The Myths of Ditching

Contrary to what you may have heard, the best emergency landing site may be the water

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If you fly much over the water – even over wide bays and rivers – youve had to quell the uneasiness that arises when the engine goes into auto rough mode the instant youre beyond gliding range of shore. Not to worry; its not just you.

The prospect of going into the water in an airplane terrifies most pilots, chiefly because few prepare for it and, in general, instructors dont know enough about the relevant risks to make well-informed judgments about overwater flying.

As a result, certain myths and half-truths about ditching seem to persist, handed down from one pilot to the next who read something or knows someone who knew someone who vanished without a trace in Lake Michigan on a fine sunny day after a botched ditching.

The truth is, overall, ditching is one of the most survivable emergency procedures any pilot can perform, according to a review of ditching accidents in 1985 through 1990 and 1994 and 1996. Although survival rates vary by time of year and water body type, the overall general aviation ditching survival rate is 90 percent and if you ignore blue water ferry operations, fatalities are actually quite rare.

That said, heres a disclaimer: NTSB data is occasionally incomplete or inaccurate. Its quite possible that some ditchings go unreported since lost aircraft arent always recovered, although theres no reason to think that a large number are unreported. On the other hand, theres no reason to believe that an unreported ditching wasnt successful either. The usual grain-of-salt advice applies. In any case, we think the accident record is accurate enough to draw some broad conclusions.

In reviewing the accident data, we ignored accidents which appeared to be water crashes, high speed impacts, stall/spins or spirals, focusing only on intentional water landings in which the aircraft touches down under control.

With this in mind, the NTSBs database revealed 179 bonafide ditchings during the eight years we examined. These records led to some interesting discoveries, which should take some of the terror out of overwater flying.

The 10 myths of ditchings, in no particular order:

Myth 1: Most Ditchings Arent Survivable
If you believe this, youve been led seriously astray. Of the 179 ditchings reviewed, 22 (12 percent) involved fatalities. And in at least six of those ditchings, there were one or more survivors.

By the way, were defining surviving as egressing the airplane and being rescued or swimming to shore. If the occupants got out but then drowned or succumbed to exposure, that goes into the fatals column. Sometimes survivors escape unscathed, sometimes they get away with minor or serious injuries. (More on that later.)

In four of the ditchings that involved fatalities, all of the occupants got out of the airplane alive but some may have succumbed to drowning or exposure later. This becomes less a ditching issue than a survival equipment consideration.

Where and when you ditch matters. Two-thirds of the 22 occurred during the winter in cold or temperate climates and 12 percent are what we call blue water ditchings in the open Atlantic or Pacific, done by ferry pilots on extraordinary missions in light singles or twins or fish spotters operating far from shore.

Since ferry missions are really beyond the ken of everyday general aviation operations, throwing these operations out of the equation pushes the survival rate to an encouraging 90 percent.

Myth 2: Ditching is Safer in a Low Wing Than a High Wing Airplane
You wont convince us of that. Of the 179 ditchings, 87 involved high wing airplanes (49 percent), 73 were low wingers (41 percent) and the rest were helos.

Yet in the subgroup that involved fatalities, high wing airplanes were noticeably underepresented. Although they were involved in 49 percent of all the ditchings, they represent only 27 percent of the fatalities. On the other hand, low wing airplanes represent 41 percent of the total ditchings but accounted for 68 percent of the fatalities.

We dont make a great deal of this finding, other than to note that it doesnt at all support the widely held notion that high wing airplanes sink to their struts and trap the occupants. If high wing airplanes are more difficult to get out of in the water – and thats debatable – it certainly doesnt keep people from getting out of them.

Myth 3: During Ditchings, Many Airplanes Nose Under and Sink Like a Submarine With All Hands
Pure poppycock. Thats not to say this cant happen or that it hasnt. But it appears to occur only in extreme circumstances.

For example, in one blue water accident, a ferry pilot eastbound from Canada to Europe in a Cessna 210 planned a fuel stop in Greenland but had to push on to Iceland due to poor winter weather. He ran low on fuel and had to ditch in the Atlantic at night, with 35-knot winds and high seas. Despite having rendezvoused with a C-130 SAR patrol which lighted the ocean with flares, the Centurion disappeared without a trace, taking pilot and co-pilot with it. Similarly, a couple of other ferry flights vanished over the horizon far out at sea after reporting engine trouble.

