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Surviving a Splashdown

Surviving a Splashdown
Three Phases Preparations Carry Life Vests Final Preparations
A Pair Of Life Savers Sizing Up the Swells Secondary Swells Splash!
Get Out Fast! Deliberate Offset Safely Out

Surviving a Splashdown

It is a rare pilot who has flown over water and hasn't looked down and contemplated the shimmering surface, wondering what they'd do if something serious went wrong. Even when that water is just on the approach or departure to an airport, the pucker factor is raised just a bit. Drowning isn't a pleasant prospect, yet many pilots face the risk regularly by failing to prepare for the eventuality of a forced water landing.

While we generally consider ditchings in relation to long over-water flights, they often occur during approach and takeoff or within sight of land. Many aircraft are ditched into rivers, lakes and bays. We've all heard the old saw that "you can drown in a thimbleful of water." It is just as true that you can drown during a ditching within sight of shore.

Anyone who flies over water, any water, outside of practical gliding distance to land, is at risk. By practical, we mean that there is a safe spot to put down on dry land. Many shorelines don't offer any suitable landing spots. Often, the water is the safest spot available, if you're prepared.

Three Phases

We can divide a ditching into three distinct phases. The initial or ditching phase includes recognition of the emergency, preparation for, and the actual ditching. The egress phase starts after the aircraft comes to a stop and encompasses getting out and away from the aircraft before it is too late. The survival phase begins once you are safely out of the aircraft and continues until rescue. Each encompasses unique areas of concern, difficulties and solutions.

When the possibility of a ditching exits, early recognition of the emergency and prompt contact with ATC are vital. The record shows that late recognition or admittance of the emergency has traditionally been a problem. Don't lose valuable time; accept the reality. Communication can be difficult and spotty, particularly over the ocean, and any altitude loss can cut off comm to ATC. If fuel is potentially a problem, the sooner noted, the sooner you can be directed to a preferred ditching site, such as a boat or offshore platform. (These are among the good reasons to fly as high as is practical while over water.)

The sooner ATC is notified, the quicker search and rescue (SAR) forces can be on their way to you and the more likely you will be rescued. It is also more likely they can help you with additional information which could come in handy, such as relaying wind and sea conditions from a nearby boat. If you can't raise ATC, transmit in the blind. Many a pilot's mayday call has been received by other aircraft who have alerted ATC.

The most vital information to transmit is your location. Know how to get your present position on your GPS, Loran or RNAV if you have one. If not, give the best fix you can. No matter how you do it, you should always be aware of your position while over water. In an emergency there may not be time to try to figure it out. If time allows, also transmit your altitude, rate of descent, course and speed.


If you have filed and opened your flight plan and stuck to it or updated it enroute if necessary, this information should be all SAR needs to find you because everything else is in the flight plan. The Coast Guard (USCG) considers a complete and accurate flight plan for over water flights essential. It one of the best things you can do to help yourself and them. Never make an over water flight without one.

When filing, use the "Remarks" field to provide additional information that will make it easier for SAR to find you. Include the survival equipment you carry, such as vests, a raft, strobe lights, etc. and be as specific as possible about what sort of raft you have. How a raft is equipped can make a big difference in how fast it drifts in response to wind and currents. This type of information helps SAR establish their search parameters and decide for how long to continue the search and whether to search into the night.

Unless you are trying to reach a ship, off-shore platform, the shore or a particularly calm expanse of water, there is little reason to try to get to any specific location. The water is pretty much the same anywhere you go--wet. On the other hand, the more time you have to prepare for the actual ditching, the better. So, you generally want to maximize your time aloft, not the distance traveled. Minimum sink rate will gain you some extra time to prepare and keep you dry just a bit longer. This is usually achieved close to half way between the stall speed and normal glide speed in most light aircraft. A little experimentation beforehand can determine this number more precisely. Once you have prepared as best you can and are within approximately 1000 ft. of the surface, then you should resume a normal glide which will set you up at a familiar rate of descent for your landing.

