Ditching Old Wives' Tales

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Ditching ó the word alone can strike fear into pilots and passengers. A recent article in AOPA Pilot magazine claimed that ditching is a very hazardous emergency procedure that most do not survive. AVweb's Special Projects Editor Doug Ritter, also Editor of the "Equipped to Survive" web site, responds, "hogwash!" In truth, nine out of ten ditchings are successful and a few simple preventive measures can improve on even those excellent odds. Doug exposes numerous old wives' tales and explains how ditching is an eminently survivable experience.

The July 1999 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine featured an article by Editor-at-Large Thomas A. Horne titled, "In-Flight Emergencies - Ditching - Putting wings in the water." According to AVweb's Special Projects editor Doug Ritter, who is also publisher and editor of the Equipped to Survive Web site, Horne's article includes much valuable information on ditching and water survival. But, it is also chock full of old wives' tales and incorrect information. The result is not only grossly misleading, but could, and apparently has, dissuaded some pilots from properly preparing for a possible ditching.

In the following commentary adapted from the original and in a supporting article from Aviation Safety magazine by respected aviation editor Paul Bertorelli, "Ditching Myths Torpedoed!," Ritter hopes to set straight the record on the survivability of ditching and on the equipment and attitude that can further improve the already high success rate.

Old Wives' Tales

Approach to ditching near Hawaii
"Unfortunately, most ditchings are unsuccessful. Even with help close at hand, airplanes often skip once, then flip over or plow under before anyone aboard has a chance to escape."
"If luck is with you, the airplane stays upright and no one is injured to the point of incapacitation. If it isnít, the airplane is hit by a wave and sinks immediately."

Really? If by "unsuccessful," one means that the airplane can't be used again, that's probably true. On the other hand, I cannot conceive how anyone could interpret the readily available facts to conclude that the majority of ditchings are unsuccessful, or in other words, that they result in a fatality or fatalities either in total or due to the failure of the occupants to exit the aircraft. Even a cursory review of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) records will reveal that most ditchings are by this measure, or any measure, successful, meaning that the occupants escape from the aircraft reasonably intact or that there are no fatalities.

More specifically, Aviation Safety's Paul Bertorelli (a former AVweb News Editor and currently Editor of The Aviation Consumer) has conducted a review of NTSB accident records in his article "Ditching Myths Torpedoed!". His bottom line on general aviation ditchings: "Although survival rates vary by time of year and water-body type, the overall general aviation ditching survival rate is 88 percent." Moreover, Bertorelli's analysis concludes that, "... the successful egress rate is 92 percent, meaning that in more than nine out of 10 cases, at least some of the occupants got out of the airplane and ultimately survived the experience." Bertorelli further reports that, "If you exclude what we consider to be the high-risk over water operations—the long distance ocean ferry flights that are only a small part of the total over water flying—the egress rate rises to an astonishing 95 percent."

But, what if you only consider open ocean or cold water ditchings where the waves are bigger, hypothermia becomes a bigger problem, and rescue can be far away? Is it hopeless? We know of a number of highly publicized instances where pilots ditching in the North Atlantic survived, which immediately disputes the statements quoted at the top of this article. Moreover, Bertorelli found, "22 blue water ditchings ... there were four fatalities in this group of 22, for a survival rate of 82 percent, not too much worse than it is for coastal or inshore ditchings." So, even the worst possible circumstances don't make that big a difference in the survival rate.

Bertorelli's numbers are in close agreement with my own research of NTSB and USCG ditching reports. No mater how you play with the numbers or what fudge factor you might add to cover unreported ditchings, you are unlikely to adversely impact the results to any significant degree, and certainly not to the degree necessary to support the statements above, given the known facts.

Why Prepare To Ditch?

