Before this whole nightmare began, I rolled up the loose end of the seat belt strap and tucked it under the belt. With no loose straps or clothing in the way, I can find the buckle. I pull the release and slip out through the open door. Fifteen seconds from the time I drew what could have been my last breath, my head breaks the surface of the water, and I inhale.
Fortunately, I didn't ditch in the deep, frigid waters off the New England coast. Instead, my "accident" was part of a training simulation conducted in the heated waters of Survival System's training facility in Groton, Connecticut.
Learning emergency procedures is part of any flight training curriculum. We learn how to recover from stalls, turn around in instrument weather conditions, cope with a fire, and make an engine-out landing. The aircraft flight manual and the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) shine light on the basics but offer little information about what to do if your aircraft comes to rest in the water. As my instructor, Tom Lazzaro, explains, "Our training takes over where the AIM and your flight instructor leave off." The daylong basic aircraft ditching course provides the training needed to safely evacuate the aircraft, inflate and board a life raft, and assist you and others in the process of being rescued by a boat or helicopter.
If formal ditching training seems superfluous, consider the facts. Nearly 300 airports in the United States have over-water approaches to their runways. These include many of the busiest airports in the country: Los Angeles International, Boston's Logan, New York's Kennedy, Miami, and Chicago to name a few. But many smaller airports serving general aviation fit the bill as well. Although you don't read much about them, general aviation aircraft ditchings occur at the rate of more than one per month. From 1993 to 1998 alone, 82 light aircraft ditchings occurred in the United States. Of the 165 pilots and passengers involved, 59 perished.
Although the odds that you'll be ditching may be low, the consequences of a water landing bear consideration. If you're lucky, you'll come to rest right side up and the aircraft will float. But for how long? Often airplanes flip over and come to rest inverted - especially those with fixed gear. Catch a wing on the crest of a wave and you'll find yourself cartwheeling across the water. The real trick is getting out of the aircraft and surviving until help arrives. The chances of surviving a ditching without training, according to NTSB statistics, are approximately 69 percent. U.S. Navy data suggest that with the proper training, the odds of survival double.
There's no way to practice ditching a real aircraft. Instead, Survival Systems uses a unique simulator to conduct ditching training. This is no virtual reality, electronic tabletop gizmo. The METS, or Modular Egress Training Simulator, is a three-and-one-quarter-ton, 18-foot-long steel fuselage that takes the plunge into a 14-foot deep pool. The simulator is equipped with a cable and brake mechanism, and the operator can allow the simulator to roll inverted in the water, coming to rest at any angle.
A key ingredient in the METS design is the way it can be configured to simulate a broad range of rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Control yokes and cyclic and collective controls can be removed or repositioned in a matter of minutes. Doors can have any number of latch and handle configurations. Likewise, seat belts and restraint systems can be quickly changed to provide students with a "home cockpit" environment.
The training begins with a review of some critical elements of aircraft ditching. Data from the Canadian military suggest that 92 percent of the time, pilots have less than one minute between recognizing the problem and touchdown. In 78 percent of cases, the time is less than 15 seconds. An informal study of NTSB data suggests similar findings. That doesn't give a pilot or passenger much time to prepare. A nimble passenger who has been properly briefed might be able to slip into a life vest, but donning a survival suit is probably out of the question. The pilot's primary focus must be to fly the airplane.
Often, the only step a pilot and passenger can take before impact is to assume a proper brace position. As Lazzaro explains, one purpose of the brace position is to minimize our profile. During the rapid deceleration associated with a water landing, any unsecured items in the aircraft can become dangerous projectiles. The brace position minimizes the target that we present to such projectiles.
A proper brace position is also designed to prevent arms and hands from flailing about and being injured during the impact. A broken thumb, hand, or arm could make the difference between being able to open an emergency exit and drowning. For the pilot, a proper brace position means positioning the hands on the control yoke to avoid breaking the thumbs. Passengers can use a number of brace positions depending on the type of restraint systems provided in the aircraft.
"Properly adjusting the restraint system is critical, too," notes Lazzaro. "Any loose clothing or excess strap that can cover the buckle represents a major hazard. We need to have the buckle area clear, and have it positioned in the same place every time so we know where to find it without looking."