Once you have a advised ATC of your emergency and established your glide, it's time to deal with survival equipment and preparations for the ditching. A ditching is not a normal emergency situation and a special ditching checklist made up ahead of time can help make sure you don't forget anything. You'll have to make your own, because very few aircraft include a ditching checklist in the POH, and the few that do exist are not very good.

Carry Life Vests

Life vests (or Personal Floatation Devices (PFD) as they are also referred to) are a must, even with a raft aboard. There's no guarantee you'll get a raft out of a sinking airplane and no matter how physically fit you are, you can't expect to survive by treading water, especially if you're injured or in cold water.

We recommend you always wear your life vest while over water. Ideally, this is a vest designed for regular wear or a quick donning style which straps to your waist. Standard airline style vests are not designed to be worn except in an emergency. For the pilot and the front seat passenger or co-pilot this is especially important. This is not the time to be struggling to get into a life vest. It is time to fly the aircraft.

Depending upon the size of the cabin, passengers may be able to make do with a conventional packaged vest as used by the airlines. However, before electing to go that route, give it very careful consideration. Quickly donning a life vest in the tight confines of the typical light plane is, at best, an awkward endeavor. Add in a dose of panic as the water gets closer and you might want to seriously consider a quick donning or wearable style for all occupants. If the ditching preparations are begun at low altitude, there is simply no way anyone will get into a conventional airline style vest in time.

Always brief your passengers on the location and use of the vests before take off. Before actually ditching, cinch the waist strap down tight--uncomfortably tight. If the vest isn't cinched down tight, then it is going to ride up away from your body. With most vests this will funnel water down into your mouth and nose rather than allowing it to drain away.

Final Preparations

If it is necessary to undo the seat belt to don a vest, don't forget to put the belt and harness back on before ditching. Pilots should double-check this. Lives have been lost because passengers forgot to buckle back up.

It is virtually impossible to don a vest, even a quick donning style, with a headset on. If still at altitude and plenty of time is available, you can put the headset back on until preparing to ditch. At that time transmit a final position fix and "off comm," then take it off and stow it where it won't come loose or be in the way when evacuating the aircraft. Headsets and cords can entangle and trap occupants. Remember when you are stowing it that besides the deceleration forces, there may also be water in the cabin, both influence where you stow the headset.

It is difficult to don any vest without removing your glasses and you want them off for the evacuation anyway. Place them in a secure place on your person. Note that they will be difficult to get at later on if you put them in a shirt pocket, though in many cases there may not be any other option.

Traditionally, we have been instructed to remove shoes. That is appropriate in an airliner, but not in light aircraft. Only remove your shoes if they have high heels or something similar which could cause you problems getting out, or if, for some reason, you have no life vest. Once in the water, shoes offer additional protection.

Take off ties, remove dentures, secure any loose objects. In some aircraft it may be feasible to toss excess or loose baggage overboard. Tuck any loose ends of the vest waist strap into a pant pocket or otherwise secure them. These long loose ends can easily become entangled during an evacuation, trapping you.

Never inflate the vest until completely clear of the aircraft. Be sure to brief your passengers on this point and make sure they understand. A vest inflated inside can make it difficult or impossible to get out and might trap others as well.

If you carry a life raft, and we think that it is foolish not to do so for over water flights, it needs to be as accessible as possible. The raft must be secured, yet be easy to get at. Storing it in a passenger seat secured with the safety harness is the best option, if there is an empty one available. Many ferry pilots, who fly solo, store the raft in the left seat and fly from the right in aircraft with a single door.

If stored in the baggage area, it should be on top and have a quick release tie down. Be sure to brief everyone on its location, how to release and operate it and, most importantly, how to avoid inflating it inside the cabin. Inflating a raft in the cabin is a quick way to turn a bad situation into a disaster.