Ditching Sequence - ImpactDoes the prevalence of such old wives' tales about ditching really matter much? Is it really a problem if pilots have a negatively unrealistic expectation about their survival chances? While at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 1999, I presented a Ditching and Water Survival seminar and I spoke with Gerard Pickhardt, V.P. of Winslow LifeRaft Co. He told me of his experience at the Winslow booth during the event discussing with a pilot his interest in a life raft. The pilot was clearly interested in improving the safety of his operations; however, he stated, "I know if I do ditch though, I don't have a chance of surviving." Ergo, why invest in survival gear when the outcome of the ditching is unlikely to be successful? In fact, Pickhardt and his aviation sales representative, Steve Weatherly, both reported numerous conversations similar to this one. I had a few similar ones myself during the course of my stay in Oshkosh and via a variety of online media over the past couple months. Pickhardt commented that while denial by pilots is always something that must be overcome to sell life rafts, as all of us in the flight safety and survival business know too well (see Barry Schiff's "Safety Is A Tough Sell"), this flurry of abject resignation over the outcome of a ditching is new — just evident since July . The bottom line is that these old wives' tales are dangerous and must not actively dissuade pilots from preparing to survive a ditching.

More than just convincing them they don't need survival equipment, such misinformation also puts pilots in the worst possible state of mind. A positive state of mind is an individual's most important survival tool. If a pilot is already convinced his chances of surviving are slim, then there is a good chance that reality will conform to his preconceptions. The message that a ditching cannot be survived isn't just wrong and misleading, it is potentially deadly.

High-wing Flips?

Ditching Sequence - Stopped - Nose DownSo, what about the oft-repeated old wives' tale that high-wing aircraft almost always flip over in a ditching and as a result surviving is unlikely in such circumstances? Records concerning whether high-wing aircraft are more likely to flip after impact with the water are not so easy to find; NTSB and USCG records are remarkably silent on this issue. Bertorelli found only one, though that in itself might be significant. However, one can draw some conclusions from the experiences of the large number of ditching survivors who have been interviewed or about whom news articles have been written. I have personally interviewed many such survivors (or their rescuers) in the past five years, approximately half of whom were flying fixed-gear, high-wing aircraft. Only three reported flipping over and completing the water landing upside down, and all survived the experience.

Irrespective of whether the aircraft ends up sunny-side up or sunny-side down, the statistics tell us pilots and passengers generally get out safely. Commenting on the high overall survival rate, Bertorelli notes pointedly, "if every high wing airplane flipped over on impact or cartwheeled end-over-end across the water — highly unlikely, by the way — the occupants still managed to egress successfully." Is it a bit disorienting if the ditched aircraft does end up on its back? No doubt it can be, but that doesnít appear to have any significant impact in the real world of general aviation ditchings. Is training helpful? Sure, it could keep you out of that small percentage of fatal ditchings, but is unlikely to make a big dent in the overall stats.

Instead, the most common scenario I find is that the aircraft, high or low-wing, fixed gear or retractable, simply noses into the water sometime after initial impact and then bobs back to the surface. All survivors I have spoken with had adequate time to exit the aircraft before the wings sank below the surface. However, there is no doubt from my interviews that those flying low-wing aircraft have it easier getting out and often report time to get organized and retrieve items while standing on the wing and before entering the water or life raft.

There appears to be no data to determine how quickly a particular aircraft will sink. The vast majority report the aircraft sinking shortly after exiting, but some noted the aircraft floating for a considerable time, up to an hour or more in a few cases, days in a few others. In one case I find rather interesting, the quick-thinking survivor clambered onto the rear fuselage of his Mooney and by holding onto the vertical stabilizer, he balanced the aircraft to prevent it nosing over and sinking for long enough to allow for rescue some hours later.

Practice Makes Perfect

Ditching Sequence - Settled - Pilot EgressingDon't let anyone tell you that you can't practice ditching. Well, no, you can't actually hit the water, but a major part of practicing forced landings is not the landing itself, which like a ditching isn't all that different than a normal short and soft field landing, but rather the selection of an appropriate landing spot. While difficult for land-locked pilots, for anyone who plans to fly regularly over water, or who is interested enough to make the effort, it is easily done. A pilot can be instructed, or can practice themselves, how to identify wave and swell patterns, swell and wind direction, and how to prepare the aircraft and any emergency equipment while making a descent towards the water. Doing so will also allow you to accomplish this from higher altitudes and far more accurately and quickly.

