The Overwater Argument
Pilots who live in Florida, and especially on the west coast of Florida, have this problem. Itís called the Gulf of Mexico. Nice beaches and all, and warm for nine months a year, but if youíre going anywhere west of about 85 degrees longitude, youíll have the argument with yourself about cutting the corner across the Gulf.
The armpit of Floridaóif I may call it that--is centered on the Cross City VORTAC and extends south down the west coast toward Tampa and west into the Florida panhandle. So the dilemma is always this: Do you chicken out and follow the coast all the way around or just go hell-for-leather across all that water, saving hundreds of miles? Well, first of all, it isnít hundreds of miles, itís closer to 70, depending where on the coast you depart from.
Iíd never put a sharp pencil on it until we flew a Cherokee up to Alabama for Continentalís Learn to Fly Day last month. If we did the Lindbergh thing from Venice, that flight is 350 miles, only about 15 miles of which is over land. Following the coast and weaving around the panhandle restricted areas, if necessary, comes to 414 miles or about 40 minutes and six or seven gallons additional in a slow airplane. Thatís not a trivial difference, but then again, whatís the risk?
It depends. Some people think nothing of flying the overwater segment with no more flotation aboard than a Styrofoam coffee cup. I consider these people to be idiots. The NTSB database is peppered with people swimming in the Gulf or other bodies of water desperately awaiting rescue. Most survive, some donít. Personally, unless I have some survival gear aboard, Iím not willing to get much beyond gliding distance of the beach, and maybe not even that.
But I dug out all my over water gear and we had a raftóa good one, a Winslow. The only thing I forgot was the waterproof pouch for my VHF handheld, which I had with me. The likelihood of it, or a cellphone, surviving a good dunking is about nil. But the pouches reverse that, making them a relatively cheap investment for the insurance value. I used to attach these right to the vest.
So what does this do to the risk equation? Again, it depends on how you view risk. Some years ago, I researched outcomes in ditching accidents and learned that the egress rate for airplanes that go into the water under control is above 90 percent. In other words, in 90 percent of ditchings, the occupants exit the airplanes successfully to face the next challenge: surviving to be rescued. At this point, the odds get murkier for the accident reports donít always say what survival gear and floatation the survivors had or used.
Overall, post-egress, survival rates are in the high 80th percentile. Even if you consider that 90 percent egress rate, thereís a one in 10 chance that someone wonít make it out of an airplane ditching. As risk goes, thatís not low by any means, although it may be acceptable. Well, it must be to me, because Iím willing to do it.
In the Gulf risk assessment, I guess you have to measure the gainó40 minutes and a few gallons of gasóagainst the worst-case risk, which is either screwing up a ditching and drowning or succeeding in ditching and drowning anyway. If itís not your day, itís not your day.
Although thereís no way to put a mathematical value on it that I can think of, Iím reluctant to dash out across the mid-Gulf, so I split the difference, following the coast and going feet wet north of Tampa. It makes for about 90 minutes over water, as opposed to more than three hours. That feels less risky to me, but itís probably one of those stupid self-delusions pilots tend to engage in. The time savings is about 20 minutes, depending on the wind.
Iíll do this in the day in warm weather, but not past about October, when the Gulf starts to get chilly. I wouldnít do it at night under any circumstances in a single, maybe not even in a twin. Iím not sure how good radar coverage at low altitude over the mid-Gulf is, although it used to be spotty. Communications coverage is good. Interestingly, that area--actually more to the west--is now densely covered by ADS-B, which is used widely by oil patch aircraft. That alone might be a good argument for buying ADS-B Out now for anyone who flies this route a lot.
Having the water survival equipment aboard emboldens the decision to fly over water legs, which is logical. On the other hand, having the gear in the airplane doesnít mean it will be available if you wind up in the water. You have to get it and you out of the airplane and both have to be in servicible condition. If you know anything about water landings, you know nothing is assured. They can be violent and unpredictable just as often as they are nothing but uneventful splashes. And hereís a good juncture to insert the sensible first rule of long overwater flights: if you have personal flotation devices, put them on, raft or no raft. As I mentioned in my flashlight blog, in a ditching gone wrong, you might get out of the airplane with only what youíre wearing and if thatís not a PFD, youíve got nothing.
I once interviewed a survivor of Cessna 172 ditching in the Bahamas. His flotation was on the seat next to him, but vanished after impact. He found it, but then had trouble donning it because he had cracked his head on the panel during touchdown, a fairly common occurrence. His entire survival turned on that PFD because itís all he had. I recall he was in the water for 12 hours and the Coasties found him by chance using night vision gear; they werenít running a grid. The ditching happened in late September and he was deep into hypothermia.
You canít count on being that lucky, which is why it makes sense to stay inshore unless youíre well and truly equipped to do otherwise. Sadly, many Florida pilots arenít.