Worth noting here that a personal size ELT or EPIRB is one of the surest ways to be found quickly. Your handheld VHF radio, or even your cell phone, could come in real handy if you've prepared ahead of time. Make sure you pack it inside a waterproof pouch or case. Civilian aviation handhelds are not waterproof. Companies such as West Marine and Aquapac have specially designed cases that you'll want to get; they aren't expensive and they could be lifesavers. They also make such cases for cell phones, GPSes, and other useful gear.

Note WARNING: (added 5/14/2002) It appears many pilots have been confused by some of the advertising for the Yaesu (Vertex Standard) handheld VHF radios with water drops on and around the radio in the photos and claims of "JIS-4 water resistance." They have apparently mistakenly believed that the standard Yaesu handhelds are actually waterproof (or more technically "immersion resistant" or "submersible") and that is not true. They are only splash resistant (JIS-4: "Splash-proof" " harmful influence by receiving splash of water from any direction" - click for complete standard) so that if it should get rained or splashed on, they will likely continue to function, but submerge them and you're likely going to be left with a useless piece of electronics. Icom also claim JIS-4 compliance, but their image advertising hasn't implied more than they can deliver.

Note UPDATE: (added 11/22/2003) The first truly submersible aviation handheld that is as waterproof as the typical marine handheld was introduced by Vertex Standard in 2003, the VXA 700 "Spirit." This compact radio incorporates not only the VHF aviation comm and navigation frequencies, but also 2 meter amateur band (HAM) and weather and FM receive only as well. It is waterproof to the JIS 7 standard; 1 meter for 30 minutes.

In the event the raft should inflate inside, for whatever reason, it must be deflated immediately, if not sooner. Always carry a knife with which to puncture the raft, if this should happen. The knife should either be a fixed blade or a one-hand opening folder which is readily accessible. A fixed blade is best. It does not have to be large to get the job done, but should have a handle big enough to grasp firmly. Something in your pocket is not accessible enough, if you have to disconnect the seat belt to get at it. If you need it, you will need it "right now!"

In most aircraft, open the door(s) and jamb something into the opening so as to prevent the door closing again on impact. (NOTE: IF YOU FLY a Columbia/Cessna Corvalis, DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR IN FLIGHT! (Other aircraft with gull wing doors may also be at risk.) Always check your Pilot's Operating handbook to ensure that opening the door is safe to do.) On some aircraft, moving the door handle to the lock position while open will also serve to prevent the door from closing (something to check out before you need it). This is critical to ensure you will be able to exit through the normal exits. If left closed, deformation of the structure on impact could make it impossible to open the door. If equipped with jettesonable doors, get rid of them.

While passengers can practice the crash position ahead of time, have them wait to assume the position until no sooner than one minute before hitting the water. If this position is assumed too early, it is likely one or more will look up to take a peek--usually just as impact occurs.

A Pair Of Life Savers

Two additional pieces of equipment, ready at hand, could save your life, as they have others. After ditching it would not be unusual to find yourself trapped in your safety harness or entangled in wires in the cockpit. If you have a "seat belt safety knife" available, you can safely cut yourself free. A regular knife could work, but you risk the possibility of puncturing your life vest or injuring yourself or others, particularly in the confusion and disorientation that is likely in a ditching. Velcro the knife to the vest or to the shoulder harness or seat belt itself. After the impact you may not be able to get it out of your pocket.

High wing aircraft and helicopters are nearly always going to submerge before you can egress the aircraft. The helicopter is also going to roll upside down. Even a low wing aircraft might quickly submerge, before all the occupants can get out. If the water is cold and the submergence rapid, the problem is compounded by the body's "cold water reflex" which will cause exhalation of air, no matter how hard you try to hold it.

A device originally developed for the military to reduce the very high fatality rate in helicopter ditchings is now available commercially. Called a HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) in the military, the commercial variant is called "Spare Air" ($210 - $275 depending on model from Submersible Systems, Inc.).

The device is essentially a miniature SCUBA which integrates all the components of SCUBA gear (compressed air tank and regulator(s)) into a single small device that will fit into a large vest pocket or holder. Depending upon the design selected, it will give the user up to 48 breaths of air. This can make all the difference in an underwater egress event. Safe use of the device requires training. While specialized aviation oriented training is available, most dive shops will be able to give you the basic training you need.

