Let’s dispel some myths: Ditching done well is not all that dangerous. My recent ditching was devoid of actual trauma. Most people—about 90 percent—survive a ditching, and those who don’t are usually the ones who did not take basic steps to prepare. Some recent incidents and my own experience demonstrate ditching usually is very survivable and taking a few precautions can greatly enhance the possibility of a favorable outcome.
The average pilot training syllabus contains little or no information on this important maneuver. Instead, the usual focus is on gliding to a safe landing on land, as if the mere presence of terra firma automatically presents the pilot with better options to get down safely. It often does not. Sometimes ditching is the best option, even if land is nearby. A recent tragedy in Florida makes this point: The pilot of an airplane with a failed engine glided to the beach and landed near inshore. He and a passenger survived, but tragically, he struck and killed two beach goers in the water. He told the NTSB he was worried about flipping over if he ditched in deeper water.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Those of us who frequently fly along the coast of Southern California can easily become complacent about the possibility of ditching, but we are not alone. Conversations with pilots on the East Coast show that they often fall prey to the same “disease.” A quick jaunt from Long Island to the mainland at any number of points can last less than 20 minutes, just barely enough time for an engine to fail. Those who fly coastal Alaska find themselves in similar situations every day, as do those based on or near one of the Great Lakes. And it’s usually a lot quicker to Key West if you don’t mind being out of gliding distance for a while.
Some of these pilots are well-prepared to ditch and others are not. In coastal communities, the FAA often sponsors good courses on ditching and water survival that are full of valuable information, but the average pilot may never get any exposure to this knowledge unless he or she seeks it out.
Once the airplane soils the bed, the urge to get to land is strong and the fear of ditching often even stronger, thanks to years of misinformation and hangar-flying talk of how likely one is to die as a result. It is hard to think clearly in a situation such as this, especially if there is no prior training to dispel the myths that seem to develop in its absence.
What you need to safely ditch varies with how far away from help you are and how cold the water is, but a few basic items apply across the board. Each person should wear a personal flotation device (PFD). There are compact and comfortable ones available from pilot shops and boating supply stores. The best ones can be inflated with the pull of a tab after exiting the aircraft. Avoid automatic-inflating vests that activate by contact with water. Water often floods inside the cockpit after ditching and could inflate the PFD before you can get out. An inflated vest will make it much more difficult to exit the aircraft. A good rule is to wear a PFD anytime you fly over water, even if it is only for a few minutes.
A raft is a very good idea in most cases unless the water temperature is mild and the possibility of getting rescued quickly is high. We ditched in 58-degree (F) water in a heavily traveled area where the Los Angeles County lifeguards were able to respond within 10 minutes. Even in that short time, my passenger was starting to shake from the water temperature. Response time in a less well-traveled area could easily be two or three hours, or more.
A personal locator beacon attached to your belt or at least to your raft could save your life. My plane was instantly submerged up to the bottom of its wings, making my 406 ELT useless. The whole plane was under water in less than an hour. Luckily I was in contact with ATC right up to the time of impact, so what happened and where was never an issue. This good fortune will obviously not apply to everyone.
Long flights over cold water call for wearing a survival suit. These are bulky and uncomfortable, but they can keep you alive for hours, even in hostile climates. If you contemplate a flight in these conditions, do your homework on cold water survival techniques and equipment.
Make a Plan
The most important piece of ditching gear you have is your brain, which is best used long before ditching becomes an immediate concern. Use it to plan how to minimize your exposure to the possibility of a water landing by laying out the shortest practical route over water, and fly as high as you can to lengthen your gliding distance.
I could have done better on both counts, but it may not have made any difference based on where my engine failed. However, under slightly different circumstances it might have. Make contingency plans to deal with engine failure at various points along your flight path. Have some idea of where you would turn to get to a safe landing spot. Even though there is a natural instinct to press on, the best landing spot may be behind you or off to one side. If you have a plan, you can make the right move quickly and not waste gliding range while fretting over what to do.
By the way, know what your plane’s best glide speed is and memorize it. Don’t forget that the wind can have a significant effect on your gliding range in certain directions. Gliding into a headwind versus with a tailwind can make the difference between getting to a safe landing spot or not. Check the wind before you fly and include it in your preflight planning decisions.
