Another Successful Ditching
Last weeks ditching of a Cessna 310 13 miles off the coast of Hawaii's big island, had the local press tittering about the pilot's steely nerves and what an amazing thing it all was. Ho-hum. Wake me up when the movie is over. The fact is, ditchings happen all the time and the vast majority of them are successful, with everyone surviving. (Maybe more interesting is how the fuel calculations went wrong. As the 310 flies, 13 miles is about five minutes; less in the descent. We'll see what pithy comments the NTSB has when then investigation is complete.)
The accident reminded me to review the data I've been collecting for years on ditching accidents. I got interested in the topic when Ross Russo and I were organizing the Cayman Caravan 20 years ago. We were trying to brief pilots on how to equip for overwater flights, but to do that, you have to understand the nature of the risk. Without going into great detail, for warm water ditchings—by warm, I mean where survival in the water is measured in hours, not minutes—your chance of survival is well into the 80th percentile, based on about two decades worth of statistics I collected.
Most people who fly overwater and contemplate ditching worry about getting trapped in the airplane and going down with the ship. They shouldn't. It almost never happens. The uninjured egress rate is more than 90 percent in most waters, although a little less in deep ocean bluewater and markedly less in deepwater ditchings at night. The overall survival rate—that is, after egressing successfully—is 88 percent for general aviation aircraft. That's based on a study of about 220 accidents over nearly 30 years.
Where you ditch has a greater bearing on survival than what airplane you're flying. Rivers and lakes are the best bets, bays and estuaries next and open ocean the worst. But, frankly, the data is too sparse to draw any but the coarsest statistical conclusions.
Viewing the very good video of the Hawaii ditching, I can't tell if the engines are running or not. This raises a sticky aeronautical and survival judgment. At 13 miles out, the pilot would probably have been in sight of land. So does he push on hoping to make it on fumes, or cut his losses, decide to ditch, but do it while he still has power? I vote for the latter. Ditching is challenging enough without the additional variable of trying it for the first time deadstick. But if it was done deadstick, it just goes to show how forgiving a water landing is, even in 6-foot seas.
Remember the 1991 ditching of an Air National Guard HH-60 off Montauk, New York? It was depicted in The Perfect Storm. Having failed to connect with a C-130s re-fueling drogue because of extreme turbulence, the command pilot decided with 10 minutes of fuel left he wasn't going to die trying. The helo ditched with power and all but one crewman survived, following one of the most harrowing sea rescues in Coast Guard history.
Like all military helo crews, the Guardsmen were trained in water egress which is challenging for helicopters because they always turn over. Fixed wing airplanes sometimes do, but often don't. Either way, it doesn't seem to effect the egress rate. Also, the basic egress survival tactic is the same, and it's simple: Know where the door latch is by feel, and keep your seatbelt tightly fastened until the airplane comes to rest. Pop the door and only then release your seatbelt. Seems simple enough, but a lot of people don't know it.
So this latest ditching and dramatic video serve as reminder of how survivable water landings are. If a crash impends and you have the choice or a lake or river over trees and rocks, the water is a high percentage option.