The Overwater Argument

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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.

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (32)

I've never really bought into the benefit of a whole-aircraft parachute system, a la Cirrus. I'm still skeptical that they can pull it off at all with their Vision personal jet. But Paul's piece makes me wonder whether there might be utility in a whole-aircraft flotation system. We've all seen inflatable skid "pontoons" on helicopters. Has anyone ever done something like this for airplanes?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 16, 2014 7:04 AM    Report this comment

There was a trend in aviation where sea planes were considered a practical asset. The commercial applications virtually vanished as cost, weight and speed affected the concept. However, designs were patented and can be found via google under "inflatable pontoons for aircraft". Having said this, I frequently fly over the Southern California coast line and to and from Catalina Island just "26 miles accross the sea" often climbing to altitude affording a power off gliding lo land range, say 8500 westbound and a marginal 7500 eastbound. Through the years I been aware of the danger by accidents where small aircraft have been involved, some pilots did not survive or even found. A strange one was a C177 Catalina bound over water where an FAA examiner and a DPE friend perished. I still wonder what really happened.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 16, 2014 8:35 AM    Report this comment


Where was the lift raft stored? I'm guessing in the baggage area? I'm curious what the plan was, should you need to retrieve the raft in an actual ditching. I haven't a guess how well a Cherokee (fixed-gear PA-28-18* variant with fixed gear?) typically fares in ditchings, but with only one exit door and the baggage compartment in the rear, I imagine it could be difficult to get the raft out before the plane sinks.

I'm also curious if you base the over-water decision on the number of people in the plane (fewer people mean a greater chance of everyone getting out...or at least, it seems plausible without having people in the rear trying to get out).

In the two flights I've made to OSH from CT, I avoided the over-water segment of the flight (well, other than flying along the coast in the Chicago VFR flyway) and took the long way around the lakes. This was primarily because I didn't have a raft (and the first time, not even PFDs), but also because I'm just chicken when it comes to extended over-water flights in single-engine piston aircraft.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 16, 2014 9:01 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Paul, good info there! Also good to know that there often seems enough time to egress the plane with the survival gear before it sinks (if it does at all).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 16, 2014 2:06 PM    Report this comment

I confess I'm chicken. I don't like flying over water in a landplane. In the Orlando area, approaching Kissimmee from the NW and trying to avoid the major airspace you may find yourself over Lake Apopka, a circular lake about 8 nm across. I flew across it, once, at about 1200 feet AGL. No survival gear. Out in the middle the engine tends to always go into auto-rough (how does it know?) and I have to fight the temptation to fiddle with mixture etc. Eight miles is long ride at at that altitude. Since then I go around the edge, or within a wingspan or two :-) Same deal for other big lakes.

BTW, Catalina is actually only about 18 nm out to sea (20.7 statute) from nearest land; they changed the song to rhyme better. You know what they say about checking "all available information"; ha ha, that doesn't include song lyrics!

Posted by: A Richie | June 16, 2014 2:20 PM    Report this comment

Hawaii interisland flying is obviously always over deep, rough, and shark-infested water, with no options ... required equipment is carried by all but the bulletproof, but there is much debate over wearing the PFD every time or just having it handy, stowing the raft in the back or somewhere closer, and Paul's waterproof pouch usage. A component of the discussion is always how old and bold the PIC is...

Posted by: pete miller | June 16, 2014 6:05 PM    Report this comment

I always make sure when flying over large bodies of water that there's an undercast -- that way the engines can't see the water and don't go into "auto-rough" mode. It also keeps the pilot from worrying as much.

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | June 16, 2014 7:57 PM    Report this comment

No reason not to fly over water. We have flight following so you won't be in the water long if you go in. The prospect of hitting trees and burning if you stay over land is hardly a bonus. Take a life vest and go for it because it's no worse risk wise if the plane fails completely over water of land.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 16, 2014 10:00 PM    Report this comment

This one floated for 90 seconds before sinking.