Think about safe landing spots as you fly, but especially as you fly over water. During my primary flight training, my instructors often talked about making it back to land, as though that was all I needed to worry about. However, the Catalina (Calif.) Airport (KAVX), my destination, sits up on a cliff at 1600 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Making it to land at the base of that cliff does not present a pilot with a safe landing spot. Making it back to the beach on the mainland is also unlikely to provide a safe landing spot for those of us in Southern California, because there are always people on the beach. What that may mean is that your safest landing spot is in the water.
In The Water
There seems to be an inordinate fear of ditching, which is largely unjustified. There are planes and water conditions in which ditching is a perilous exercise, but not in most cases. In my case, I had plenty of time to think about the water landing, after having my engine quit at 6500 feet at the exact spot where all possible dry landing spots were equally just out of range. After several failed attempts at restarting the engine, it was apparent we were going swimming. At that point the old admonition, “Fly the plane,” came to mind.
The steps are pretty simple: trim to best glide speed. Next, turn to your best course to a safe landing spot. For me that meant finding a boat within gliding range and heading for it, thus ensuring a short stay in the water. Then call on the radio and get some help headed your way. That was easy. Catalina CTAF was already dialed in. They gave me the frequency for SoCal Approach, so I turned my transponder to 7700 and gave them a call. They in turn alerted Los Angeles County lifeguards, who do the rescue work in the Catalina Channel. The rest was just a matter of waiting out the descent. On the way down I verified the wind and checked out the sea conditions. Luckily the sea was calm with no noticeable swell. Landing parallel to the swell is of paramount concern, but with that not a factor landing into the wind took precedence.
The glide worked out pretty well. We were at about 1000 feet when we passed over the boat. I circled once and landed about 200 yards in front of them. Once I turned into the wind, I slowed to 30 knots—about 1.1 VSO in my Cub. That gave me a manageable sink rate and a nose-up attitude that I simply maintained until hitting the water. The plane pitched forward on contact but didn’t go over. A torrent of water rushed in through the doors we had opened earlier. The cabin was full of water in seconds, but we remained upright. My passenger, as we had briefed, exited first. After a few seconds of collecting myself, I released my harness and swam to the surface. Within five minutes we were in the boat. Los Angeles County lifeguards arrived about five minutes later and took us to the clinic in Avalon just to check us out and give us some dry clothes.
Luck or Skill?
The big question is, did my experience represent something that most pilots could duplicate, or did I just get lucky? We were in a heavily traveled area where rescue crews were continuously in the water and available to help. That is lucky, but my complacency came in part from knowing that. I am now much more attuned to the possibility that I might not be as lucky next time.
The engine failed at the worst possible point in the flight. That was just bad luck, but I could have done more to minimize my exposure to that possibility. A higher crossing altitude, a shorter path over water, and a better plan to get to a safe landing spot should have been part of my preflight planning, and will be in the future.
The calmness and focus to fly the plane and make the best of a bad situation are my strongest claims to skill over luck. My seaplane rating helped, as did my familiarity with and currency in the plane. These are not great skills, but things that anyone can acquire. The ability to simply fly the plane and not get overwhelmed with the situation was probably as important as anything else to bring about a good outcome.
In one sense, it is simply good luck to have such a personality, but training and practicing can bring extra confidence to any pilot. Time practicing these things alone, or even better, with an instructor, is time well spent and available to anyone. Wearing a PFD and having one available for my passenger was anything but luck. It was a decision I made long ago for whenever I fly over water. I was glad I did.
Lastly, the calm sea was in a sense good luck, but whether or not to fly over rough or cold water is completely under your control, just as it is whether or not to fly at night, too. If ditching is a possibility and ditching conditions are not favorable, just don’t go.
If flying over water is in your plans, be prepared. Have the right gear. Make a plan for that trip that includes options to glide to safe landing spots if you can. If ditching is a possibility, be prepared to ditch properly.
You can’t exactly practice ditching, but you can take classes and you can practice simulated engine failure. You can even get a seaplane rating. All of these things give you more skill and confidence to deal with a ditching if it ever becomes necessary.
Mostly, don’t panic. Ditching is usually very survivable. Then staying alive until you are rescued is simply a factor of how well-prepared you are.
Dave Prizio is a California-based instrument-rated ASEL/ASES private pilot with about 1800 hours.