This is not significantly different than similar techniques used when practicing normal emergency landings. An added benefit is that after the first attempt to don a life vest under simulated emergency conditions from low altitude, the pilot should quickly become convinced of the need to wear a life vest at all times when flying over water. Preparations for ditchings can and should be practiced.

What About Night? IMC?

There is also no evidence that night or IMC ditchings are generally unsurvivable or even unsurvivable in a significant minority of cases, as many seem to believe. Many pilots and passengers have survived night ditchings. While there is no question that such a procedure is more difficult and riskier — and a whole lot more scary — it is also likely far more survivable than an off-airport landing under such conditions on land in many areas.

In many circumstances, such as with significant moonlight or light scatter from a city nearby, there is ample light to perform a safe ditching under control at night. As for flying over water in IMC, in most cases IMC conditions will not extend all the way down to the water's surface, so there is time to get set up for the ditching. Judgment based on actual circumstances is necessary before deciding whether night or IMC flight over water is inappropriate. Understanding the actual risks is necessary to make such a decision.

To maximize the chances for success, some practical advice is in order. This includes stressing the importance of setting up a gentle descent, and if at all possible, a slight nose up attitude until contact is made with the water, since if there is zero visibility the pilot won't know when to flare normally. This is obviously easier with power, but by using the altimeter with a recent barometric setting or a radar altimeter, if so equipped, the pilot can also enter the flare at a judicious altitude and hold that attitude until impact, which would likely be far better than impacting in a nose-down attitude.

Just A Passenger?

Ditching Sequence - Pilot Egressed - Plane Still AfloatYet another OWT suggests that once you hit the water the pilot becomes just another passenger along for the ride — that from that point on the outcome is beyond his control. That is nonsense. It is critical that the pilot continues flying the aircraft until it stops, just as in a normal off-airport landing. My many interviews with ditching survivors support this concept. This is important because it is quite possible that rather than nose-in, the aircraft may skip off the surface of the water on initial and subsequent impacts. In such instances the pilot must continue to fly and maintain control until the aircraft impacts the water the final time.

While the aircraft generally decelerates and stops in a very short distance, the pilot may still be able to control the roll attitude of the aircraft to a certain extent for a short time after initial impact, especially in high-wing aircraft, and keeping a wingtip from digging into the water until the last possible moment can be a real benefit. The point being that a pilot may well have more control than the old wives' tales suggest and it does no good to suggest otherwise, contributing to a pilot's poor attitude towards survival. The point being that a pilot may well have control of the airplane most of the way through the ditching event. "Flying" the airplane through the ditching as long as possible can only help increase the emergency maneuver's survivability and help overcome the pilot's poor attitude towards survival.


Ditching Sequence - Pilot Rescued - Plane Still AfloatJust as a pilot prepared for an IFR cross-country will have a flight plan, charts, approach plates, etc., handy in the cockpit, ensuring that the right equipment is available will enhance the survivability of a ditching.

Life Vests

Yes, you do need a vest for every person in the aircraft, and a spare never hurt. However, forget about donning a life vest on your way down to the water, especially so if you're the pilot. Getting into a vest inside the tight confines of a typical GA aircraft is difficult at best, even for passengers. As pilot, you have lots more important things to attend to. As noted above, a little practice should easily convince you of that. If you're flying over water, wear your life vest at all times. Quick donning pouch style life vests (often called "helicopter vests") are relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Worn at the waist with the pouch sitting in your lap, the vest is simply pulled over the head in an emergency. They are perfect for passengers. Pilots may want to consider a constant-wear vest such as used by the military, USCG, and other experienced overwater pilots, as discussed in-depth in Equipped To Survive's Aviation Life Vest Reviews article.