NTSB Identification: LAX05FA290.
The docket is stored in the Docket Management System (DMS). Please contact Records Management Division
Accident occurred Wednesday, September 07, 2005 in Avalon, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 02/26/2007
Aircraft: Cessna 172RG, registration: N9636B
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
The airplane crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 2 miles from the north end of an off-shore island. The pilot, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aviation safety inspector (operations), sustained fatal injuries. The safety airman, who was also a designated pilot examiner (DPE), is missing and presumed to have sustained fatal injuries. The airplane sank, was not located or recovered, and is presumed to have been destroyed. The cross-country Event Based Currency (EBC) flight departed Avalon Airport about 1220 to return to the flight's origin airport. This currency flight was part of the inspector's FAA currency requirements. Avalon airport's elevation was 1,602 feet mean sea level (msl). Recorded radar data revealed a target with a secondary 1200 visual flight rules (VFR) beacon code at a mode C reported altitude of 1,800 feet msl just west of the departure end of runway 22. The target climbed on a westerly course, and made a right turn toward the north. After reaching the shoreline, the target turned left toward the northwest, and followed the shoreline. During the last minute of flight, the target's altitude remained at mode C altitudes between 2,600 and 2,800 feet until the target disappeared near the accident site coordinates, which was in line with the target's track. Two fishermen in a boat reported that they observed the airplane in at least a 45-degree nose low attitude. The attitude rose to 30 degrees nose low just prior to impacting the water. They observed the airplane float at the surface for a few seconds. It sank before they could reach the accident site location, which took them approximately 90 seconds. They observed one victim in the water, and pulled him aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
an in-flight loss of control for undetermined reasons.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 16, 2014 11:49 PM    Report this comment

"30 degrees nose low" that sounds like a crash, not a ditching, Such an impact would probably not have been survivable even if the wreckage had floated for a week. The main prerequisite for a ditching is having the plane under control.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 17, 2014 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Richard, going to extremes some arguing of endless float against crashing is a way of balancing the argument. If there is a chance of survival I would overfly terrain rather than water as I have a thing about sharks, mountain lions don't fare well with me either.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 17, 2014 11:25 AM    Report this comment

My perspective, having fledged in Wisconsin, is the issue of whether to fly across lake Michigan to the lower peninsula of MI or around the north or south ends. Since the great lakes never get warm enough (offshore) to swim in, necessary survival gear also requires thermal protection as well as floatation. Few GA pilots are willing to invest in (and wear) such gear, and in fact it would make little sense to add that much to the cost of the flight to save just an hour or so of flight.

Even seaplane pilots can't count on being able to make open water landings without significant risk of damage to, or loss of, the aircraft. The old flying boat captains considered open sea landings to be an emergency maneuver to be contemplated only in desperate situations.

I can recall many accidents over the years where an event which would have remained an incident if flown over land instead became a fatal accident because the airplane came to grief in Lake Michigan. If you go down in the middle of the lake, you will probably not survive the cold water long enough to be rescued, flight following or no.

I was advised by my instructors, and have passed along to my students, that it isn't worth the risk to fly across the lakes unprotected by safety gear (and/or a second engine) and it's only worth the cost of safety gear (and a second engine) if one is doing it regularly.

I have crossed the great lakes (and several oceans) many times in multiengine aircraft but will not cross open water or hostile terrain in single engine aircraft. Discretion IS the better part of valor.

Posted by: Neil Robinson | June 17, 2014 5:53 PM    Report this comment

For years, I've always diverted around Lake Michigan, but recently on a trip to Wisconsin decided to give it a go. I had the following stacked in my favor - I was at 8000', on an IFR flight plan, with PFD's, with an EPIRB, and I was in an aircraft that I trusted (I did the last annual myself). Not to mention, an off airport landing on the Chicago lakefront or somewhere in Gary didn't sound any more pleasant than going swimming. My right seat passenger was making comments about the engine seeming rough, but I realized it was his mind playing tricks on him, nothing unusual going on at all.

Does crossing the lake add some risk to the flight - undoubtedly. So does flying in low IFR, flying at night, on windy days, over rough terrain and so on. I don't know that there is a right or wrong answer here, but I've flown piece of crap airplanes that were undoubtedly riskier to take around the pattern than it was to take my airplane across the lake.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | June 17, 2014 7:25 PM    Report this comment

Josh, you are exactly right; it is all about managing risk. In addition, your story illustrates one of the best reasons for owning (as opposed to renting); you know and keep up with the total maintenance status of the airplane. No way I would ever take a rental across a lake!

Interestingly, two risks people worry about most in flight are somewhat opposites; namely, inflight fire and water landings.

Posted by: A Richie | June 17, 2014 9:51 PM    Report this comment

My personal limits usually don't have me crossing over much further than gliding distance in my C172. I imagine in a water landing - even relatively "successful" the plane flips over or sinks pretty quickly with the engine weight in the front. So then you are upside down, underwater, possible in the darkness, fumbling with the seatbelt and panic and door - add to all this if you were injured at all. Yikes. But yeah, the minimum I would think to do would be wear an inflatable vest with a portable PLB lashed to it.

