Ready to Ditch

Few are ready for ditching, but a little simulation cant hurt. Dont fly over water? Dont bet on it


By Jim Opalka

In the summer of 2001, the pilot of a Pilatus PC-12 and three passengers were flying from Japan to Russia when the single-engine turboprop experienced an engine failure. The pilot ditched the airplane in the Sea of Okhotsk in the western Pacific and the four occupants rode out the eight-12-foot seas in a life raft for 15 hours before being rescued.

For the occupants of the Pilatus, the ditching was as clean as it could get. They exited the airplane right into the raft. No extricating themselves from an inverted and flooded fuselage. No painful swim through icy waters to climb shivering into the raft.

Most pilots who ditch their airplanes are not so lucky, and for those who routinely fly around water it makes sense to go through a dunk tank so youre better prepared if it happens.

Dont fly over water? More than 80 percent of the airports on the east coast of the U.S. have at least one runway that launches or lands over water. Water, of course, makes no distinction as to whether it is off the Russian coastline or just beyond the calming shore of an idyllic vacation lake on a sunny Sunday. You are still in the drink and have to get out of the airplane.

Ditching simulation has some merit, particularly if you go beyond sitting in some dry dock where pilots spend a few hours pretending to be in an emergency-ditching scenario.

We went through a program at Survival Systems Training in Groton, Conn., where ditching survival meant a 100,000-gallon pool of water where you spend some valuable learning time strapped in, inverted and submerged in a mock up chopper or fixed wing.

Survival Systems Training has instructed Air Guard pilots and flight crews belonging to Philip Morris Co., Textron, the FBI and Jimmy Buffet. (For an interesting first-person account of a real life ditching, see Buffets book, A Pirate Looks at 50)

The strapped-in submersion is done in what is known as a modular egress training simulator. It is an 18-foot-long steel fuselage that plunges pilots and crew into a 14-foot pool of water. Hydraulics permit the operator of the system to determine angle of approach, impact and final resting status of the craft.

The crewmember hits the water with a bang after harnessing into the METS. It takes less than three seconds for over six tons of water to envelope them while simultaneously the aircraft begins to pitch and roll to the inverted. Theres also the shock of the cold water that creates what is called the gasp response, which limits your ability to hold your breath.

These along with other disorienting sensations make it clear that there is a lot to learn about ditching and surviving. The instructors and environment get your attention real fast.

The pilots in training are first taught in a classroom situation what to expect – literally a dry run. Adding to the inevitable cold water are disorientation, the abrupt pull against the safety belt, and struggling to determine whether youre right side up when the motion of the METS stops.

Smoke or fire may add to the reality of the simulated scenario. At times its done in total darkness, because the water or a fuel spill might make it impossible for you to open you eyes while submerged.

Ditch This
In any ditching – simulated or not, there are some important things to keep in mind. In addition to the obvious stress and psychological strain, there are a few simple but life-saving tips to remember. First, as you prepare to ditch, keep your legs, head and arms from thrashing around.

Once you ditch wait for the pressure to equalize before you begin your escape. Simulation helps here. Each trainee must know exactly where to find the latch.

If you miss it on the first try, dont start groping. It will tend to make you more prone to panic. Start over again from the point you rehearsed – your knee, for example – and again to follow your leg to the latch area of the door.

Also during this stage of training it is important to remember to keep yourself oriented in the aircraft.

If you are usually facing forward, that is the way to stay during your escape. If the aircraft is inverted, it might seem convenient to place your feet on the roof. It is not a good idea.

Keep your feet on the floor and youll have a much better chance of knowing where you are relative to other familiar aircraft parts.

Once you have gone over the routine in both a classroom and a 100,000-gallon tank, you wont be quite as surprised if your flivver suddenly becomes an amphibian. This knowledge before the fact, is what staves off panic and saves lives. But you can make some serious, even fatal mistakes for yourself and others if you stop at the class work and tank time.

Safety Gear
Theres no doubt about it, once youre out of the aircraft you may find yourself in a very difficult and unfriendly environment. After the ditching and egress, the most important factor to surviving in the new and hostile environment is motivation and a positive mental attitude. They say it is 80 percent of the battle.

The remaining 20 percent of the survival falls under the category of proper equipment, how to use it; what to do and when to do it. In these areas Survival Systems Training excels in that, no matter what youre flying.

To really maximize your chances, you have to have safety specifically stowed in the aircraft for a ditching emergency. However, even if you have the best safety equipment money can buy, it is important to be familiar with the proper techniques for using the devices.

Brief your passengers on the importance of not inflating a life vest until out of the airplane. Ditto the raft. Know how to deploy the raft and board it properly.

You wont know until it happens what you may have to do to survive. Chances are at some point youll have to climb into a raft, ship, rescue sling or some makeshift device depending on the circumstances.

Those are not likely to be skills that you have practiced, so a little hands-on work helps you understand why, for example, you should enter a rescue basket feet first.

If you arent in a raft for whatever reason and are bobbing up and down in cold water, you will need to curl up in a fetal position to conserve your body heat. Hypothermia sets in quickly in virtually all ocean waters, unless youre in the South Pacific.

Also, think about the little things, such as how helicopter rescue pilots frown on being shot at with flare guns by pilots who dont know how to use them properly during the rescue. About how you really dont want to do anything once youre in the raft that will jeopardize your chances of remaining in a fully inflated raft.

Whether you fly over the Great Lakes, along coastal waters or even in areas where bodies of water are limited to rivers, the furthest thing from your mind is likely to be survival training.

But if the airplane decides to become a boat, that survival training may make the difference, whether youre in a Pilatus or a Cub on floats.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “After the Ditching.”
Click here to view “Survival Systems Dunk Tank.”
Click here to view “In the Drink.”

Jim Opalka is a CFII and aviation writer. He flies out of Butler County (BTP) Butler, Pa.


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