Ditching: Getting Out

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Try this thought experiment: Imagine the act of ditching an airplane in water; just try to visualize it. If you're like me, your mind's eye defaults to a daylight scenario. You don't think about doing it at a night because there's nothing to see and that's the problem with putting an airplane into the water at night. That and getting out of it alive.

This is no small challenge, making the outcome of last week's Westwind ditching off Norfolk Island all the more remarkable. It was done at night, reportedly in 6-foot seas. If you've ever bobbed around in 6-foot seas, you know it's no picnic in daylight. At night, it will be distinctly miserable in 60-degree water.

Apropos of the Westwind ditching, I got a taste of this in 1999 when I took a training course in ditching egress from Survival Systems Training, which specializes in training for the commercial offshore helo market. SST offers a broad course aimed at water egress and survival. I went through the program with a medical helo crew whose company had recently lost a helo and all hands after a night crash in Penobscot Bay.

Most of us don't think much about water egress because we don't do much overwater flying and will probably never face the challenge. The survival skill that SST and other companies teach is simple to grasp and execute, once you know what to do. The idea is to remain belted in until the aircraft comes to a complete stop in the water and before unbelting, find the door latch or exit release and open it. Then, with one hand on the belt release, use the other to find an external reference on the fuselage and extract yourself after unbelting. That's it.

Well, one other thing. They warn you about "cold water gasp," the tendency to inhale deeply when you're submerged quickly. If you're prepared, you won't gasp. If you aren't, you could aspirate enough water to drown right in your seat.

To teach these methods, SST uses a giant dunker configured like a helo cabin, including space for a litter. They drop the thing into a large, deep indoor pool whose water temperature is about 70 degrees, I recall. That's neither cold, nor warm. We got shivery after a day in the water. The thing about helicopters is that because the engine and gearing are high on the airframe, they almost always roll inverted after impact. So SST's training—which does invert the cabin upon water contact--teaches to wait for the roll to stop, then exit the inverted aircraft. Other than a lot of water up the nose, this task is learnable and doable.

But try it at night. We did and it wasn't fun. After most of the day doing inverted egresses, the graduation exercise was a night egress. And I mean full-up, black-as-hell night. When we were strapped into the dunker and the lights clicked off, I heard the guy in the seat next to me mutter under his breath, "oh, s**t." I was too scared to say anything. An instant later, down we plunged into the pool. For me personally, it took all the discipline I could muster not to panic and to follow the guidelines we had been given, this in a pool with no sea action and with divers standing by and the complete knowledge that there was no way we could drown. We did as we were told and bobbed to the surface, desperate for just a glimmer of any kind of light. At night, in a real sea situation, it's hard to imagine how black the darkness can be, but it is total.

We had it easy compared to the med crew in back. They had not only to get themselves out, but also a 6-foot litter with a simulated 170-pound patient strapped to it. They did—a couple of times. One interesting thing was that when we began the training, one of the flight nurses sat out most of the day, being too fearful and claustrophobic to suffer the dunking. Her anxiety was aggravated by the realization that she would lose her job if she didn't complete the course.

The instructor was utterly sanguine about this. He told me that by the end of the day, he would have her extracting the litter from the upended dunker in the dark. He did and she did. As a pilot friend of mine occasionally says, hey, this training stuff really works.

So as for the Westwind crew, they were either well trained or lucky. Or maybe both.

Comments (4)

As a Navy P-3 pilot spending 90% of my flight time over the ocean, ditching was, as you might expect, a frequent topic of both conversation and training.

The book said to lower flaps, keep gear retracted, and set a 300 FPM descent until water contact with NO flare. We practiced it often. One might speculate that such a procedure would work just as well at night as during daylight. (emotions aside, of course).

Further, the Navy in their wisdom included a good deal of verbiage regarding landing into the wind and "on the back side of a receding swell" .... or something to that effect. This was always the subject of derision among pilots as we tried to imagine being so picky regarding the touchdown spot at the same time we were forced to ditch in the open ocean.

To my knowledge, P-3 crews have applied these lessons only twice. The first time, in the early 70's, the ditching in sheltered waters was due to multiple engine failures (dry cleaning fluid in the water alcohol system) immediately following take off from an island runway. Considering the circumstances, I would judge it to be successful even though there was one fatality.

The second was in the north Pacific west of the Aleutians (talk of harsh environment!). I remember that it was basically a controlled ditching due to a runaway prop on one engine (a scenario that could lead to a failed wing). My understanding is that the ditching itself was successful, though the cold water survival episode involved some tragedy.

Posted by: Kim Welch | November 23, 2009 7:14 AM    Report this comment

My guess is well trained and you can be too.
Egress (land or water)training goes much further than visualizing it. It is a cognitive learning skill that MUST be practiced. Practice daylight egress and night egress. Place your family members or whoever you normally fly with (seat-belted) in their usual positions. When you say "go", they should, in a controlled yet hurried manner, be able to egress single file (hand over hand) out of the aircraft.
To practice for night time egress, use a blindfold. This is where it gets interesting. The Keystone Cops come to mind here. People will be bumping into each other, heads will get bumped, and someone is sure to get kicked, but after a couple tries you will know when to keep your head down, when to move from reference point A to B (without letting go)and so on.
Once the first person is out and on the wing (or ground) they should turn their attention back to the exit and help pull and direct the others out of the aircraft. Practice land egress and water egress (with lifevests on). Talk about which exit to use or not use in a water ditching. Practice using a secondary exit if available.
Of course you cannot practice doing this upside down, but you can have everyone visualize from their positions, what their hand over hand path would be.
This drill should only take about a half hour to an hour and makes a good family event for a weekend day.

Posted by: RANDALL BOONE | November 23, 2009 12:45 PM    Report this comment

I really appreciate Paul Bertorelli comments about ditching. I live in Michigan so, unless I'm headed south, usually fly over some water. I don't think I've ever gone over the water when I didn't think about "what if?"

To answer the question at the end of Mr. Bertorrelli's article, I believe that the crew had a lot of luck, but I also believe that we help make our luck through the kind of training and preparation described in the article. It would be great to take a course in the "dunker," but I'm not sure that is realistic for most of us. It's even less realistic that I'd ever get my wife in one. In the absence of first hand training, articles such as this one are very helpful. It would be even more helpful to hear from people who have had first hand ditching experience -- particularly in a high wing Cessna like my Skylane. I like to start with how they made their landing. Did they just set up a minimum sink glide and wait for the impact? Did they open the doors before they hit the water? Did the airplane flip? Did the airplane float? How long? How did they exit? What kind of problems did they have getting out? How would they advise others confronted with this kind of emergency?

Posted by: Thomas Armstrong | November 23, 2009 6:58 PM    Report this comment

It's a brave man who volontary ditches in a small plane in open sea at night. It's not like ditching in the Hudson,no helicopters or ferries to pull you out,but both of them pulled it off !! . There is a DVOR on the threshold of runway 04. I would rather set up an approach to crash land on that!.I can't believe that they did'nt have a GPS, even a pocket one. If I had a GPS I would have set up a way point on the threshold of either 29 or 11 and gone for that as my first option, but they have had other problems.

Posted by: christopher fuchter | November 25, 2009 7:46 PM    Report this comment

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