The Wrong (and Right) Lessons of the Continental Plane Crash

03/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ben Sherwood Author, Journalist, Founder and CEO of

First there was the Miracle on the Hudson. Now comes the tragic news from suburban Buffalo. Fifty people are dead after a Continental commuter plane crashed while preparing to land in light snow and fog. There's no denying the tragedy or horror.

After US Air 1549's splash-landing last month, even aviophobes began to think that plane crashes might be survivable. Recent events seemed so encouraging. In December, Continental Flight 1404 with more than 100 people onboard veered off a Denver runway into a ditch and everyone survived. Then in January, 155 people made it off US Air 1549.

These accidents revealed one of the surprising facts about plane crashes: most people actually survive. Indeed, looking at the most serious crashes over 20 years, the National Transportation Safety Board says that 76.6 percent of the passengers made it out alive.

Late last night, watching the fiery images in Clarence Center, I emailed one of the country's foremost authorities on plane crash statistics. Arnold Barnett is an MIT professor who became fascinated with aviation safety because of his own fear of flying. Reviewing the loss of three commercial planes in just two months, Barnett wrote back, "while the first two events suggested that maybe we can avoid deaths even in the worst emergencies, the last seemed to say tauntingly 'no we can't.'"

Just like US Air miracle, the Continental crash will draw an enormous amount of attention. Here, I submit, are three right (and wrong) lessons to learn from this awful tragedy:

First, Don't Despair. News coverage will naturally magnify the Clarence Center story, increasing our fears while reducing our understanding of the relative risks. Arnold Barnett studied the front page of The New York Times and discovered an important reason that people are so afraid of flying. Page one coverage of airplane accidents was sixty times greater per 1,000 deaths than reporting on HIV/AIDS; fifteen hundred times greater than auto hazards; and six thousand times greater than cancer. In other words, Barnett argues, plane crashes capture a disproportionate amount of our attention and therefore engender a disproportionate amount of fear.

It's also important to note that the Clarence Center crash involved a twin-engine turboprop, not a jet. There's a critical distinction. "Historically, the safety record for piston and prop-jet aircraft has not been as good as that for pure jets," Barnett emailed. While the safety of turboprops has been improving, he went on, so far this century the risk of dying on your next non-jet flight is around "one in 5 million (or perhaps a bit better." By contrast, your risk of dying on your next domestic jet flight is one in 60 million.

Second, Be Prepared. After listening to the news from Clarence Center, we're likely to conclude there's nothing we can do in a plane crash so even why bother trying. That's understandable in this specific case - there was nothing the passengers could do -- but it's potentially fatal if applied to all airplane accidents. In so many everyday crises, ranging from car crashes to health crises, you can improve your chances, especially if you pay attention to the risks, prepare in advance, and take action. In survivable plane accidents, for instance, experts say that up to 40 percent of the people who perished could have lived if they had known what to do.

[So what should you know? Listen to the safety briefing. Read the information card. Try to sit within five rows of any exit. Make a point of identifying your primary exit and backup exit. Pay extra attention during the first three and last eight minutes of flight (when 80 percent of accidents happen). And be ready to take action without any instructions from the pilot or flight attendants (40 percent of the time, they're incapacitated).]

Third, it's not just plane crashes, it's life. Right now, everyone is surviving something. Time and again, experts told me, your most important tool is right between your ears. The key to making it through any crisis is how you cope with stress and pressure. Are you adaptable, resilient and tenacious? Do you recognize the risks around you? Do you search for answers? Do you formulate a plan and a backup? And ultimately, are you prepared to take action to survive and thrive?

After two years interviewing some of the world's most effective survivors and thrivers for my new book The Survivors Club, I believe everyone has an inner Survivor Personality. We all possess some of the strengths necessary to overcome adversity. The first step toward beating the odds, experts say, is to recognize these tools in ourselves instead of surrendering to the understandable fear and despair that come in the aftermath of disaster like the tragedy in Clarence Center.

[To discover your Survivor Personality, you can visit, where you'll find a free Survivor IQ Quiz that takes two minutes and gives you a glimpse of your Survivor Type.