Beach Landings: One More Time

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If you've been reading our news columns or watching the national news, you're probably aware we had another beach landing in Florida earlier this week. It was Pitts that went into the water off Sarasota's Siesta Key. No injuries, but the airplane is probably toast. Recall that in late July, just as AirVenture was starting, a Cherokee made an engine-out landing off the beach in Venice, Florida, my home airport. Sadly, a 36-year-old man, an Army NCO, and his nine-year-old daughter were killed when they were struck by the aircraft.

On Thursday, the NTSB released a preliminary report in which the pilot said he was worried about the aircraft flipping if he landed in deeper water offshore, so he did his best to miss the people closer in to the waterline. Here's the report. (PDF)

I said during AirVenture that I can't second guess the pilot and having read this report, I still can't. None of us were in the seat except him and he has to live with whatever decision made sense at the time. Can any of us say we would have done better? I can't.

However, as I said two weeks ago, if you're equipped with knowledge of how airplanes behave during ditchings, you'll have a better sense of the options open in situations like this. Coincidentally, I wrote on the same subject just a few weeks ago, summarizing my extensive research into ditching outcomes. That was done quite some time ago, but I'm confident the data and outcomes haven't changed a bit. 

Pilots do worry about flipping or turning turtle during a water touchdown. It's a legitimate worry. In fact, the Pitts that landed in Sarasota wound up inverted. I don't know if that's because of the water touchdown or a beach touchdown in which the wheels snagged. In the end, it doesn't matter. What matters is both occupants got out with just minor injuries. 

And that's true in the overwhelming majority of all inshore water landings. That's really all you have to remember. Just accept that the airplane might flip, but understand that the odds are heavily in your favor that you'll get out of it anyway, with nothing but bruises. And that takes us full circle back to the comments I made originally. When picking an emergency landing site that might be occupied by unawares bystanders, the more we know about the probabilities of the various controlled crash options, the better off everyone will be. We owe people on the ground at least that much.

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Comments (4)

I agree completely with your assessment, Paul, and it's really tough to know how much time the Cherokee Pilot had to make quick decisions on engine out right after take off. As much as I would not want to make a water landing myself, if it were at all possible, and I'd known there were people below, I would hope I would try to get a little farther away from anyone and if that meant a bit farther out in the water, and I could make it, I would hope I would try. There could have still been swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, etc. though, so nothing is guaranteed. Again, pilot only had seconds to pick options, tough call.

Posted by: Peter Hamilton | August 15, 2014 6:59 AM    Report this comment

I was one of those folks who were scared of a water landing, that fear of flipping over, drowning, etc. then I attended a training class on Water Survival, the type where you are in a mock up plane in the water where you flip over, etc. I came out of it much more confident of my ability to survive a water landing.... I highly recommend this type training for everyone who flies near or over water.

Posted by: Dana Peirson | August 15, 2014 9:01 AM    Report this comment

Focus on the 300 RPM mag drop.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 16, 2014 11:21 AM    Report this comment

The Cherokee pilot lived; he made a good call. 99.9999% of the time private pilots who lose an engine will come down on land anyway so this is no different than landing on a gold course or a neighborhood street or a mostly deserted parking lot. The choice was taken and the injuries on the ground played out. The only unusual thing this time was the ocean full of swimmers nearby.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 17, 2014 9:47 AM    Report this comment

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