Posted by: Peter Hamilton | June 18, 2014 5:17 AM    Report this comment

Pete, I have long held the theory that a person's willingness to take risk is inversely proportional to their imagination. A person who can vividly imagine being injured, trapped and disoriented in a sinking airplane is far less likely to fly across Lake Michigan than someone who thinks only of the statistically unlikely event of the engine choosing that particular time to quit.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 18, 2014 7:20 AM    Report this comment

We have the same issue up here in New England around Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Block and Long Island. The Part 135's with their twins fly low across the water on pre arranged routes. Lose an engine - they should make it on the other. Right? But for the SEL's - cross at VFR 3,000ft or below? Or fly what I call the "ballistic arc" - a continuous climb till I know I have a glide to one side or the other. It adds some minutes, fuel burn and I regularly pull the throttle at the top of the arc and glide to see I got it right. I see others crossing at 2,000ft and I doubt if they have any flotation equipment aboard. I wish them and their engines well.

The one time I take a calculated risk over water is the VFR Corridor down the Hudson - as Sullenburger and Skiles know - there is nowhere to go except water. I then have a personal minimum of wearing PFD's while in the corridor. From 1,000ft I have less than 2 minutes to put the plane in the water in some semblance of order and there will be no time to try and don PFD's. Wear them in advance and plan on a glide for as near the edge of the Hudson or a boat as I can. Not had to do it yet - but as a Piper pilot found out in the winter of 2013 - five minutes in the cold water - the only thing that saved her and her passenger were the PFD's they were wearing..

Posted by: Graeme Smith | June 18, 2014 7:51 AM    Report this comment

You are exactly right, Richard. The entire point of discussions like this is to put numbers on what people imagine to be true. Above, Pete notes--imagines--that even in a successful ditching, the airplane flips and sinks rapidly.

While this certainly can happen and has, it's not the predominant outcome in the 179 ditchings I studied. From the available data, it appears that most airplanes--high wing or low--do not flip. But even if you posit that *all* of them do, it doesn't much matter for survival. That data showed that in 92 percent of ditchings, everyone egressed the airplane safely, regardless of how it came to rest in the water.

Also, as you noted above, there's a difference between a ditching and a crash in the water. Sometimes it's not possible from the sketchy accident reports to tell which is which, so the 92 percent rate may be a little higher. In other words, some ditchings really aren't. They're crashes. Different consideration.

One thing worth noting is that in high wings, it is very common for the windshield to cave in, leading to rapid cabin flooding. But that usually doesn't sink the airplane instantly; there's buoyancy in the wings, for a while. It can lead to cold water gasp, the tendency to inhale when exposed to a quick dunking in cold water. Ditching and egress training, which I have done, trains you to prepare for this.

All of these things should inform risk assessment and take most of the imagination out of it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 18, 2014 8:47 AM    Report this comment

Airplanes don't know if they are flying over water or mountains, pilots have to be sure they are in well maintained airplane.
I have ferried many S/E airplanes from Florida to Peru with 500miles over water flights, the last 10 years with out a single problem. You have to be sure what your limitations are and live with it.

Posted by: Djordje Velickovich | June 18, 2014 9:09 AM    Report this comment

"You can't count on being that lucky, which is why it makes sense to stay inshore unless you're well and truly equipped to do otherwise. Sadly, many Florida pilots aren't."


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 18, 2014 9:25 AM    Report this comment

Playing the "devils advocate" two things come to mind with the shortcut across the "armpit" of Florida. You didn't mention the numerous "Warning Areas" that blanket this part of the gulf. Did you avoid them on your flight from TPA to Alabama or just burst on through headless to the high speed jet traffic and possible live fire training missions going on there? Also, since you left the ADIZ and reentered I'm not sure what the US Customs regulations have to say about that, but could it possibly make you more susceptible to an unwanted Customs search?

Posted by: David Naumann | June 18, 2014 9:26 AM    Report this comment

"We have the same issue up here in New England around Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Block and Long Island...Or fly what I call the "ballistic arc" - a continuous climb till I know I have a glide to one side or the other."

I also give the engine gauges a good scan before heading out over the water to these destinations ;-)

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 18, 2014 10:18 AM    Report this comment