Sizing Up the Swells

There are a few significant differences between a forced landing on land and ditching in the water, besides the fact that you're going to get wet. The first is selection of landing direction. On land your primary concern is as flat an area as possible and into the wind if you can manage it. For a ditching, everything depends upon the state of the water.

If ditching in a river, your best bet is to ditch heading downstream. The water moving in the same direction lowers the effective landing speed. If your ditching is to be into a small to medium sized lake in calm to moderate winds, you'll do fine to simply head into the wind. Wind direction can be ascertained by observing the movement of the little whitecaps (chop) or the small waves generated by the wind. On larger lakes or in high winds you may face essentially the same conditions as you will likely find on the ocean. This gets a bit more complicated.

Ditching instructions invariably discuss landing in relation to the swell direction because this has such an impact, figuratively and, potentially, literally, on the success of the ditching. Swells are long parallel, rounded undulations of the water's surface caused by distant wind systems. The are regular, and widely spaced. These are not chop or waves which may exist on top of the swells and are characterized by short distance between crests, whitecaps and breakers.

To make the safest landing, you need to determine the direction in which the swells are traveling. Unfortunately, this can be difficult. Barry Shiff was the first aviation writer to point out that swell movement is often nearly impossible to determine below 2000 ft. (AOPA Pilot, March 1983). However, this important point continues to be ignored. Big mistake, and yet another reason to fly as high as possible.

Even at altitude, swell direction can be hard to figure out. It becomes easier with practice and experience. Swell movement is recognizable as differences in light intensity moving along on the surface. You should try to always be cognizant of swell direction anytime you are over water and the more you look for it, the easier it will be to recognize--so, practice.

In an emergency, if you haven't already determined the swell direction and if you have enough altitude, making a 360-degree turn will often allow you to pick it out easier as your vantage point vis-a-vis the sun reflecting off the water is changed. This is generally a good idea anyway since you may also locate an even better place to ditch.

Secondary Swells

Besides the primary swell, there may also be smaller secondary swells. These will move through the primary swell, usually at an angle to it, but not always. The problem is that they are generally even more difficult to see than the primary swell. They could influence your landing direction--if you could see them, but the chances of you doing so are slim.

However, secondary swells can also help create an area of calm water when there is a confluence of swell systems in just the right configuration, one's crests filling the valleys of the other. This is something to keep an eye out for when doing your 360. It will stand out against the otherwise rolling waters.

In conditions of swells and moderate winds, disregard wind direction. The swells are what is important. The idea is to select a heading that minimizes the chance of rapid deceleration which, just as in a off-airport landing on land, is what poses the greatest danger. The U.S. Coast Guard goes into great detail about this, but we can distill the most important points.


If at all possible, you want to land along, or parallel to, the swell, not across it. The best location is along the crest of the swell which minimizes the chance of a wingtip digging into the water. Second best is in the trough or bottom of the swell. Along the sides is more difficult because of the bank angle required and the increased likelihood of catching a wingtip. Keep in mind that the swell system is always on the move. As you get near the water, you must be prepared to maneuver a bit to track the imaginary centerline of the landing spot you have settled on.

Landing across the swells presents the greatest risk. If, for some reason, you find yourself with no other choice, try to land on the back side of the swell. Landing directly into the face of the swell will give you a good lesson in how hard water can be when impacted at relatively high speed.

Wind direction should be considered only if you know that its velocity exceeds one-third to one-half the speed at which you will touch down. In that case, the USCG recommends a compromise between the swell direction and the wind or landing into the wind. In either case, your chances of success are diminished.

As on land, touchdown speed is among the most critical factors in survivability. For years it has been taught that fixed gear was a liability in a ditching because it would theoretically dig into the water and flip the aircraft. However, the reality is that fixed gear aircraft have the highest survival rate since they generally land at a slower speed. Retractable gear should be left in the wells. The lower strength of retractable gear could result in the gear being ripped off, opening the wing and increasing the likelihood of the aircraft sinking quickly or digging in a wingtip and cartwheeling.

High wing aircraft should generally be ditched with full flaps. However, because egress from a sinking or submerged aircraft is such an important factor, determine ahead of time what effect flap position has on this. In some high wing aircraft, lowered flaps can prevent opening of emergency exits. Low wing aircraft should leave the flaps retracted to prevent them pitching the aircraft down upon impact which could cause it to pitch over on its back.

If power is available, use it to make a shallow approach low over the water at 5 to 10 kts above stall. Look for those smooth areas; if one is apparent, even if it seems small, cut power as you approach it. Without power, take extra care to avoid the full stall on landing which could result in the nose dropping into the water first. Bear in mind that the typical light plane will take only about hundred feet to stop, if that much. The water absorbs energy rapidly.

If the surface of the water is glassy smooth, making it hard to judge height, the USCG recommends maintaining a 9 degree to 12 degree nose up attitude and 10 to 20 percent above stall until contact is made. On a dark night this may be your only option.

Maintain control at all times. Keep the wings parallel with the surface as long as possible. As soon as contact is made, pull back to keep the nose up as long as possible, similar to a soft field landing.

If you stay in control and do not dig a wing into the water, once contact is made, the aircraft will probably do one of three things, or a combination of these three:

1. It may skip, especially if it is a retractable. If this occurs, warn everyone to stay in the crash position. Keep flying the aircraft at all times.

2. It may nose into the water, coming to an abrupt stop. The aircraft may even partially submerge, or at least seem to, but it will bob to the surface rapidly. This is the most likely scenario with a fixed gear and also the likely end result after skipping as well. When this occurs it is not unusual for the windscreen to cave in and the water to inundate the cockpit in a wall of water. Be forewarned so you don't inadvertently swallow this water.

3. Finally, the aircraft may flip over, coming to rest on its back.

No matter what happens, maintain the crash position until all forward motion ceases. Don't panic. It is easy to become disoriented from the water rushing in.

Get Out Fast!

Having landed, you are now faced with getting out of the aircraft. Under the best circumstances, the aircraft will come to a halt and float in a noise down position, since that is the natural floatation attitude for the typical light plane.

If you are flying a low wing aircraft, there is a good possibility that you will be able to exit the aircraft onto the wing and disembark into the water or your raft from there. Get out as quickly as possible, taking your emergency equipment with you. Even if the aircraft is floating on the surface, be prepared for it to sink under you at any time, without warning. Get away from the aircraft as quickly as possible.

There have been occasions when a ditching survivor or survivors have climbed onto the tail of a low wing aircraft, counterbalancing the heavy forward. The aircraft remained afloat long enough for them to be rescued. If you do not have a raft available, this might be an possibility to consider as a last resort if conditions permit. You have a much better chance of being found if the plane is still floating since it presents such a large target, compared to the minuscule target of your head in a life vest.

With a high wing aircraft, odds are that you may have to wait until it partially or completely submerges before you can open the door(s). If a low wing aircraft noses in or flips this can also be the scenario you have to deal with. This can be a scary time as the water rises. Calm yourself, don't panic. There is plenty of time to get out, as long as you don't panic. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, you can sometimes hasten the equalization of pressure, and thereby your exit, by opening side windows to let water in faster.

The following applies no mater if you are submerging right side up or upside down: Don't release your lap belt until you are ready to egress and, preferably, not until you have a door or emergency exit open. When you are ready to release the belt, you may have difficulty locating the buckle. Don't panic. To find it, slap your leg with your hand, then follow your leg up to your waist and the belt and then along it to the buckle.

Be conscious of how your seat belt/shoulder harness release operates. Most often it is different from the one you unlatch multiple times daily in your car. "Instinct," or more properly in this case, the primacy of ingrained behavior will kill you just as surely as panic. If the belts don't release after your initial attempt, do not panic. STOP and THINK, then try again to operate the release for your belt, this time the one in the aircraft, not the one in your car.

