05.12.10

How to Survive a Plane Crash: Luck

The sole survivor of today’s plane crash in Libya, which killed 103, narrowly escaped thanks to freakish luck. Aviation expert Clive Irving on recent crashes.

Thanks to freakish luck, a 9-year-old Dutch boy is the lone survivor of the crash of Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771, which was attempting to land in Tripoli early this morning. The 103 other passengers and crew are believed to have died. The boy is in the hospital and in good condition, the Libyan transport minister said, though he underwent surgery for broken bones in both his legs. Terrorism has been ruled out as a cause of the crash, and preliminary reports say the plane crashed short of the runway threshold as it approached. Both black boxes have been recovered, as well as 96 bodies.

Aviation expert Clive Irving on recent crashes.

They belong to one of the most exclusive—and blessed—clubs in the world: People who, by extraordinary and often miraculous luck—are the sole survivors of a major air crash. And it’s happened twice in the last year.

In Wednesday’s crash in Tripoli, Libya, which killed 103 people, a Dutch boy is reported to have survived and is in hospital. Last June, a 14-year-old girl, Bahia Bakari, was the sole survivor of a crash in the Indian Ocean, off the Comoros Islands. She clung to a piece of wreckage for 14 hours, in shark-infested waters, was rescued and made a full recovery.

The number of fatalities might have been far higher: The cabin was less than half full.

Since 2000, there have been no fewer than five crashes on commercial flights worldwide where a single passenger has survived.

Surveying the strewn wreckage in Tripoli, it does seem inexplicable that anyone came out alive when the rest of the 103 people on board did not. But it was similarly true of last year’s crash in the Indian Ocean. Bahia Bakari was aboard an Airbus A310 with 152 others when it slammed into the water making an approach in poor weather. That aircraft was ripped apart.

The three killers in a crash—force of impact, smoke inhalation, and fire—bring their own extremely narrow time line. If the first impact is not deadly, passengers need to be speedily evacuated to escape the other two fates.

The crash in Tripoli happened as the Airbus A330-200 was on final approach in good weather. It was clearly a high impact crash. The boy who survived must have done so in a way that has been seen before, by being thrown clear in a freakish and incredibly lucky few seconds.

This crash is a real puzzle: An airline, Afriqiyah, with a very young, all-Airbus fleet—the A330 involved had been in service for less than a year. There were no weather challenges. And the crew had not reported any technical problems. The number of fatalities might have been far higher: The cabin was less than half full.

The same model Airbus was involved in the loss of Air France Flight 447 over the south Atlantic a year ago, but the circumstances at Tripoli bear no relationship to those that surround the mystery of Flight 447.

For the moment, the only good news is that, once again, against all the odds, another person has joined that exclusive club of solo survivors.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.