Plane Crash Survival: Miracle, or Skill and Science?

Voice of Reason: Attributing the survival of the passengers to a miracle is an insult to the bravery, skill, and experience of the Flight 358 crew.


On Aug. 2, 2005, amid heavy rain and lightning, Air France Flight 358 from Paris, France, to Toronto, Canada, crashed. The plane had attempted to land at least once before but the pilot had pulled away for safety. The plane touched down, and the passengers cheered, forgetting that just because the airplane's wheels hit the tarmac does not mean the flight is over.

The plane struggled to slow down but failed, overshooting the runway by 200 yards and eventually slamming into a ravine. Flames emerged from the aircraft body as the twelve crew members evacuated the 297 passengers.

Most of the passengers were out of the plane in less than a minute, many of them taking time to grab their belongings (a no-no, by the way) and taking photographs of dazed fellow passengers and the smoldering wreckage (these would later be sold to evening news programs). The copilot searched the plane for any remaining passengers and left the wreckage. When the smoke cleared and the passengers were counted, every single person was found to have made it out alive.

Canada's transportation minister, Jean Lapierre, proclaimed that the 100 percent survival rate was "nothing short of a miracle." Passengers, pundits, and the news media quickly adopted the "miracle" tag, with hundreds of headlines touting the miraculous nature of the crash. London's Daily Mail called it "The Miracle of Toronto" and Reuters dubbed it "The Toronto Miracle Crash." Toronto Sun columnist Mike Strobel wrote a piece titled, "Flight 358 was a 2nd miracle," and lamented the news media's overuse of the word miracle.  "In the news game, we use it to death," he wrote.  "Our [Toronto Sun] clipping file lists the word 240 times this year alone and 239 times, it did not fit. Except today. Miracle Flight 358. Paris to Pearson. We all saw that awful black smoke. A funeral pyre, surely .... No one gets out of that alive."

The miracle label was perfect. It was a great news handle and a great silver lining in a dark storm cloud. However, it doesn't fit the circumstances of Flight 358. Aviation experts said that while the outcome of the crash is certainly fortunate, there was little miraculous about it. Mark Rosenker of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), was quoted in an MSNBC article as saying that "There is this myth out there that says if you're involved in a catastrophic aircraft accident the odds are extremely low. [In fact], the odds are extremely high." According to an NTSB study of 568 crashes between 1983 and 2000, only five percent of passengers were killed; the remaining 95 percent escaped unharmed or without life-threatening injuries. In another study of more serious crashes, the odds were better than 50/50 that passengers got out alive. And crashes that occur on the ground, as Flight 358 did, often have very high survival rates.

In Biblical times, miracles seemed truly miraculous: walking on water, turning water into wine, that sort of thing. In modern hyperbole, however, a miracle often simply means "unexpected good fortune" from the labeler's perspective. (Of course, it was not such good fortune that the accident happened in the first place.) Many journalists, preferring sensationalism over statistics, saw the burning metal wreckage and incorrectly assumed the crash was unsurvivable without consulting experts. The traveling public, primed by a fear-mongering news media to assume the worst, dramatically overestimate the dangers of air travel.

The fact that all the passengers survived is almost certainly due to science, skill, and circumstance. Attributing the survival of the passengers to a miracle is an insult to the bravery, skill, and experience of the Flight 358 crew, who trained for years to handle just such emergencies. By all accounts, the Air France crew acted quickly and professionally during the emergency. They made sure that all passengers were buckled in for the landing and evacuated quickly.

The miracle designation also ignores the countless engineering safety measures and devices built into the Airbus A340. After all, the airplane design is the result of decades of safety engineering. With just under a century of commercial flight, airplanes are safer than they ever have been, and remain far safer than autos on the nation's highways. Science helps make aircraft materials stronger and lighter, and crashes more survivable (designing impact-resistant fuel tanks, for example, and flame-snuffing foam).

The 100 percent survival rate on Flight 358 was fortunate and wonderful, but it was not an accident, nor was it a miracle; it was the result of careful preparation, thorough training, sound science, and modern technology.


Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and wrote about exaggerated public threats in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.