Guam air disaster: Count the rows to the exit

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The Independent Online
The sight of survivors being pulled from the wreckage of a Boeing 747 in Guam will make many passengers wonder: where are the safest seats on a jumbo? writes Randeep Ramesh.

Conventional wisdom is that the rear of the plane is the safest place to sit. It is usually here that the black box flight recorders are found, and this would be the area furthest from impact in a jet crashing nose- first.

The rear was certainly the place to be in the world's worst aircraft disaster involving only one plane. This occurred when a Japan Air Lines 747 crashed into Mount Osutaka, killing all but four of the 524 passengers. All the survivors had seats at the back of the plane.

Most crashes, however, do not result in nose dives. This week's disaster saw only the tail section left relatively intact. The rest of the fuselage had broken into more than six major chunks of metal. The first-class elevated section came to rest more than 25 metres from the rest of the plane. The middle section was gutted by fire and the 30 survivors were found in the back, and right at the front of the aircraft.

In theory the strongest parts of an aircraft are above the main spar which runs through the fuselage supporting the wings.

Experts also use a "survivability" index to gauge how many people would escape in a crash. "This is affected by many things," says Stephen Barlay, author of The Final Call: Air Safety and Aviation Accidents. "For example, how many people count the number of seats to the nearest exit? This may be important if you cannot see ... because of the thick smoke in the cabin."

Mr Barlay said that choosing where to sit may indeed determine survival. Aisle seats offer easy exit routes and are the most likely to be bolted down firmly.