But these arent the sort of conditions youd expect to encounter on an afternoon flight to the Bahamas or Santa Catalina. In such circumstances, theres simply no evidence that the airplane will head straight for the bottom during a ditching thats pulled off reasonably well. The accident record shows that the touchdown may be violent and wet, but not likely a scene from Run Silent, Run Deep.

Myth 4: An Open Ocean Ditching is Unlikely to be Survivable
Not really. During the eight years studied, we found 22 blue water ditchings. These are long-range ferry flights over the Atlantic or Pacific or fish spotters operating far from shore.

We found four fatalities in this group of 22, for a survival rate of 82 percent, not too much worse than it is for inshore ditchings.

Admittedly, its quite possible that aircraft went missing with no reports filed. It happens. We simply dont know how often it happens. Even if we missed a dozen such accidents, the key point remains unchanged: The Coast Guard, Navy and merchant vessels routinely fish pilots from the ocean. No doubt blue water ditchings are higher risk, but they certainly dont pose a grim survival outlook, either.

Myth 5: Ditch a Retractable With the Gear Up
This one has sparked more hangar arguments than debating over pitch and power. Heres our view: It probably doesnt make much difference. Or, put another, if you think it does, show us some data.

The best you can do is to examine the big picture: Irrespective of aircraft configuration, its clear that the pilots and crew almost always get out of the airplane after impact. Conclusion: It may not matter much.

From films of live ditchings and interviews with survivors, our impression is that most airplanes dont flip, but dig in one wing, turn and settle upright or settle straight ahead with a bit of nose under moment. But we simply dont have enough reliable information to judge this. Make your own assessment and configure the airplane accordingly.

More critical than configuration, in our view, is touching down parallel to the swells or, if that isnt an issue in calmer water, flying upwind to yield the lowest possible touchdown speed.

Worth noting is that 9 of the 22 fatal ditchings involved retractables. As with the high wing versus low wing controversy, these numbers are too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Myth 6: The Airplane Wont Float Long Enough for Everyone To Get Out
Another thing pilots worry about but shouldnt. While you dont want to dally around collecting your personal belongings, theres usually plenty of time to egress a sinking airplane. In some cases, theres time enough to exit and reach back in to retrieve survival gear or other items.

Again, the record doesnt show how long the typical airplane floats after a ditching. Indeed, there appear to be too many variables to even hazard a guess at what typical is, if there is such a thing. Some airplanes float for only a minute or two, others are still adrift two days later. The important thing to remember is that crew and pax dont hang around to observe buoyancy potential, they evacuate – and with a great deal of success.

One fear thats largely unfounded is that of going down with the ship. True, as mentioned above, there are instances of this in extreme conditions, but these are rare. Overall, out of 179 ditchings, there were only seven in which the occupants didnt escape and three of these were high wave conditions in the open sea.

In one of the stranger accidents, the bodies of two people were found pinned in a Piper Aztec that ditched off the Florida coast at night. Investigators were quite certain that the bales of marijuana that shifted forward from the back seat had something to do with the outcome.

In the another case of potentially trapped occupants we found, a CFI and his student ditched a Cessna 152 off Long Beach, Calif., after the engine quit. The student couldnt open her door or release her seatbelt but the CFI got her extricated from the right side. They treaded water for 15 minutes before being picked up by a boat.

Myth 7: Ditching Successfully Requires a Great Deal of Skill
Probably not. Pilots of all skill levels seem to put airplanes into the water and survive the experience none the worse for wear.

Five of the ditching incidents we reviewed involved student pilots on solo flights who presumably had no ditching training at all and very little flight experience. (For that matter, even seasoned pilots generally dont have so much as an orientation on ditching. A show of hands for those who have even read the section in the AIM describing safe ditching procedures.)

Myth 8: A Raft, Survival Suit and Other Equipment Is Required to Survive a Ditching
Its difficult or impossible to tell from the accident summaries how well the pilots and crews are equipped for overwater flight. In our estimation, however, most pilots are poorly equipped. Some carry personal flotation devices, far fewer carry rafts and other survival gear. In 179 accidents, we found PFDs mentioned five times and rafts mentioned four times.

Yet as the overall record shows, pilots somehow muddle through anyway. This is certainly due in part to the fact that the majority of ditchings, 64 percent, occur in inshore waters – along an ocean beach, in a sheltered bay not far from land or even a lake, river, pond or canal. Many of these ditching sites are within sight of land or boats and the egressing pilots and crew are able to swim to shore or are quickly picked up by helpful boaters.

