Over the weekend of May 14, a Cessna 172 made an emergency landing on the Haulover Inlet Bridge, resulting in one fatality. Ditching in the water might have been the higher percentage choice. In this video, Paul Bertorelli goes over the numbers. If you keep them in mind, it might help you overcome fear of ditching if it ever turns out to be the better survival choice. For a more thorough discussion of ditching considerations, see this video. For more on road landings, see this video.

38 COMMENTS

  1. Some people don’t want to “waste and airplane”; so they see a chance to maybe set down and save it.
    I think that it’s a reall mental obstacle to head for the water and know that the plane is guaranteed to be totalled. Survivability on either is really a toss-up so some will roll the dice to save the plane.

    • Once that engine quits, the airplane belongs to the insurance company. All that matters after that is the safety of your passengers and you. It is not right to make drivers on the road unwilling participants of your emergency. The road should be the last option unless it is certain there is no traffic or obstacles. (In Florida, there is always traffic, the bridge was not a good option.)

  2. Thanks Paul. I greatly appreciated that run down on this a few years ago. It made me mentally rehearse the possibility more realistically, especially saying out loud “roads are the last resort.” When the fan stops blowing and won’t be resuming activities, I am sure you’ve previously remarked that from that point, the insurance company owns the plane.

      • I’m surprised by this statement. How can a flight school not have their aircraft insured. I know as a renter you want insurance because you’d still need to cover for stuff that you may be responsible for.

        • Most FBOs that rent airplanes DO insure them,but only to protect their own interests, not the renter’s. If the renter damages the rental, the insurance company will pay off the FBO and then likely come after the renter ( or their estate) to recover their loss. Renter’s insurance protects the renter

  3. As a pilot we have a duty to Fly safely. There was no way to know if the oncoming traffic was carrying a Church choir or a soccer team. It would it have been better choice to put the aircraft in into the water for the safety of the bridge traffic.
    Remember it was not like the drivers can pull over off the road.
    From many years ago, I remember too many conversations about your duty to ride it in rather than risk flying into somebody’s home. Sometimes aviation requires pilots to make hard decisions

    • The pilot made the best decision based on the information at hand.

      If he would have chose the beach and hit a dog walker, you’d be advocating for a road/bridge landing. If he chose the ICW and hit a boat, you’d be advocating for a beach landing. If he chose a ditching off the beach and hit a swimmer, you’d be advocating for a ICW landing.

      No matter the decision, it would have been a “bad” one according to the Monday morning quarterbacks.

      These comments only contribute to indecision for the next pilot. What will the NTSB think? What will the YouTube and AvWeb comments look like? Who cares. Fly it all the way to the scene of the crash as safely as you can.

      As Paul mentioned, the PIC had about a minute and a half to put it down. That means, he had much less than a minute and a half to access the information at hand and make the best decision possible at the time. Maybe a generous 30 seconds. At some point in the glide, he’s left with one option and that option now, is based on information that is a minute old.

      • Robert, spot on. Basically you’re gonna hit something if you fly in a congested area and it’s always a crap shoot if your initial descision was “the best” for you or what you hit. Even a whole plane parachute does not mean safety for what’s under you!

        • I never said to land on the beach or in the surf. I said he should land in the water. Paul has pointed out many times The best possible outcome is the land in the water. A pilot has the responsibility to do the least harm possible. Many times there is no good choice there’s only the best bad choice.
          Captain Sully had to make this choice years ago. He could’ve gone down the river and landed in the water and the risked the lives of the people on the aircraft or he could’ve tried to turn back and probably crashed into a high-rise apartment complex. in a couple of seconds he chose not to risk other peoples lives.
          If you want to be a pilot you may have to make hard choices if you’re if goal is to down the coast or chase $200 cheeseburgers walk

          • “A pilot has the responsibility to do the least harm possible.” Good reminder! Thanks Michael H.

          • The best bad choice is just another’s worse choice.

            I’m not sure how your delineating between “water” and the ICW as the ICW is full of the stuff, and boaters, and swimmers.

            I am fully confident that if he put it down in the water and all aboard drowned, they’d be a dozen others here espousing there virtues of a beach landing.

