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Letter from Greg Marshall to Tom Horne

This is a copy of a letter to Tom Horne and AOPA Pilot Editor Tom Haines from Greg Marshall. An edited version of this letter was published in the October, 1999 issue.

Dear Tom:

I feel compelled to write to you about your article on Ditching in the July AOPA Pilot. I think someone fed you a lot of wrong info.

I've flown in Hawaii for nearly 25 years in a variety of single engine airplanes. I currently own two Piper Lances, one based here, and the other which I keep on the mainland for flying air races, including races through the Bahamas each year. I ferried my Hawaii Lance here two years ago. I'm chairman of the Great Hawaiian Air Race (a benefit for the Make-A-Wish Foundation), a race that brought together 47 airplanes for 600 miles of flying throughout the Hawaiian Islands this past February -- Barry Schiff was one of our participants, and Peter Bedell has raced in another race with us. We have 65 airplanes signed up for Feb. 2000, from 25 states & 4 countries. I also serve as Safety Chairman for two races that take place annually in the Bahamas. All of these things considered, I give more than passing thought to ditchings.

Everyone whom I personally know who has ditched has survived -- most without a scratch, including a couple in their seventies who lost the dual mag in their own Lance in the Bahamas. However, I cannot say the same for those friends who attempted off-airport emergency landings on land -- most died, or were seriously injured, and all were experienced pilots.

The most common ditching in Hawaiian waters takes place at least a couple of times a year and appears in our newspapers. It's usually a low-time or visiting pilot who does not allow for our strong trade winds and miscalculates his/her fuel. They frequently ditch about ten miles short of Honolulu airport. Invariably, these low time pilots, none with sea training, survive without a scratch.

During the air race season, I generally traverse the U.S. four to six times a year, coast to coast, in my Lance. I am far more nervous flying over most mainland terrain than I am flying over open ocean. In fact, when flying over land, I keep my eyes open for any body of water -- lake, pond, river. Second only to a level farmer's field, water remains a top choice for an off-airport landing. Few roadways are really safe. Rare is the case when a "nice roadway" emergency landing doesn't turn into a collision with a motor vehicle, unseen power lines, or sign posts. The biggest blessing of water ditchings: There's never a post-crash fire.

Night water ditchings, as with off-airport landings on land, are more dangerous -- but not as ominous as you present. Again, even at night, I prefer a water ditching to unknown terrain. Setting up for a "seaplane descent," 200 fpm, into the wind, at the lowest safe airspeed will make survival quite likely. With GPS, every pilot should know wind direction and velocity simply by glancing at the IAS and GPS groundspeed readings and turning accordingly until the differential is maximized. With the known elevation of the ocean and most inland bodies of water, the pilot has the opportunity to prepare for a flare in the last few seconds by keeping an eye on the altimeter. Preparation for a night ditching is more critical -- including donning vests. Even without "Dumpster" training, if pilots remain calm enough to remember one key training point after the airplane settles (and tell it to passengers), they will exit safely with their survival gear, regardless of whether the airplane is upright or inverted: "Whatever is to your right now, will be to your right after we ditch...etc."

You are also quite incorrect when you state that it is difficult to estimate altitude over water. Aside from bodies of water being of known altitude, elevation over water is every bit as easy to estimate visually as elevation over land -- except under rare glassy-water conditions. With several hundred hours of seaplane time in both lakes and open ocean, I speak from experience on this.

While there certainly are instances of airplanes inverting during the ditching, none of the incidents that I am personally aware of resulted in the airplanes inverting -- these were all single engines, including low wing, high wing, fixed gear, and retractable. In some cases, the pilots and passengers had time to exit onto the wing, inflate their raft, then re-enter the airplane to recover other personal items, including magazines and a deck of cards to pass the time waiting for the Coast Guard.

Your closing two paragraphs are disturbingly incorrect and improper. How grim to state "Unfortunately, most ditchings are unsuccessful." Contrary to what you state -- most ditchings are successful. The incident of the Hawaii Cessna P-210 that you cite, if it is the one I am thinking of, was an unusual circumstance: It was a ferry flight across the Pacific, heavily laden with ferry tanks and fuel in the fuselage. Generally, there is limited cockpit space due to the tanks, and occasionally there is a ferry tank in place of the right seat. It is possible that the ferry tanks broke loose and trapped the pilot's egress. This was not a good example.

Since I have enjoyed your articles in the past and found them to be informative and accurate, I am therefore quite disturbed that you would publish an article that was not well researched and is replete with inaccurate information and opinion that is likely to distress pilots unnecessarily. I don't expect you to publish a retraction, but I think that a clarification within the magazine or “Letters” section would be very appropriate. Feel free to call me if you'd like to discuss this further.

Greg Marshall
Air Race Central &
The Great Hawaiian Air Race

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