Note that conventional aviation life vests are not designed to withstand the abuse of wearing them during flight and have been known to develop leaks very quickly. Typical buoyant marine PFDs or auto-inflating PFDs are dangerous and should never be relied upon as they could trap you in an aircraft (USCG approved inflatable PFDs are okay).

Exposure Suits

Multifabs Exposure Flight SuitHypothermia is always a potential danger, even in moderate water temperatures, but especially in colder waters. The past few years have witnessed a revolution in exposure suit design. For example, there are now numerous comfortable and practical options for pilots that improve upon the old-style neoprene closed-cell foam rubber exposure suits similar in many ways to a SCUBA diver's dry suit, but looser and bulkier). A serious disadvantage of the old-fashioned, ill-fitting neoprene exposure suits is that they are difficult to fly in if fully donned.

The usual solution to the problem is to fly with the top half rolled down to the waist. The plan being to complete the donning prior to the ditching in the event of an emergency. Even then, the feet are clunky and make flying awkward. Unfortunately, sometimes that plan doesn't quite work out. On December 19, 1998, off the coast of Nova Scotia the pilot survived the ditching, but because he was unable to complete donning the old-fashioned style immersion suit, he succumbed to hypothermia after exiting the aircraft. It was determined that he would otherwise have survived.

The new-style exposure suits fit much better and are much more comfortable. One increasingly popular concept adopted by the military and now available to the rest of us from companies such as Multifabs and Mustang is a design that looks not much different from a conventional military style flight suit, but which incorporates a GORE-TEX waterproof membrane and waterproof zipper, and in some designs, highly effective insulation or insulated underwear. A hood is rolled under the collar until needed, thermal gloves attached by tethers are in quick-access pockets on the sleeves. Integrated GORE-TEX socks/booties allow use of normal footwear, making flying much easier. These suits are actually quite comfortable for extended wear, which means they are more likely to be worn when needed, instead of only when required by regulations.

These type suits are used daily in the North Sea oil fields and elsewhere and are well proven in actual survival episodes. Because the materials aren't inherently buoyant like the closed-cell neoprene foam is (an inflatable life vest is still required) they can't possibly trap someone inside a sinking aircraft. They are also far easier to maneuver in, an advantage inside as well as once egress is completed. In addition, the fabric is less likely to snag or to be torn, both potentially life-threatening problems.


ICOM A22 in ICOM Waterproof PouchOften, pilots attempt to waterproof various pieces of survival equipment like a handheld communications radio using the tools which are readily at hand, including plastic Ziploc bags. A simple plastic bag may be better than nothing, but is certainly not the best idea when lives are at stake. They are too easily punctured or inadvertently unsealed, and many are not truly waterproof. Instead, waterproof pouches specifically designed for the purpose are available from manufacturers, from most marine supply stores and from Web sites such as West Marine at relatively low cost. If you plan on depending upon your handheld for emergency use, it only makes sense to make sure it will be useable.

While combined VHF and GPS handhelds are available, it likely would be far more economical and result in better com performance to rely upon separate handheld devices for radio and GPS, particularly since most pilots already own both and many GPSs are already waterproof (check your unitís specifications). If not, waterproof pouches for GPS units are available as well, or, small waterproof GPS navigators are available for under $125.

In addition, don't forget your cell phone; in many instances it will work better than a VHF radio. You can get waterproof pouches for them as well.

Crash Axes?

We all know about the irony that exists for airline pilots passing through airport security; the pilot goes on to the cockpit where there's a potentially deadly crash axe stored for emergency use. Would such a crash axe be of use for a pilot of the typical light general aviation aircraft who was trapped after a ditching? As a member of the SAE Aerospace Council, Aircraft Division, S-9 Cabin Safety Provisions and S-9A Subcommittee - Evacuation and Ditching Systems, which just happens to be currently developing standards for Aviation Crash Axes, I am particularly familiar with this subject at this time. The effectiveness of a crash axe in most situations is highly variable. One aspect of its use that is incontrovertible, however, is that to be at all effective requires that considerable force be delivered by swinging the axe through an arc of some sort, which is highly unlikely within the compact confines of most light GA aircraft cabins or cockpits, especially if the pilot is not alone, and impossible if submerged.

