Another Jet Ditching: Westwind in Oceana

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From the here's-an-accident-report-I-can't-wait-to-read file comes yesterday's report of a Westwind ditching near Norfolk Island, in the western Pacific. As is often the case at a distance, there's not enough detail yet available to illuminate why the Captain decided, after several attempts to land on a runway, to ditch in the water (in darkness) instead. Weather was cited as a controlling factor, but no detail is available yet.

The flight was reportedly carrying a critical patient from Samoa to Melbourne, with a fuel stop on Norfolk Island. To give you an idea of the distance scales in the Pacific, Norfolk Island is 1200 miles northeast of Melbourne and Samoa is 1600 miles east of Norfolk. This is not a region of the world which tolerates short-legged airplanes or poor fuel planning.

To shed at least some light on how this could happen, consider that the Norfolk Island Airport lies at an elevation of 371 feet. So it's easy to imagine how a 200-foot overcast or broken conditions could make for zero-zero conditions at the airport, while below the overcast, visibility over the water could be good. Based on a little Web research, I can't tell if Norfolk has an ILS, but it apparently does have a LAAS-type GPS approach.

Since this seems to be the week for discussing ditching, here's a question: If confronted with the same situation—a land airport fully fogged in or open water with good vis, which is the higher survival percentage choice? For piston aircraft during the day, it's almost certainly the water. At night, it creeps me out too much to hazard a guess, frankly.

Some years ago, I studied several hundred ditching events and interviewed some survivors. The conclusion of this research revealed that in piston-engine ditching, the successful egress rate was well into the 90 percent range and the survival rate is nearly as high. It's lower in the open ocean, but still good.

So if you go for the water, chances of survival are nine in 10. I don't have nor could I develop any data comparing the Westwind scenario—a do-or-die zero-zero approach, at night, to a land runway. That one's pretty high up the creep-out scale, too.

If both the water and the land were equally fogged with near zero vis and an ILS were available, I'd take the runway, day or night. The reality is that if you have to and you can bring your A-game, you can fly a Cat I ILS to a little less than 50 feet. Even in the worst of conditions, that should be good enough to permit just enough visual cues to make the landing survivable, if not pretty.

Two mitigating arguments against the otherwise high survivability of the water are its temperature and the prospect of floating in the fog waiting for rescue. On land, you don't have to tread 40-degree water and rescuers in trucks will generally respond faster than boats will.

Either way, it's going to be a near thing. Evidently the Westwind crew got it right, because everyone survived.

FRIDAY A.M. UPDATE: I got an e-mail and a phone call on this accident raising this legitimate question: Wasn't the pilot required to have sufficient fuel to reach a filed alternate? The answer is undoubtedly yes and one presumes the alternate was not the ocean. Unknown is why the alternate wasn't used. As I said, I'm eagerly awaiting the accident investigation findings. This one's going to be interesting.

Comments (14)

I lived on Norfolk Island for nearly 4 years, and ironically I was a weather observer out there for the Bureau of Meteorology. I am also a licenced pilot. Unfortunately I cannot say too much about the role of the Bureau, as this will undoubtably be a significant part of the investigation.
What I can say is that it is absolutely incredible that the pilot of this aircraft managed to pull this off.
As a professional pilot, he definitely made the correct decision by the book. With appropriate local knowledge, there is no way that this decision would have been made (sorry Robbo).
The investigation must focus on the causative factors, and the best options for avoidance in the future. I do not wish to prejudice these investigations so I will leave my comments as stated.

Posted by: Ray Hegarty | November 19, 2009 10:27 AM    Report this comment

By the way, from the airport pix as per the link above, it looks like the airport is poised on the slopes of a mointainous island. Wikipedia states Quote : The coastline of Norfolk Island consists, to varying degrees, of cliff faces. Unquote. Not a great spot to venture below minima. Here's another question : what about the insurance if you ditch your aircraft on purpose ? How would that affect anyone's decision ?

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | November 22, 2009 4:42 AM    Report this comment

>>what about the insurance if you ditch your aircraft on purpose ? How would that affect anyone's decision ?

In a survival situation, whether the insurance pays or not is about as immaterial a consideration as I can imagine. And for the record, insurance companies routinely pay for pilot stupidity, even in cases where regulations have been ignored. Claim denials are rare because insurers know it's just bad business. You can check with agents on this and most will not have had a significant pattern of claim denial.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 22, 2009 6:46 AM    Report this comment

From what I can tell, the airport had only a locally augmented GPS approach - I wonder if an old Westwind had the equipment onboard to fly it - or if they were depending on a non-precision approach?