  4. As a seaplane pilot, We have Under Water Escape training every second year, we use an cockpit mock-up in an ordinary swimming pool. Flipping upside down, unbuckle seat-belts, open doors, finding which way is up under stress is a good training, that I hope I will never need.

  5. It would be helpful to have more information about in what percentage of ditchings high wing planes flip. There’s one widely-publicized flight instructor who claims that they “always” flip; Mr. Bertorelli is saying it’s rare. I’m afraid that, despite the survival stats, in a pinch I might hesitate about setting up for a landing in which i would likely be trying to get out of a rapidly flooding plane while inverted. The part of the plane that floods first is where your head is! I’ve seen myself turn very stupid very fast when presented with a disorienting physical situation (my first spin, for example…). Getting the inversion-dunking training isn’t always practicable, though if I lived near water I would certainly do it.

    • It’s absurd to say they always flip. I showed a clip of a 172RG that didn’t flip. A friend ditched her 210 off Key West. Didn’t flip. I interviewed a survivor of a 172 ditching in the Bahamas. Didn’t flip. A friend ditched a 182 in the breaker land off Naples. That one did flip. There’s a YouTube video of a Caravan ditching shot from the inside. Didn’t flip.

      The accident reports frequently lack enough detail to determine whether the airplane pitch poled or not. But I gave the data suggesting it doesn’t matter much. People egress safely at a rate exceeding 90 percent and highwings are underrepresented in to total cohort.

  6. Having been a seaplane pilot into busy boat harbors, it would be very easy to quick plan a landing which would avoid collision with boat traffic. And most boaters would quickly respond to assist in rescue operations.

  7. Actually, any small airplane with gear down is likely to turn turtle in a controlled ditching. And don’t forget that a good number of us can’t swim – that may influence the choice of whether to ditch or not. I myself am one who could never be taught to swim, yet I have been flying over water for over 50 years, albeit almost always in large jet transports that have better accommodations for a water landing than did the Titanic. But I once flew a single engine airplane from Florida to Puerto Rico. One cultivates a somewhat fatalistic attitude in such circumstances, but that does not blind me to the fact that a ditching is more than likely a better option than landing on a city street, or a bridge. After all, the passengers probably can swim, and I am responsible for them too.

    • “any small airplane with gear down is likely to turn turtle in a controlled ditching”

      I have not seen any statistics prove that out. Sure, if I was in a retract I would leave the gear up while ditching, but that’s as much to reduce water drag to reduce the decel as much as to mitigate any flipping tendencies.

    • “Actually, any small airplane with gear down is likely to turn turtle in a controlled ditching.”

      This is simply not true. And we should stop repeating it. I’m boring into some additional data on ditchings and of 36 incidents, two flipped. That’s 5 percent. So the right way to look at it as pitch poling is possible, but it’s not frequent. And even when it is, egress is a high probability.

  8. My concern wouldn’t necessarily be with flipping over (though that is a possibility), or with trying to save the airplane, but rather the chance that the landing (watering?) results in a head injury to someone aboard the aircraft, and this results in drowning. I’ve had egress training from the FAA, and it’s definitely good stuff to have, but I’m somewhat less confident that I could do it after an abrupt stop. So, although I definitely don’t want to use a roadway, I do want to stay dry, and this would be a very hard choice.

  9. Psychology often trumps training, let alone youtube video breakdowns of “the stats”. Not everyone is a carrier qualified fast mover pilot with the volume of training it takes to be one and even they screw up in ways that make monday morning quarterbacks scratch their heads. Remember that F35 that bounced off the deck not too long ago? That pilot was probably better trained than every avweb commenter I see above the comment box right now, still screwed up big time. Water landing is the probably the scariest forced landing scenario short of the engine quitting on climb-out over the suburbs with no good landing areas ahead or within a doable turn, that’s a scenario a lot of pilots could face based on the sprawl surrounding a good number of America’s airports. Even strong swimmers like me are instinctively inclined take the chance on land, especially a roadway, vs water. The common sense knowledge in the back of your mind that any non-trivial injury in the process of ditching probably will turn that ditching into a drowning because of difficulty escaping doesn’t help that. Many injuries which are perfectly survivable on land in the absence of fire mean you won’t be getting out of that sinking plane unless a competent boater happens to be close enough to drag you out before the plane slips beneath the waves.

