Airliner Ditchings: Not Great Odds

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U.S. Airways Flight 1549's ditching into the Hudson is all the more remarkable given the relatively poor odds of all occupants surviving such an accident. But it has happened at least once before. In 1963, an Aeroflot twin-engine Tu124 enroute to Moscow ran out of fuel after trying to sort out a landing gear problem. The crew ditched on the Neva River, the aircraft remained afloat and was towed to shore. All 52 occupants survived.

In May 1970, a DC-9 enroute to St. Maarten from New York ran out of fuel after three missed approaches at St. Croix. After a ditching in poor weather, 22 of the 57 passengers died, along with one crew member.

One of the most spectacular ditchings occurred in 1996 and was caught on video by a tourist. An Ethiopian Airlines 767 had been hijacked and forced to re-route to Australia. It ran out of fuel and ditched off the Comoro Islands, midway between Madagascar and the African coast. Ten of the 12 crew members and 117 of the 160 passengers were killed, despite almost immediate rescue efforts from people nearby on the beach. Later analysis of the video showed that the aircraft dragged its left wing, initiating a turning moment and break-up sequence.

By comparison, historical ditching survival rates for light aircraft are quite good. An Aviation Safety magazine study of light aircraft ditchings found than nearly 90 percent of the occupants egress and survive light aircraft ditching events.