I made several trips over many years(flying a C310 and A36)from Memphis to all over Florida,including Key West,and rarely felt uncomfortable when over water.However, I rarely cut across the Gulf of Mexico,despite being "cleared direct to MEM" from southwest FL on return trips.It just wasn't worth the risk of a bluewater ditching.My preferred routing was along,or just west of the coast,even at 11-12,000 ft.Fuel reserves and alternate airport choices get real interesting if you venture over the Everglades,where airports are few.Plan accordingly.
If you have to ditch,keep in mind the many thousands of small "cays",sand bars ,etc that dot the area of Florida Bay(aka "backcountry") and pose both risk and refuge.Small boats & fishermen frequent the bay.
Some suggestions when flying to the Keys:maintain plenty of altitude,even if you have to decline ATC's descending you over water (especially true south of RSW VOR on V225);always fly ifr to keep that second set of eyes on you,and decline canceling till near destination airport;avoid overflying these desolate areas at night;carry multiple signaling devices(do not assume that cellphone will survive even a smooth ditching);since gators and the elements far outweighed my fear of drowning in Florida Bay or in the Everglades,I carefully included water and a Scout rifle(handy for shooting.410 flares, critters,etc.) along with usual survival stuff;watch for flocks of birds(everywhere,at low altitudes) which in my opinion constitutes one of the biggest threats of flying near water.
Chances are,should you ditch or crash,that you will be located easily in this part of Fl,despite the possibility of a cumbersome/delayed extraction owing to its mixed topography.Packing a life raft may be overkill,unless mandated by regs.

Posted by: Spaz Burnett | June 18, 2014 10:36 AM    Report this comment

"just burst on through headless to the high speed jet traffic and possible live fire training missions going on there?"

Far as know, my head was still attached to my shoulders, although it could be argued that there's not much between the ears. We were smack in the middle of the Warning Areas, talking to Eglin approach who said everything was cold.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 18, 2014 10:59 AM    Report this comment

Fascinating article, Paul, illuminating another dilemma for which there is no one right answer except "it depends."

In reading through this and the commentary I was reminded of what Daniel Kahneman said to an interviewer who was discussing his recent book, 'Thinking Fast and Slow.' With respect to rationality, "If someone is behaving in a rational manner, there is no need to protect them from the consequences of their behavior." This assumes, of course, that the risks of such behavior are known and that appropriate mitigation strategies are in place -- the essence of rational behavior.

So if it pleases someone to take the shortcut and rational preparations have made, by all means go for it!

Posted by: Keith Bumsted | June 18, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for that book tip. Just added it to my Kindle.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 18, 2014 12:49 PM    Report this comment

"Airplanes don't know if they are flying over water or mountains"

But if your engine is going to fail even just 0.000000001% of the time - which would you rather be over?

Posted by: Graeme Smith | June 18, 2014 1:17 PM    Report this comment

"But if your engine is going to fail even just 0.000000001% of the time - which would you rather be over?"

I'll choose water over heavy woods, mountains, a city, power lines, or a school yard ANY DAY.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 18, 2014 7:23 PM    Report this comment

Just make sure the life jacket is not inflated when you wear it in the aircraft or it will pin you to whatever side is up....

Posted by: John Patson | June 19, 2014 2:09 AM    Report this comment

That was, unfortunately, an embarassing lapse by AOPA. Doug had a point in countering it. At the time, I has already done the piece for Aviation Safety. It's true that blue water ditchings in the Atlantic have a lower survival rate, but they are not invariably fatal.

You'll find survivors among these incidents. The vast majority of ditchings are in less trying conditions, thus the high survival rate. Readers need to know this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 19, 2014 8:26 AM    Report this comment

"I'll choose water over heavy woods, mountains, a city, power lines, or a school yard ANY DAY."

It's a common debate here in the woods and waters of Minnesota and southern Canada--we get to consider it every day. It has also been debated online at Beechtalk and Professional Pilots Rumor Network. The consensus is--given the choice, go for the trees--especially if you are flying a fixed-gear airplane. No chance of drowning or cold-water shock. Coniferous trees bend to absorb shock--but may then drop you straight down. Deciduous trees with strong branches (like oaks) often will leave a light aircraft hung in the branches--still better than drowning. Of course--in Minnesota, the lakes are ideal landing strips for half the year that they are frozen! (laugh)

A beach--even if too short to land on, is perhaps best of all. Touch down on sand, and roll into the trees.

Posted by: jim hanson | June 20, 2014 12:11 PM    Report this comment

I think much of the resistance to over-water is based on hydrophobia rather than actual risk analysis.

In my own unscientific view I have always judged flying over ditchable & reasonably warm, survivable water with basic water survival gear on board as being not, on average, significantly more dangerous than flying over land.

During much of my over-land flying, realistically there is no spot available where I could put the bird down without the end result being classified as a "crash landing" with at minimum considerable bent metal, and I suspect such landings have less than the quoted 80-90% survival rate of water landings.

You also have to factor in exposure duration. Cutting the panhandle corner in Florida, flying the Bahamas or crossing the Sea of Cortez between Baja and the mainland are common over-waters for me, but in terms of total time in the air they are a minor factor, probably 5-7% of my yearly logbook. If the thing does decide to quit, it's a 90%+ chance it won't be over water anyway.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 2, 2014 12:54 PM    Report this comment

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