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Where to Sit to Survive a Plane Crash

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images(SAN FRANCISCO) -- The harrowing Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport may incite fear in the minds of the millions of Americans who take to the skies every year, but it also proves that even horrific disasters are survivable.

The San Francisco-bound flight was carrying more than 300 people Saturday when crashed on the runway, tore its tail and burst into flames.

Two 16-year-old female students from China were killed, and 181 people were injured in the crash. The injured were being cared for at several hospitals, and at least 22 were in critical condition.

While only one in 1.2 million flights end up in an accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, there are still precautions passengers can take to prepare for emergency situations.

Experts say where you sit on a plane may prove to be the difference between life and death in a crash.

Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich, who has spent more than 25 years analyzing how humans react in emergencies, advised that the seconds before impact are the most dangerous.

"You are responsible for your life," Galea said. "If you know what you're doing, you've got a better chance of surviving."

One flying rule of thumb? Sit as close to an exit as possible.

Galea studied the seating charts of more than 100 plane crashes and interviewed dozens of survivors. He uncovered that survivors move an average of five rows before safely exiting a burning plane. He also found seats in the rear of a plane were generally safer, as were aisle seats.

The survival rate in U.S. plane crashes from 1983 to 2000 was 95 percent, according to the NTSB. But if the plan does crash, it's important to remember to not panic.

"If you haven't thought about what you might do and prepared, the thing becomes overwhelming and you shut down," Galea said. "You can prepare yourself to react appropriately in emergency situations."

Airborne travelers may also want to remember to take time to brace upon impact.

In an ambitious test undertaken in the name of airline safety, a test crash of a Boeing 727 in the Sonoran Desert last year found that bracing for impact increased a passenger's likelihood of surviving a crash.

Discovery TV had a Boeing 727 equipped with more than a half a million dollars worth of crash test dummies, 38 specialized cameras and sensors, and a crew of incredibly daring pilots. The pilots, who'd donned parachutes, bailed out of a hatch in the back of the aircraft minutes before the huge jetliner careered into the ground in a horrific crash that tore the plane apart.

During the crash, which was a belly flop done nose first, passengers near the front bore the brunt of the impact. Rows one through seven held the "fatal" seats -- seat 7A was catapulted straight out of the plane.

The crash was staged as part of the Discovery Channel's Curiousity Plane Crash, a result of four years of planning and consultations to better understand what happens to passengers when an aircraft goes down.

The test crash also revealed other aspects of plane crashes, such as the tremendous amount of debris that could prove deadly to any passenger sitting upright, and how important it was to be able to get out of the plane fast. Generally, sitting within five rows of an exit gave passengers the best odds.

In addition, remembering a simple mathematic formula -- plus three, minus eight -- can boost your survivability factor in the case of an unexpected plane crash.

Most accidents happen within the first three minutes of takeoff or in the eight minutes before landing, according to Ben Sherwood, author of "The Survivors Club -- The Secrets and Science That could Save Your Life" and president of ABC News.

Sherwood said 80 percent of all plane crashes occur during these 11 in-flight minutes. Instead of picking up a magazine or taking your shoes off, it's important to remain alert.

Sherwood advised to have a plan of action in the case of an unexpected crisis.

"If a plane crashes it's very likely that I'm going to survive it, and if I do the right thing, if I pay attention, if I have a plan, if I act, the chances are even better," Sherwood said.

But passengers should remember that not all flights are bound for peril.

The aviation industry has taken strides to protect passengers in emergency situations. Stronger seats, improved flame retardant plane parts and better firefighting techniques following a crash have contributed to increasing the time for passengers to make a safe escape.

"Riding on a commercial airplane has got about the same amount of risk as riding on an escalator," MIT International Center for Air Transportation Director John Hansman Jr. told ABC News.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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