Moments after a United Airlines DC-10 crashed at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, passengers seated in its front coach section ran to safety. More than 100 others, many in the first-class and tail sections, perished.
Yet aviation safety experts said in interviews since the crash that it would be wrong to conclude that the mid-section is the safest part of an airliner. Although the wing and tail sections generally offer more security than other parts of an airliner, they added, survival in a crash ultimately has more to do with the nature of the accident than the location of a passenger's seat.
Daniel T. Smith, an airline safety advocate who has studied data from countless airline accidents, said survival in a crash depends on which part of the plane hits the ground first, how the aircraft breaks apart and whether it catches fire.
"You tell me what kind of accident you are going to have, and I'll tell you where to sit," said Smith, director of government and industry affairs for the International Airline Passengers Assn. in Dallas.
A number of aviation experts said a combination of remarkable circumstances apparently helped save the lives of 185 of the 296 passengers aboard United Flight 232. Flying virtually out of control due to loss of its hydraulic system, the DC-10 hit the runway wing first and cartwheeled. The aircraft's nose and tail took the force of the crash. The front portion of the mid-section, spared much of the impact as the plane tumbled, was less heavily damaged.
The aircraft broke apart near Row 9 and Row 19, allowing passengers to dash out of the openings in the fuselage. The wings--containing the aircraft's fuel tanks--broke off in the crash, keeping the fire a small but critical distance from the mid-section.
The flight crew was spared, experts said, because the DC-10's nose broke away from the first-class section behind it, where many passengers died.
The passengers had been told by the flight crew that a crash landing was possible, so their seat belts were fastened and their heads were buried between their knees in the "crash position," placing them "in the best possible situation to survive that kind of landing," said Richard H. Wood, a professor of aviation safety at USC.
A change in any of these conditions--for example, if the aircraft had landed nose-first--undoubtedly would have altered the outcome, experts say. "Every crash is a unique event. There is no logic in trying to predict which section will remain and which will collapse," said John J. Nance, a former Braniff Airways pilot who wrote the bestseller, "Blind Trust: How Deregulation Has Jeopardized Airline Safety."
Nance pointed out, for example, that only the passengers seated in the tail section survived when a Delta Airlines L-1011 crashed while attempting to land at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport during a thunderstorm in August, 1985. The aircraft unexpectedly hit the ground north of the runway, smashed a car and two water towers, broke apart and burned. Thirty of the 165 passengers aboard lived.
Nance and other safety experts said most passengers select their seat locations for convenience rather than safety. When he flies, Nance chooses an aisle seat, but not to make a quick emergency exit. Instead, he said, an aisle seat makes it easier for him to grab his carry-on baggage and leave the plane "without having to climb over some linebacker to get out."
Similarly, Smith of the passengers' association likes to sit in an aisle seat near the front exit, not because he would be the first out in an emergency, but because he likes the extra leg room.
Sara Dornacker, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, said many passengers request seats near the wing because they think that location provides a smoother ride through turbulence. While passengers tend not to request particular seats for safety reasons, she said that since the Sioux City crash, about 400 United customers have asked not to be booked on DC-10s. Passengers who wish to avoid a DC-10 can do so, she said, but they will sometimes have to make an additional connecting flight before reaching their destination.
Dornacker said United believes that it is impossible to say that one seat location in an airliner is safer than another.
While safety experts agree that the outcome of a crash is unpredictable, some of them say that the wing and tail sections offer advantages over other parts of a plane. Wayne Williams, a safety advocate with National Transportation Safety Assn. and a former Eastern Airlines executive, says the rear of the airplane is the safest--unless of course the plane crashes on its tail.
"As a generalization, I think it's true," said Williams, also a former Air Force accident investigator. "I've been flying since the 1940s, and I've seen an awful lot of tails intact, and not much else."
USC's Wood said the rear is theoretically safer because when a plane crashes, everything inside it is thrown forward.