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 22, 2009 10:46 AM    Report this comment

Re AM update and alternate airport question, look back at what you have written regarding the distances involved to the nearest airport! Out pacific island way there is something called 'island reserve', such as 2hrs holding fuel instead and thats it. I don't know what this operation had.
I think the better question should be asked about what the weather forecast was for Norfolk at time of departure?!

Posted by: Delete Me | November 23, 2009 3:51 AM    Report this comment

There is no 2 hour holding for this airport. It is a designated "Remote Island" by the Australian authorities and as such requires an alternate and the alternate is not permitted to be a "Remote Island". "Remote Island" is defined as Christmas Island (Indian Ocean), Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.

Posted by: brian abraham | November 23, 2009 4:51 AM    Report this comment

To add to the previous, it seems the aircraft carried out some three missed approaches and seems the ditching was a CFIT (duck under attempt in extremist conditions? Passenger said no warning had been given). No mayday was given prior to ditching although comms with airport personnel had been established.

Posted by: brian abraham | November 23, 2009 5:01 AM    Report this comment

>>it seems the aircraft carried out some three missed approaches and seems the ditching was a CFIT (duck under attempt in extremist conditions?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 23, 2009 6:33 AM    Report this comment

An alternate may not have been required just fuel for extra holding time- this is the case for US 121 carriers flying to island destinations. Extreme caution required can easily lead to a situation such as this when pressing the weather to get a sick patient to a hospital.

Posted by: Unknown | November 23, 2009 11:16 AM    Report this comment

I disagree that a do-or-die ILS is preferable to a ditching. Even a "clean" airport will still have obstacles (buildings, hangars, other airplanes, trees) waiting to snag you if you can't thread the needle to a 6580 x 138 runway. Contrast that to setting up a controlled, slow descent with minimal sink to a wide area. It wouldn't matter if you overshot 10, 100, or 1000 feet. Remember the two big killers in plane crashes are blunt force trauma and fire/smoke after impact. A good ditching can prevent those; only a perfect ILS could guarantee preventing those. I would also assume they have water survival gear on board and have been trained.

Posted by: Donald Harper | November 23, 2009 1:04 PM    Report this comment

In my training we are sometimes required to do a zero/zero ILS, with pilot under the hood and instructor watching out. It's not all that difficult and results in an OK landing if you are stabilized on the ILS.

Posted by: Dirk Bowen | November 23, 2009 3:51 PM    Report this comment

As an expat Norfolk Islander I can confirm there is no ILS available on Norfolk. The only aids are ADF and VOR. The GPS that was installed a number of years ago has not been commissioned. The weather during the 12 hours before the ditching was low ceilings that tended to roll in as fog every few hours. At the time of the ditching it was very heavy rain with fairly solid mist just above the cliff tops. Using the available aids there is no way that the strip could have been sighted in such conditions. The alternates are New Caledonia and Kaitaia in New Zealand both around an hour's flying time away. The local gossip at this stage is that the pilot held too long hoping for a break, and that the ditching was dead stick after just departing the end of RWY 22. If he had lost the engines while over land the ending would have been considerably worse as the airstrip is pretty much the only flat piece of land on Norfolk, the rest is very undulating and covered in Norfolk Island pines, a very substantial tree.

After radio contact was lost - there was no Mayday call - one of the local fire safety officers went out to the cliff top on the western side of the island and spotted 3 little lights bobbing in the ocean. There were only 3 life jackets being used for the 6 survivors. The accident report will make for interesting reading and there are sure to be lessons that can be learned not withstanding the amazing survival and rescue of all onboard.

Posted by: Ken Weslake | November 23, 2009 5:20 PM    Report this comment

I don't know anything about the details, but I have to ask the question: if there were alternates only an hour away (assuming feasible weather and approaches) why not just go for them and forget the letdown and approach to Norfok?

Posted by: CLIFF HANSON | November 24, 2009 9:44 AM    Report this comment

I agree Cliff, or why not stop off in Fiji which is pretty much en-route and take on extra fuel there? Another question I have is whether a Westwind with 6 POB and medical equipment is able to depart with full fuel? I understand from friends on Norfolk that the passengers were unaware that they were going to ditch hence only time to grab 3 life jackets as they exited the sinking aircraft. There should have been a life raft available also but no mention of that at this stage.

Posted by: Ken Weslake | November 24, 2009 5:30 PM    Report this comment

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