Going for a Ditch

The dramatic video of a Cirrus SR22 dropping into the Pacific Ocean en route to Hawaii, in January 2015, resulted in a positive outcome. The pilot, (and lone occupant), survived and was readily rescued. True: the aircraft ditched under the calm decent of its aircraft’s deployed ballistic parachute system. However, not every aircraft has the luxury of such a fail-safe device. Parachute or not, there’s a few things to consider if you’ve got no other option than to drop your aircraft into the drink.

First of all, consider the fact that, statistically, ditching is very survivable. And best of all, you don’t have to be an Apollo astronaut to survive the splashdown, nor do you have to be Michael Phelps to swim yourself to shore. If executed with the diligence of any forced landing, nine out of ten ditching's result in the survival of the aircraft’s occupants. It’s whether they’re properly prepared for rescue that may, immediately thereafter, decide whether they’ll be home for supper at six.

If ever you’re flying over open water, even if only for a short time, carry life vests for every occupant of the aircraft. Better still, every occupant, (pilot included), should wear their un-inflated life vest during the flight. The vests should be of the type that inflate manually

(with the pull of a tab), and not the type that self-inflate upon contact with water. (The latter may interfere with egress from the ditched aircraft.) As the airlines tell you, only inflate your vest once you’ve exited the aircraft.

Carry an inflatable life raft, especially if you know that your flight is taking you far from shore. The best rafts may not be cheap, but they’ll come equipped with signalling devices, survival equipment, and a first-aid kit. You may want to ensure that your raft has boarding aids and ballast to prevent capsizing. If you’ve ever been in the water with soaking wet clothes, you’ll know how difficult it is to pull yourself upward into a bobbing raft while being mercilessly pulled in the opposite direction by the additional weight of drenched clothing.

Have a portable 406 MHz emergency locator beacon attached to your life vest, or to the raft. Your aircraft won’t stay afloat very long, and its ELT isn’t going to be of much use under water. Thus, you’ll be found quicker if your beacon is attached to you, and not your airplane.

If at all possible, when preparing to ditch, guide your aircraft as close to any boat in the vicinity, to ensure a swift rescue. Ideally, if the water is calm, ditch into the wind and impact the water surface at the slowest possible speed. If the water is rough, ditch parallel to the swell of waves even if this means landing with a crosswind. Don’t face-plant your airplane into a wave: if you do, the result won’t be far-removed from impacting rising terrain.

Before splashing into the water, open a door. While this will lead to quicker flooding of the cockpit, at least the water’s pressure, (or airframe damage), won’t prevent the door from opening when you want to get out.

Generally, use partial flap. Get the benefit of the slower approach speed that flaps provide. The shallower angle will also allow you to crest over the water, minimizing the angle with which you contact the water’s surface. Reduced flap may, furthermore, result in less chance of nosing over upon impact, especially if you’re in a low-winged, retractable, aircraft.

Follow the usual steps involved in any forced landing. Remove, or fasten down, any loose items that may become projectiles upon impact. Follow the standard admonition: aviate, navigate, communicate. Be prepared for a very quick, and harsh, deceleration.

Keep in mind that the tail is likely to impact first when touching down with a retracted undercarriage. Fixed gear aircraft, on the other hand, are more likely to violently pitch nose-down. (Fortunately, the cases are rare in which ditched aircraft actually flip over.)

The cockpit of a high-wing aircraft will fill with water quicker than a low-wing, given that the high wing resting on the water’s surface will temporarily keep the aircraft buoyant, but hold the cockpit submerged. In either case, low-wing or high-wing, vacate the aircraft as quickly as you can after the airplane has come to rest.

As stated above, only inflate life vests and rafts after evacuating the aircraft. Accept the fact that you’re going to get wet, and that the water is probably going to be cold. Stay as calm as possible throughout the ordeal. As long as you’re prepared, and your Mayday call has been heard, your chances of making it home for dinner are better than you might otherwise be aware.