But is swimming for it really a good idea? Logically, we would say no but the record suggests the opposite may sometimes be true, depending on the circumstances. In 13 of the 179 ditchings, pilots and crew successfully rescued themselves by swimming to shore or, in two cases, oil platforms. In five cases, occupants attempting to swim for it drowned or succumbed to exposure, although other occupants from the same aircraft survived.

If theres any pattern to any of these ditchings, it emerges at this juncture: Eight of the 179 ditchings involved banner tow pilots who put it into the drink off a beach, extricated themselves and swam or waded ashore. Every one survived, leading us to the conclusion that even though the touchdown may be violent and unpleasant, surviving it well enough to swim for it is highly likely.

Does this then support the argument that you really dont need survival gear? We think not. At minimum, a personal flotation device for each occupant – plus an extra or two – is cheap insurance in any airplane, even those based in the landlocked desert. Although you may not fly any serious overwater legs, youll still have brief exposure over rivers, bays, lakes and along ocean shores. PFDs improve the already good odds of survival.

Obviously, you dont need a survival suit to cross Long Island Sound but theres little question that a raft of some sort greatly improves survival odds. A raft does two important things: It gets the occupants out of the water, thus reducing hypothermia risk and it vastly improves the probability of detection when search and rescue comes looking.

The accident record is unclear on how long the typical rescue takes. Sometimes its mere minutes, other times hours or even overnight. One pilot drifted in his PFD for 25 hours near Hawaii after ditching a Grumman. Lucky for him his friends notified authorities, for he hadnt filed a flight plan nor was he talking to ATC when his engine quit.

We found at least five accidents in which a raft or PFDs would have made the difference between surviving and not surviving.

One example occurred on September 11, 1987, when a Cherokee on an IFR flight plan ran out of gas and ditched into Long Island Sound. Both the pilot and passenger escaped uninjured and after a time in the water, the pilot decided to swim for shore while the passenger clung to an offshore structure. The pilot drowned and the passenger was rescued three hours later. Theres little question that a raft would have favorably altered this outcome.

Theres also a subtle wake up call here: Even for an airplane on an IFR flight plan, search and rescue may be slow in coming. That doesnt appear to happen often, but it does happen. This argues for being prepared to provide for yourself, including equipment to remain afloat and to signal SAR when it does arrive. When youre adrift in the water, you are on your own and its better to have too much survival gear than none at all.

One last comment on survival equipment: Its not sufficient to merely stow the stuff in the airplane and forget about it until its needed. A minimal safety briefing of some sort – just as the airlines do – is a must. An example of why this is so is illustrated by a bizarre accident which occurred in November of 1990, when a Cessna 172 pilot became disoriented off the Florida coast and ran out of fuel. He found a ship, circled it and ditched near it.

The Cessna was laudably equipped with both PFDs and a four-man liferaft. Unfortunately, one of the passengers inflated the raft inside the airplane, a calamity worse than the ditching itself. The passenger punctured the raft before exiting the airplane, thus rendering it useless. Furthermore, even though the flight was in distress, the pilot didnt brief the occupants on PFD use and they were unable to find and don the vests. Two of the passengers survived, the pilot and another passenger died, although its unclear whether they drowned after egressing or went down with the airplane.

Myth 9: I Fly a Twin; I Dont Need to Worry About Ditching
Tell that to the pilots of 29 multi-engine airplanes that went into the water in the years we studied. These represent 16 percent of all the ditchings. Of course, many twin pilots shut one down over the water and make it safely to shore without bothering to report the incident.

One crude way of measuring the multi-engine ditching risk is to examine the total fleet numbers measured against reported accidents. According to the FAA, the GA fleet was composed of about 169,200 powered airplanes, as of 1997. That includes pistons, turboprops and jets but not gliders, lighter than air or experimental aircraft.

The vast majority – 85 percent – are single engine airplanes, the remaining 15 percent are multi-engine airplanes. At a glance, it would appear that multi-engine airplanes ditch at a rate equal to their representation in the overall aircraft population.

Of course, the flaw in this reasoning is that multi-engine pilots may – and probably do – fly over water more readily than do their single-engine brethren, reasoning that the extra engine gives them a safety edge. This would mean that their actual exposure to the overwater risk is greater as a group than it is for single-engine pilots.

The important thing to know, however, is that multi-engine airplanes simply arent immune to the ditching scenario and thus pilots need to carry the same safety equipment that single-engine pilots should.