  10. A few years ago I flew my 172 from Dallas to Seattle. The many hours I spent over the mountains gave me little concern. Then we went up to Friday Harbor, and the minutes we spent over the Puget Sound waters concerned me greatly. I found that odd, because I’ve also flown to Key West without much concern, but two things were different in Washington State. First, a cloud cover kept us down low and I didn’t have the mitigation of high altitude available to me. The other is water temperature. I can swim, that doesn’t worry me. But even in summer I think the Puget Sound will incapacitate me in a matter of minutes. Try to go down near a boat.

  11. I’ve never ditched (knocks on wood)–and a good thing, as the great bulk of my overwater time has been on ferry flights worldwide (primarily North Atlantic, where despite immersion suit, life raft, PLB, etc., the ultimate outcome of even a successful ditching is likely dire). I have, however, had a crash (in a Marchetti SF-260), just after departing Narsarsuaq, Greenland, enroute to Canada. I had the choice between jettisoning the canopy and ditching in the adjacent fjord–which was frozen, but on which the ice was quite thin, offering the possibility of punching through it and being stuck underneath–or picking the “least worst” spot on land, which was a sloping rocky field. That’s what I chose; the airplane was totaled (at least so far as insurance was concerned), I walked away without a scratch.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1.) It had thrown a rod, but was still running (after a fashion), and I was still close enough to the airport that I might have been able to nurse it back to the runway–but if I’d tried turning back across the fjord and it had then quit outright, I’d definitely have had to ditch. I remember thinking, “it’s not mine, it’s insured, it’s time to park it” as a headed for the field which I knew was within gliding range. (I can add that cutting the engine and stopping the prop provided a very significant increase in glide performance.)

    2.) It was a huge psychological advantage for me that it wasn’t my first, or even my thousand and first, forced landing without power (I fly gliders) nor my first, or even my hundred and first, off-airport landing (I fly gliders). I happen to think that glider experience–even if only a few hours–is absolutely invaluable, and if I had my druthers as a CFI I’d start every student in them first. (Not to mention that it’s huge fun.)

  12. Great video. Besides the gulp of air, I have heard that it is a good idea to take your feet off the rudders at the moment of impact. The rudders may give you directional control on the way down. They may be abruptly jammed one way or the other at impact breaking or spraining an ankle and are ineffective after contact with the water anyway.

  13. Likely half or more of these types of accidents could be prevented. We would have much less to talk about with if pilots put safety and prevention before all else. Sure, even brand new airplanes fail, I get it. But bad, or no, maintenance is at fault many times, as is fuel starvation. Secondly flying over the concrete jungle at a higher altitude affords more options to newly-minted glider pilots too. Prevention.

    I flew a King Air B-200 for a company for a number of years. There was a simple log entry that read “left Outer Wing Panel P/N 0000 changed”. Out of curiosity I checked the part number thinking it was an inspection panel. Nope. The wing panel is the entire wing from the nacelle outward. The wing panel attaches to the mother ship, at the nacelle, with 4 bolts! Six months after the aircraft was built in 1981 the captain turned the aircraft into a glider by somehow forgetting to put fuel in the aircraft. The “Aluminum Recycling Center – Next Left” sign on the freeway turned the left wing into future beer cans. I know what you are thinking, because I thought the same thing every time the air got the least bit bumpy. “What about the wing panel attach fittings?” There was no log entry even suggesting the attach points were inspected.

    In grade school we learned this song “Safety is my friend, and safety is your friend, the more we think of safety the safer we will be”.

    God bless.

  14. There were few options for the pilot. Looking at Google Earth you had the beach which would have probably resulted in deaths of people on the beach. U of Biscayne property has some open space but could have made that? The Haulover Sand Bar is a large shallow area that would probably have been best. Just a couple of feet of water to land in so the potential for drowning would have been minimal.

  15. I appreciate the intellectual assessment Paul Bertorelli makes in all his articles. Many thanks for making all of us smarter with data and diligent reflection on the issue (and perhaps a little wittier too!) MM