Hardly surprising when you realize what's going on inside the engine: highly flammable fuel is being pulverised in a maelstrom of air which has been blasted through the intake at 900 km/h, super-heated to an intense 2000 degrees Celsius, squeezed close to atom-smashing pressure, and then thrust into the near vacuum of the troposphere with enough energy to propel a 400 tonne aluminum tube through the air. (Scared now?).
One of the most well known cases of recent plane engine failure is Airbus A380 Qantas flight 32 from London bound for Sydney in November 2010. The scenario began to unfold over Indonesia 2 hours after taking off from Singpore Changi Airport after stopping over when an engine exploded. This resulted in the loss of vital systems, their backups plus two other engines also became compromised.
This type of incident was never in the training textbooks however due to the decades of experience, skills and composure of Captain Richard Champion De Crespigny and his other 4 flight crew, QF32 landed safely at Singapore Changi Airport. Of the 440 passengers and 29 crew onboard, no one was injured.
Engine failures can also happen not at cruising altitude but because of bird strike. Remember the Hero of the Hudson, who ditched his aircraft into the New York river in 2009 after a double bird strike?
It was a dramatic incident, and the fact no one was killed is testament to the skill of the Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers during the emergency reveal how calm and professional he was. They also show how everyone involved was doing everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of the people aboard. Very reassuring.
What are the chances you'll be killed in a scheduled passenger air service? Well, someone's actually worked it out.
A study published in the August 2010 edition of the Journal of Transportation Science puts the risk at 1 in 3 million. But (there's always a but) that's an average. The real figure is higher or lower, depending on where you're flying.
In first world industrialized nations, like the US, Japan and Canada, the figure is a reassuring 1 in 14 million. In middle-ranking nations, like Singapore, South Korea, Brazil and China, it's 1 in 2 million. In developing nations, the death risk per flight is 1 in 800,000.
Given you're reading this on a travel site, you're most likely an avid traveller, and there's a good chance you'll be taking a few flights in those more risky developing nations. So how does 1 in 800,000 compare to other dangers? The risk of being killed in an auto accident in one year in the US is about 1 in 6500. Multiply that over your lifetime and it's about 1 in 83. Flying is sounding a whole lot safer now, right?
What should you do if there is an engine failure at take-off? You read the safety card while the plane was on the tarmac, right? Do it next time.
If you didn't notice the loud bang and the flames coming from the engine, if the shuddering of the aircraft escaped you, if the screams of the other passengers can't be heard through your headphones (this is why you are told to switch off music players), if you haven't noticed you're getting closer to the ground – the first indication something's wrong will be when the pilot comes over the intercom and says "Brace! Brace! Brace!" You should brace now. "Brace" means brace for impact. Head on your knees or the seat in front of you, grip your ankles with your feet flat on the floor. This is to stop your limbs flailing around on impact, reducing injury and making it more likely you'll be in fit shape to make your escape.
Have a look out the window, if you've landed on water you'll need your life jacket, otherwise leave it, don't waste time getting it. Most likely it'll be dark, smoky, bags will have fallen out of storage bins, people may be crying and screaming. It'll be chaotic. Or it may not – many times survivors have reported it was eerily calm.
The crew and passengers will be opening the emergency exits, automatically deploying the escape slides.
Leave your bags and possessions behind. Of course you counted the number of rows to the nearest exit when you took your seat – follow the floor lights. Shoes off. Jump down the escape slide feet first. Move away from the aircraft, about 150 metres upwind, but don't wander off, wait for help.
In his book Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes, author George Bibel takes the example of the DC-10, an aircraft with not a great safety record. Of the 446 delivered, 27 of them were involved in crashes that led to "total hull loss." Overall in these crashes, 69% of all passengers and crew members survived. If you throw out the three worst crashes, the survival rate is nearly 90%.
The airlines will tell you there's no guaranteed "safe" seat on a plane, but the statistics do give you a clue to seat preference. In first and business class only 49% survive a fatal crash. (But they get a better quality of champagne to toast their impending departure). Back in cattle-class, 56% forward of the wing and the same number over the wing survive. Down the back of the bus, the rear of the cabin, the survival rate is 69%, so stop whining about being last off the plane at your destination.
Rationality has nothing to do with it, and ramming statistics down your throat won't do anything to address your anxiety. Most major airlines run "fear of flying" courses where they address these problems and help you get over your concerns. Usually they're free, and very successful, so give it a shot.
If you haven't taken the course (or it hasn't helped) one last tip: Be cautious taking medication to calm down (or put you to sleep) before a flight. In the very unlikely event something goes wrong, you'll need to be alert. In all seriousness, you should be alert while changing flights and going through customs at the airport, so don't completely knock yourself out.
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