances that you don’t actually notice as you take your seat. The seats themselves may look slender (and feel cramped) but they are designed to withstand the impact of hitting the ground at well over 100 mph. Emergency lights buried in the floor lead to all the doors and the doors are all fitted with escape slides. But the human factor is crucial. The same attendants who serve you those bad meals and spend a lot of time with carts in the aisle all have a far more important role for which they are rigorously trained—to get you out alive in a crash. And these days a lot of injuries are caused by another human element gone rogue—those passengers who bring aboard too many bags and overstuff the bins, creating missiles that can be lethal.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation.