It's a scenario many pilots would rather not ponder: With miles of open water in every direction, your engine quits. As high as you are, you're still beyond gliding distance to land—but the altitude gives you some time to assess your options on the way down.
First, there's the skip. In a retractable-gear airplane, you could skip like a pebble across a pond before the engine weight starts pulling you, nose first, into the depths. In a fixed-gear airplane, you might splash in, maybe snagging a wingtip and spinning abruptly or digging in the nosewheel; either way, you've likely got limited time before your airplane is underwater. Or—you shudder—there's the dreaded flip, where you could come to a sudden stop inverted and begin sinking upside-down.
You're equipped for the ditching and know that however you come to rest, you'll need to get out. In a high-wing airplane, that means letting water in before you can exit. The average person can hold his or her breath for about 39 seconds—a number that shrinks by half or more if panic sets in. Think about how long you normally can hold your breath. That time shrinks by half or more if panic sets in.
But you're not panicking. This is a survivable emergency procedure.
“The bottom line with ditching is it's just another landing,” said Doug Ritter, executive director of the aviation-survival organization Equipped to Survive Foundation, at AOPA Aviation Summit Sept. 22. In the seminar “Ditching and Water Survival,” Ritter gave tips for surviving a ditching, from planning your descent to maximizing your chances of being seen by search-and-rescue crews.
Ritter emphasized that pilots shouldn't be intimidated by ditchings; a study of three years of ditching data found that 88 percent did not result in fatalities, he said. And aircraft configuration doesn't seem to be a significant factor, he added: Far more important is the pilot's preparedness.
Wear—but don't inflate—your life vest when flying over water, he said. Invest in a life raft. And a 406 MHz personal locator beacon will help with a quick rescue. When you touch down, be prepared for what feels like “the world's shortest short-field landing”—and avoid full-stall landings, which can increase the chances of flipping, he said. Flipping the aircraft is uncommon, he added, and even if you do flip you can get out safely.
The cold waters of New England pose a hazard after egress: Cold-water incapacitation can make it difficult to move or grip in five or ten minutes, Ritter said.
“More than a few survivors have been unconscious in their life vests when they were rescued,” he said. A life raft can help you stay warmer and makes you easier to spot—a person floating alone in the ocean is just another white speck among the flickers of sunlight on the waves.
The Connecticut Convention Center overlooks the Connecticut River, but the demonstrations in the seminar were mercifully dry: Ritter had members of the audience demonstrate different types of life vests and rafts, pulling the cords to inflate them with a loud pop.
Ritter boiled down the presentation to two keys to survival: preparation and never giving up. The strong don't necessarily survive, he said, but the smart do. He provides more tips on ditching and water survival on his website.