Houston MD-87 Crash Survival: Miracle? Or Just Following The Rules?


News editors across the country were champing at the bit when a privately operated McDonnell Douglas MD-87 was reduced to smoldering aluminum and all 21 aboard escaped serious injury. But spoilsport Mary Schiavo, former DOT Inspector General and CNN aviation expert contributor, laid out some facts about survival statistics in airplane accidents, starting with: “It’s not as rare as you think.” In fact, a 17-year NTSB tally of airline accidents (1983 – 2000) found that the survival rate of crashes was 95.7 percent.

The exact cause of this accident remains to be determined. But the basics are that the crew of the corporate-configured MD-87—an aircraft that had not flown for at least nine months—tried to abort their takeoff from 6,610-foot Runway 36 at Houston Executive Airport, skidded over a road, then spun around after hitting power lines and trees. The flight mechanic on board opened the left front cabin door and initiated the evacuation via an inflatable slide. All 18 passengers and three crew members got out quickly. Specifically how quickly is not clear. But it was just in time to escape the flames that subsequently consumed all but the engines and tail feathers of the MD-87.

Schiavo revealed what many considered a miracle as basic common sense. “I’m going to give credit to both the Federal Aviation Administration,” she said, “and the International Civil Aviation Organization, which put in place the evacuation rules, you have to have enough doors and emergency exits on modern planes to get people out.” No miracle, no magic. Just common-sense, lifesaving rules.

She went on to cite three more accidents—a 2005 Air France crash in Toronto, a 2013 Asiana flight that crashed on landing in San Francisco, and an Aeromexico flight in 2018—where technology-based safety features and evacuation protocols saved hundreds of lives each.

Schiavo added to her CNN remarks, “One thing you can say for sure is that the evacuation rule; having an adequate number of aircraft exits; and having materials that don’t immediately catch fire in cabins with more flame-resistant materials without a doubt saves lives. And that’s been well documented.”

She added three more tips for passengers: Sit close to an emergency exit; wear “sensible” shoes; and keep them on your feet, at least during takeoffs and landings. “I see people boarding with flip-flops, and I think, ‘If you have to get up and run and you fall down or you can’t run, you’re not only going to hurt yourself. You’re going to hurt dozens of other people on this plane.’

“So. Get some shoes.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Good running shoes are important.

    Bear was snorting around a tent, preparing to come in for a dinner or two. One camper started putting on his running shoes. Other camper said don’t bother, you can’t out run a bear.

    Camper putting on his shoes said I don’t need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you.

    So too it is when making an emergency egress from a soon to be flaming air plane.

  2. The fact that only 21 people were aboard an airplane designed with emergency exits designed to accommodate well over 100 passengers was probably a major factor in the success of the evacuation.

      • True, Keith. But, in this case, most other exit options would not have been available. The over wing doors would have led right onto the burning wings and the right-hand galley exit would have been tilted into a ditch that probably contained burning jet fuel. Fortunately the normal left-hand boarding door was the best option. In addition to the limited number of people needing to exit, the executive seating arrangement provided a wider exit path than the long, narrow single aisle of a commercial passenger setup. Fewer people, bigger aisle, best outcome.

    • Well noted, Tom.
      Part of my point with this article is the skewed public perception when news video shows a blazing inferno and neglects to mention that it was x amount of time from when the aircraft came to a halt and the evacuation started to when those disaster-movie flames erupted.

      • Based on eyewitness accounts, the flames erupted pretty quickly after the plane came to rest. At least the left wing fuel tanks were probably ruptured when it impacted the trees that caused the plane to swing to the left.

  3. I shudder at fems wearing flipflops while driving.

    Unsafe! I say.

    (I don’t notice many males wearing flipflops, though I tend to watch women more. 😉

    • A bit of an aside, but a friend was in a building near the World Trade Center buildings on 911. One of the most vivid memories he had of the aftermath were the hundreds of women’s high heeled shoes strewn about on the streets around the towers. When the towers came down, the fleeing women literally ran out of their shoes. High heels, flip flops, pretty much the same issue.

  4. It wouldn’t matter what kind of shoes I was wearing because I would never get on a privately owned aircraft that hadn’t flown in more than nine months.

  5. Is anyone else creeped out by the ghoulish and tasteless nature of using this incident to claim glory for the FAA? It just seems in very poor taste to talk about that now – at least to me. Especially distressing since the facts in this case would tend to minimize the validity of this argument. After all – there were 21 people on an aircraft designed for many times that. It’s a bit like rolling a car down a hill with the engine off and saying how much the EAA reduced the emissions.

    • No, Schiavo is a no-nonsense person.

      You could argue that it took an awful lot of cabin fires before the FAA got their act together, but here we are.

      The SFO Asiana fatal accident was very, very troubling. The pax remained in a burning plane for 90 seconds until a flight attendant started the evacuation, as the pilots sat in stunned silence in the cockpit. Another 30 seconds and none of them would have made it out. There’s several other unexpected events in that accident.