Also worth noting is why the twins wound up in the water: On the 29 which ditched, 13 appeared to be bonafide mechanical problems in which engines quit for what appeared to be failures of some kind. Again, the blue water crowd is at greater risk. Eight of these incidents involved long range ferry jobs and in five of these ditchings, the pilot was unable to maintain altitude after shutting an engine down because the airplane was legally overgross with excess fuel for ferry. In that sense, the ferry pilot suffers a unique risk; until hes burned off most of his fuel, having a second engine does him no good.

In general, a ditching induced by fuel exhaustion is the province of single-engine pilots but twin drivers are hardly immune. Five of the 29 multi-engine ditchings were the result of fuel exhaustion compared to 45 fuel exhaustion or mismanagement incidents among singles.

Myth 10: A Ditched Helicopter Sinks Like a Stone
If this is true, it doesnt seem to effect survival rates. Our research turned up 19 helicopter ditchings, some in challenging conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. These produced only one fatality and in that case, the pilot drowned while swimming to shore.

Two interesting observations relative to helos: They tend not to run out of gas but to break. Half of the helo splashes involved known mechanical failures, four involved fuel contamination but none involved fuel exhaustion. Second, helos involved in overwater operations are frequently equipped with skid floats. In at least three cases, these floats failed to inflate as pilots fluttered toward the water in autorotation. Nonetheless, pilots and crew survived the ditchings, which may involve rollovers or pitchpoling as the rotor blades strike the water and dissipate energy in unpredictable ways.

Some Conclusions
Because ditching accident details are wanting, drawing incontrovertible conclusions from a review of accidents is tricky business. But one thing is certain: Landing an airplane in the water under control is a highly survivable experience that appears to take very little skill, experience or preparation. Nine out of 10 pilots who attempt it succeed, even when ditching offshore in the ocean.

Given this high rate of success, it makes sense to carry at least basic floatation in every airplane, not just those which venture over water or coastal areas. If you ever find yourself afloat in a river or even a pond – and many pilots have – a device as simple and cheap as a personal flotation device will greatly improve your already good odds of surviving.

The need for a raft is less compelling for aircraft operated in inland areas. But we consider it must equipment for forays over the Great Lakes, to the Caribbean and along coastal and inshore areas. This is especially true in temperate or cold climates, where pilots and crew might exit a sinking airplane safely only to die of hypothermia awaiting rescue. Obviously, over-ocean ferry flights need far more specialized equipment and anyone contemplating such a flight should seek professional assistance.

Having search and rescue close at hand improves survival odds. The best way to do this is to file and fly on an IFR flight plan. Nothing quite gets the attention of the SAR apparatus faster than a radioed mayday call followed by loss of radar contact. The next best SAR insurance is radar traffic advisories while operating VFR. VFR flight plans and relative notification are also useful but since your position wont be known, the search may take time.

Of course, the best strategy is to avoid going into the water in the first place. Dont run out of gas and make sure the gas you have isnt fouled with water or other debris. A third of all ditchings are caused by fuel exhaustion, mismanagement or contamination. These are absolutely avoidable.

Second, use carburetor heat when you suspect icing. Time and time again, aircraft are fished out of the water with no apparent mechanical faults, strongly suggesting that carb ice is the culprit.

Mechanical failures are listed as the cause in nearly as many ditchings – about 25 percent – as is fuel exhaustion but were skeptical of making too much of this. Many ditched aircraft arent recovered, so investigators have to take the pilots word for what happened. Its not that we dont trust pilots, but absent an examination of the air filled tanks, few are willing to admit running an airplane out of gas.

Finally, if you take away no other wisdom from this examination of ditchings, know this: All things considered, when faced with the choice of landing on the water or impacting trees, rocks or other rough surfaces, the water is more likely to be survivable. Where this might come into play is during an emergency landing where youre confronted with the choice of a beach, lake or river, or a wooded area. No contest; the water wins.

The pilot of a Mustang flying from Florida to Texas in January of 1990 faced this very dilemma. Arriving in the Galveston area in deteriorating weather and with minimum fuel, he attempted two instrument approaches but didnt break out. Realizing he lacked the fuel for another try, he elected to ditch the airplane in the Gulf of Mexico.

True, the NTSB spanked him for failing to plan the flight properly and he threw away a perfectly good – and rare – warbird. But in the end, he lived to fly another day. If theres a bottom line on this topic, thats it.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Ya Gotta Hate It When…”
Click here to view ditching charts.

-by Paul Bertorelli

Paul Bertorelli, a CFII and ATP, is editor of The Aviation Consumer and is an organizer of the Cayman Caravan.

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