A far more effective means of opening most GA aircraft doors and fixed windows, and a method widely accepted in the safety and survival industry, is to use both feet to push outward while bracing oneself against some portion of the interior. Numerous survivors have escaped this way and this has been demonstrated to work on just about any opening or window except in pressurized aircraft, in which case the crash axe is unlikely to be of much use, anyway.

Life Rafts

Winslow Life Raft - ETS Raft TestingAny life raft is better than no life raft. However, as with most things in aviation, life rafts come in all manner of quality and description. And, as with most things in aviation, or life for that matter, if you don't pay for it, you rarely get it. While it is possible to purchase a new life raft for $1,000,  it will be the least capable available life, as Equipped To Survive's in-depth Aviation Life Raft Reviews article explains. Such an inexpensive raft will have a single buoyancy chamber with no survival equipment, boarding aids, ballast, or canopy. In essence, it is little more than a self-inflating inner tube with a floor.

A "good raft," having the most critical features survival authorities recommend, such as dual buoyancy chambers for redundancy, effective boarding aids to assist getting into the raft from the water (otherwise extremely difficult), enough ballast to prevent capsizing, a canopy for protection, and a basic survival kit, will set you back closer to $2,500, minimum. At the least you'd want to consider dual buoyancy chambers and decent boarding aids and, if possible, ballast. That will cost in the neighborhood of $1800 - $2,000, minimum. The bottom line is you can't expect to buy a very capable life raft for $1,000, so don't fool yourself into thinking that you can.

Signaling Devices

ACR 406 MHz EPIRBFinally, with regards to signaling equipment, it should be noted that the single most highly-effective survival signaling device is a 406 MHz emergency beacon. The advantages offered by the 406 MHz beacon are key to a quick rescue. As the world learned during the search for JFK Jr.'s Piper Saratoga, the ELT in the aircraft isn't going to be much help once the aircraft submerges.

There are a number of affordable 406 EPIRBs (the marine equivalent of aviation's ELT) available which will ensure immediate notification of authorities and near instantaneous accurate location of the survivors (unlike 121.5 beacons). These 406 EPIRBs are also available for rent, for those pilots whose need is infrequent. Anyone flying over water should seriously consider adding a 406 EPIRB to his survival equipment. Pocket-size personal 406 MHz beacons are on the way, but there is no reason to wait.

Failing that, pilots should at least consider a pocket-size personal 121.5 MHz EPIRB. The new Sea Marshall lists for only about $129 and could save your life. Not a substitute for a 406 beacon, but much better than nothing and easy to carry at all times, no matter where you are flying.

Another notable improvement in signaling equipment is the SEE/RESCUE streamer, a modern replacement for the short-lived, problematic, and outmoded sea marker dye. This is a far more effective signaling product, one reason it has been accepted by the military as a replacement for marker dye and also why the USCG is taking steps to include the SEE/RESCUE in all their survival vests.


Ditching Sequence - Pilot Safe - Plane Finally SinksCertainly, being forced to ditch an aircraft in open water is a stressful, traumatic experience. Believing in old wives' tales and being unnecessarily fatalistic about one's chances or being ill-prepared to use the most effective techniques and technologies available to maximize one's success can only compound that stress and trauma. The end result could well be to cause an otherwise survivable ditching to end up among the increasingly few that were not successful.

Instead, understanding the risks, planning for the event, ensuring that the proper equipment is available and that the crew is well-trained in its use will not only inspire confidence but will also greatly enhance the already excellent chances for success.  As with so many other facets of aviation, preparation and understanding are the keys and improve the safety, utility, efficiency and enjoyment of your flying.

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