Thanks to some of the best horror movies about airplanes and some horrifying plane crash movies, plummeting to your death in a fiery plane crash is a terrifying thought that crosses everybody's minds at one time or another. Here's a somewhat comforting statistic: the chances of being in a fatal crash are one in eleven million. Plus, the majority of plane crash victims survive. In fact, over 95% of people who crash on a plane make it out alive.
The next time your aircraft shakes you senseless, remember the facts about air turbulence that will calm you down and recall that plane crashes mostly happen to older, poorly-made aircrafts. But on the (slim) off-chance that your plane crashes in a horrific manner that kills you, what happens to your body? Well, if you're curious, buckle your seatbelts before reading ahead because it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Two factors determine whether or not you'll be informed about your plane crashing. First, is the pilot in control enough to attempt a crash landing? And second, what is the cause of a crash?
If the pilot is struggling for control, the spinning and maneuvering will likely cause a person to lose consciousness. However, if the pilot has control and is preparing for a "controlled crash," pilots generally tell passengers to brace for impact, or let them know the plan to deal with the emergency. But these types of crashes don't tend to be fatal, so in a fatal crash, the pilot probably won't have time to tell you a thing.
If the cause of the crash is sudden, like an explosion from an engine catching on fire or a bomb going off, a passenger is very unlikely to remain conscious for more than a few moments.
When your mind senses that something is amiss, or if you realize you're crashing, you're naturally going to feel afraid. This sudden fear is going to do all sorts of weird things with the chemicals in your body.
The fight or flight response happens in traumatic or panic-inducing situations. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are released from your adrenal glands, causing your heart rate to rise, your lungs to work better, and your body to feel less pain and muscle stress. Basically, all your systems work at an enhanced rate. The neurons in your brain begin firing, telling your body that it needs to move right away to maximize chances of survival.
All this is meant to keep you alive, preparing you for either escape or defense. Unfortunately, in a plane crash, there's not much you can run from or fight, so your body's precautions are kind of in vain.
In a crash where your plane nosedives or hits a sharp turn, unconsciousness is an eventuality. Because of that, you might not actually feel what it's like to go into freefall in your seat, but your body will experience it. When the plane goes into a dive, your body and the plane will eventually be falling at the same rate and it will appear that you are weightless within the plane. Your body will rise from your seat, your limbs will float, and objects around you will hover, as if you are in space.
One survivor, Robert Young Pelton, remembers this specific feeling right before the crash well:
"You get thrown up in the air, everything goes weightless and everything inside the plane starts floating around. It's like this bizarre scene where you're like, "I'm in a space movie and nothing's going to happen!"
What's interesting is that your body is not actually weightless - it's just a sensation. Instead, you are just falling in such a way that you appear weightless in relation to the plane. It won't be like being in space or on a zero G simulator, and it may only happen for a brief instant. However, just because heavy objects in the cabin are able to move about if weightless does not mean that they are. If those objects float into you, their weight will feel very real and very painful.
In minor crashes, it makes sense for you to brace for impact the way the little manual on the plane highlights. By protecting your head and spreading out your weight a bit, you are more likely to keep your body intact during a small crash. If you don't have your seatbelt on and aren't braced, your head and limbs will rattle around a lot more. This leads to higher chances of serious head injuries, broken bones, and even death.
However, in a more serious crash where the plane is on fire or there's explore decompression, bracing probably won't help much. In fact, you might not even have time to brace. Whether you're in that turtle position or not, the impact may be enough to sever your spinal column. Or destroy your bones and organs. Or leave you so crippled that you can't get away from the flames or sinking wreckage.
But if you're actually on a crashing plane, it won't hurt to brace because you don't know the magnitude of the crash. And remember to tell anyone who says the position is meant to kill you faster that their information is absolutely false.