Other potential snags in the egress process include the headsets. While the force of the ditching usually removes these for us, it might be a good idea to remove and stash them out of the way once all radio calls have been made - if there's time.
The most important keys to escaping from a submerged aircraft are knowing where the latches are and being able to find and open them with your eyes closed. "It may be dark," notes Lazzaro, "and there may be no cockpit lighting. A fuel spill may make it impossible to open your eyes."
Finding and operating the door exits is done with the use of physical referencing - using reference points on our body and in the aircraft to locate the exits. Securely strapped into the seat, the process starts with a hand in a known position on our knee or hip. Slide your hand horizontally or vertically to the practiced and known latch location. If you miss on the first try, return your hand to the start position and repeat the physical referencing process. Depending on the aircraft, you may need to find and release one or more latches.
For my simulation, Lazzaro guides me through a standard pattern for finding and releasing the door latch with my left hand. But that's only the first step. Next, I must put that hand through the door opening onto the fuselage, where I keep it until I'm free. Once my left hand is outside, I use my right hand to release the seat restraints. With a hand outside the exit and the straps released, it should be a simple matter to slide myself through the exit.
The precise methodology used to extract yourself from the aircraft depends a great deal on the aircraft configuration. The same aircraft with a different seat belt or restraint system may require a totally different egress procedure. For example, a shoulder harness provides a different challenge than a four-point harness or mere seat belt. Part of the training is learning the proper procedures for the particular aircraft that we fly. Once these basics are established, we're ready to begin the simulations.
Within the course of the training, a student is likely to perform a half-dozen or more egress simulations, beginning with a simple, right-side-up scenario. As the student gains confidence, the simulations shift to more demanding scenarios, including inverted and lights-out situations. In reality, the orientation of the aircraft and darkness matter little. The same physical referencing procedure works regardless of orientation.
The first thing I learn is that the flooding of the cockpit is terribly disorienting and uncomfortable. The water seems to rush in from everywhere. As the water approaches chest level, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and try to relax, remembering the importance of staying strapped in so I can use my physical reference points. As Lazzaro warns, "In a real ditching, several tons of water will rush in during the first few seconds after the aircraft submerges. If you're not strapped in, the torrent will toss you around like a leaf in the wind." If I were to release my seat restraints, I might never find the exit. Meanwhile, a rush of water up my nose adds a stinging reminder of my overall discomfort.
Once the motion of the water has ceased, I begin my escape, following the procedure that worked so well on dry land. To my relief, it works just as well when I'm submerged, and within 12 seconds, I am floating at the surface.
The particular circumstances of a ditching may require the pilot to deviate from the standard egress procedure, and these scenarios are covered in the training as well. During one evolution, Lazzaro simulated a jammed door on my side of the cockpit. In this situation, I'm forced to release myself from my seat restraint, as I might be in an aircraft with only a passenger-side door. Maintaining a firm grip on familiar components of the cockpit, I then maneuver to the right seat and assume a seated position. From this position, I follow a physical referencing procedure to locate and open the passenger door and extricate myself. While much more demanding than an escape through my own door, I find that, with a little practice, this alternate escape plan can be completed quickly and easily.
My troubles are hardly over when I find myself floating - and breathing - at the surface after a successful ditching and egress. I'm in a hostile environment, and unless I take the proper precautions, I may never survive until help arrives.
The key to survival is to follow a predetermined pattern, of which the egress procedure is but one part. The survival pattern has four integral elements. The first is a reason to survive. Without the proper motivation, it's too easy to give up. Experts say that having a positive mental attitude is about 80 percent of the survival game. For many survivors, this motivation comes in terms of family, friends, and others who need us.
The other 20 percent of the survival game is knowledge of what to do, the proper survival equipment, and practiced skills. But even if these are only 20 percent of the game, we should never underestimate their importance. As Lazzaro notes, knowledge of what to do in a situation is critical in preserving that all-necessary positive mental attitude.
An important aspect of the training is getting hands-on familiarity with survival equipment - everything from survival suits to life rafts to survival kits. "We're not in the business of recommending specific survival equipment," says Lazzaro. "Each piece of equipment has its own strengths and weaknesses. The key is understanding how to use the equipment properly."