Avoid the temptation to follow the air up and back into the tail. You want to get out, not get trapped. Avoid hyperventilating. Take no more than three deep breaths before holding your breath for the exit.

Deliberate Offset

If you didn't have time to jamb the exit open, you will have to open it. Locating an exit latch under water or in the dark can be very difficult. Use the concept of "deliberate offset," adapting this traditional navigation technique, to help in such situations: Forget about "up" and "down" except as they relate to your seated position. Reach out with the hand closest to the exit and deliberately reach low. Don't try for where you expect the handle to be, it probably won't be there. Starting low, work your way up to a feature you recognize such as an arm rest or door seam and then move along that feature until you reach the door handle or emergency exit latch.

If you have to release your belt to make your way to an exit, or having opened the exit, are ready to exit, the first thing to do is to grab hold of a reference point. This is critical. Don't release your belt without having hold of a reference point. Never let go with both hands! Always keep one hand gripping, not just touching, a reference point. Don't let go of one until you have another firmly gripped. Both these techniques, deliberate offset and use of reference points, can be practiced on the ramp by simply closing your eyes and moving around inside the aircraft. It isn't as effective as underwater egress training, but familiarity can make a difference.

Even with the water pressure equalized on both sides, the door may be difficult to open. Push hard. If the exit is blocked, don't hesitate in moving to an alternative. Maintain your reference points.

On most non-pressurized light aircraft you can forcibly eject the windows or baggage compartment door. Rest both feet on the exit with knees bent, grab hold of something firm to brace yourself and force your feet out with all your strength.

When you exit, grab the edge of the exit and pull yourself through. Don't kick! Unless you are alone, someone is likely right behind you. If you get stuck, back up a bit, rotate some and try again. Don't panic.

Safely Out

Once clear of the aircraft, head to the surface. If you aren't sure which way is up, one strategy is to let out a little air, the bubbles will rise. A more expeditious method is to simply inflate your life jacket. This will raise you to the surface instantly. As you rise, swimming or propelled by the vest's inflation, exhale slowly and stick a hand above your head. It's entirely likely you will rise into something, possibly something hazardous. Best not to impact it with your head first or to tear the vest on a ragged edge of metal.

If the aircraft is floating, the temptation to re-enter and help someone out can be strong. Consider carefully, for the plane will likely sink without warning. If the plane is submerged, never re-enter. If you need to try and help someone, dive down, get a good grip on something on the exterior and reach in. Otherwise, a panicked or drowning person can easily pull you inside inadvertently, trapping you both.

The inflation pulls on aviation life vests are labeled "jerk to inflate." That is not an insult. They say "jerk to inflate" because that's what it takes. Simply pulling will usually not do it, unless you are very strong. It takes a jerk and a strong one at that. Most people with no previous experience don't jerk hard enough, especially if already in the water. Some then panic because it didn't work. If, for some reason, it doesn't inflate, blow up the vest manually using the oral inflation tubes, found on the sides of typical airline style vests.

After the vest inflates you will likely want to deflate it somewhat by pressing in the check valves in the end of the oral inflation tubes. This won't significantly effect buoyancy, but it will make it much more comfortable, easing the pressure on your head. With temperature changes, from night to daytime for example, you will need to inflate and deflate the cells as appropriate using the oral inflation tubes.

Whether you got out a good mayday call or not, the chances for rescue are good, provided you are properly equipped and take an active part in your rescue. You present only a one square foot target floating in the water. Even a four man raft will only be 13 to 16 square feet. Many is the story of survivors floating in the water watching SAR and others pass them by in boats and aircraft and no means to signal. Imagine the frustration as fellow survivors die when you can see rescue, but they don't see you. Imagine the consequences if they never do see you until too late. Equip yourself to survive.

With proper preparation, execution and, very important, the right survival equipment, ditching can be a relatively safe ending to a star crossed flight. If you maintain control of the aircraft and stay calm, you and your passengers should be fine, a bit wet perhaps, but little worse for the wear.

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