Have you ever given thought to what you would do if you found yourself strapped in upside down in a sinking aircraft? Imagine flying along on a nice warm day, the next moment, being trapped inside an aircraft with cold water rushing in. It’s very dark, you can’t breathe, and if you’re not prepared your chances of survival are reduced dramatically.
Very little emphasis is placed on aircraft ditching and underwater egress training, yet every year people die in aircraft accidents that terminate in the water. You don’t have to fly over open bodies of water to be involved in a ditching. In fact, the United States Coast Guard says that on the average, there’s a ditching once a day in the continental United States. Most of these are precipitated by instances such as fuel shortage, persistent engine or cabin fire, engine failure, flight control problem, or pilot error to name a few.
The following are some basic guidelines to help you prepare in the event you should ever find yourself faced with a ditching situation. A ditching checklist for your particular aircraft should be made up ahead of time. Some actions to consider are:
Fly the Aircraft: If altitude permits, fly an airspeed for a minimum rate-of-descent or best endurance speed, as this will give you some extra time to prepare. Once you have prepared as best you can and are within approximately 1000 ft. of the water surface, you should resume a normal approach speed which will set you up at a familiar rate-of-descent for your ditching.
Transmit a MAYDAY: Immediately upon recognition that a ditching may occur, transmit a MAYDAY. Your location is the most vital information to transmit. The sooner somebody is notified, the faster you will be rescued and the more likely you will be rescued alive.
Transponder: Set to 7700.
ELT: Select to ON.
Configure Aircraft: High wing aircraft should generally be ditched with full flaps to reduce the speed. Low wing aircraft should leave the flaps retracted to prevent them from contacting the water first, which can cause the aircraft to pitch nose down, and possibly causing it to flip over on it’s back. If able, retract landing gear. If power is available, use it to make a shallow approach low over the water at 5 to 10 kts. above stall. Without power, caution should be taken to avoid a full stall prior to ditching.
Brief crew and/or passengers: Life vest, brace position, loose articles, sharp objects, etc.
Don life preservers: Quickly donning a life vest in the tight confines of the typical cockpit can be difficult. It is recommended that you always wear your life vest while over water. Stress to passengers the importance of NOT inflating the vest until completely clear of the aircraft. An inflated vest will have positive buoyancy and it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to reach your exit if your exit is underwater. An analogy would be like trying to swim to the bottom of a pool with an inflated life vest on.
Unlock or open exits: You may want to unlock and/or open the door(s) and jam something into the opening so as to prevent closing again on impact. If left closed, deformation of the structure on impact could make it impossible to open the door.
Secure loose articles: Remove and stow any objects that may impede or complicate your escape such as knee boards, ties, newspapers, headsets, carry on baggage, GPS cords etc.
Restraint system: Lock your shoulder harness and cinch down your lap belts.
Ram Air Vents: Close to prevent water entering the cockpit/cabin through air ventilation system.
Locate major swell: Determine wind velocity and direction. Conventional wisdom is that the swell direction is normally more important than wind direction when planning a ditching. Plan your approach to land along or parallel to the primary swell, not across it, even if this means accepting a crosswind. To reduce the chance of a wingtip digging into the water, the best location is to land along the crest of the swell. With smooth water surfaces, depth perception is greatly affected, making it difficult to determine height. If this occurs, or a night ditching is required, the United States Coast Guard recommends maintaining a 9 degree to 12 degree nose-up attitude and 10 to 20 percent above stall until contact with the water is made.
Brace for impact: The brace position reduces flailing of the head, arms, upper torso and the legs to prevent injury.
It is important to maintain control of the aircraft as long as possible until the aircraft contacts the water. It is usually unpredictable how fast your aircraft will sink once it is on the water so exit as quickly as possible.
If the aircraft is partly submerged, you may have to wait for the cabin/cockpit to fill partially with water to allow the pressure to equalize before you are able to open the doors.
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