The first problem you face after a ditching, even if you find yourself in the warm water of the Caribbean, is heat loss and the prospect of hypothermia. Unless you're protected from the cold, your ability to help yourself may be limited to a very brief period.
Even before the effects of hypothermia begin to take their toll, the shock of cold water can severely affect your ability to survive. As I learn in the classroom portion of the training, immersion in cold water produces what is called the gasp response - an involuntary inhalation - that limits your ability to hold your breath. In fact, tests using Olympic swimmers as subjects revealed that breathold times can be reduced to a mere eight to 15 seconds in water temperatures of 50 degrees F (10 C).
A survival suit or other form of insulation can greatly extend survival time. But even if you don't have the right gear, there are ways to slow the cooling process and stave off hypothermia.
One goes by the acronym HELP-heat escape lessening position. Curl yourself up into the fetal position with your legs crossed as you float on the surface. This reduces heat loss, especially from the torso, armpits, and legs.
If you're not alone, other techniques can be used to further limit heat loss, keep the group together, and swim for shore with a minimum of effort.
The prospect of floating in the water awaiting rescue is grim, so most pilots who fly over vast expanses of water pack an inflatable raft. The raft provides shelter from the elements, and it is usually stocked with survival and rescue equipment.
Stowing a life raft in the airplane is reassuring, but the peace of mind it brings may be unfounded. If getting out of a sinking aircraft is a daunting prospect, removing a life raft from a sinking aircraft presents an even more formidable challenge.
Next is the problem of inflating the life raft, holding on to it, boarding it, and setting in motion the tasks necessary to stay afloat and attract the attention of rescuers. Only when I try this with an actual raft in the water do I begin to realize how much I didn't know. How do I inflate the raft? How do I right it if it blows over? How do I get in? How can I help someone else get in? What gear is in the raft, and how do I use it? It might be impossible to surmount this steep learning curve while bobbing around in cold, rough seas. In the warm water of the Survival Systems pool, I can experiment with various techniques and practice proven procedures.
It looks easy on "Baywatch," but getting yourself onto a rescue craft is a trick in itself. So another aspect of the training is hands-on practice in rescue self-help. One drill is helicopter rescue. Here I learn the proper feet-first entry into a rescue sling. Rescue baskets look simple, too, but practice in entering one confirms that nothing is as easy as it looks.
If you are rescued by a ship, the only way to board might be via a large net-like rope ladder. Here again, the net looks simple to climb, but I quickly learn that keeping your arms high as you climb improves the stability - an important consideration in rough seas.
I close the door, and buckle my seat belt as I ready for another short hop across Block Island Sound. I dutifully fold the loose end of the strap, tuck it under the seat belt, and review the procedure for exiting the aircraft after a ditching. The chances are slim that I'll need to use the skills I have learned, but the training experience has made me a different pilot. I'll never again look at water, or consider flying over it, with the nonchalant attitude of the past.
As with a forced landing on land, wind speed, direction, and terrain are critical considerations for ditching. In open water areas, pilots must consider both swell and sea direction. Swells, the product of past wind conditions, are often larger than the prevailing wind-driven seas. Pilots must consider the wind direction and speed with respect to the aircraft crosswind capability to determine the best direction for a water landing.
If the winds are less than 25 knots, the best option may be to land parallel to the swells with a crosswind. It makes relatively little difference where you land on the swells when landing parallel. Crosswind limitations might force a landing at an angle to the swells at higher wind speeds.
Although swells and seas are likely to be in the same direction when winds are more than 35 kt, pilots often find that the sea and swells are running in different directions. In high-sea, high-wind conditions, it's preferable to accept more crosswind and land at an angle to the primary (higher) swell. If possible, land on the back side of the secondary swells. Pilots should avoid landing directly into high swells, since misjudging touchdown might cause you to slam into the face of an oncoming swell. The most important consideration is to avoid landing into the face of a swell.
When landing near shore, always touch down beyond the breaking waves. Landing in high surf often results in an overturned aircraft and trapped occupants. Near islands, land along the lee shore where seas and swell are smaller. Over open water, look for boats and plan to land nearby to get assistance. If possible, overfly the vessel to attract the attention of potential rescuers.
For more on ditching, consult the Aeronautical Information Manual and your approved aircraft flight manual.