Deep water ditching is a rare event in today’s age of advanced aircraft, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to ditch if required.
Perhaps the most famous ditching event in the history of aviation occurred on Jan. 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River after striking a flock of birds.
In the aftermath of what became known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” the press – and even Hollywood – focused on the crewmembers’ calm demeanor and coordinated response to the accident. That coordinated response was due in part to proper training.
While a business aircraft ditching might not bring interest from movie producers, using proper techniques and all tools available can turn an accident with fatal results into a survivable event. Here, experts offer tips on how to train flight crews in advance and how to buy time in flight to delay ditching.
The Training Component
Dave Montgomery, a pilot with 24 years in the U.S. Air Force and 17 years of business aircraft flying, wrote a book on training for this scenario entitled “Blue Water Ditching.”
Ditch training was routine in the 1950s-1980s because the risk of a ditching event was higher, Montgomery said. Today, the overall risk of an overwater emergency requiring ditching is lower. Fuel tanks don’t leak as often, pressurization systems are more reliable, aircraft interiors are flame resistant – the list of advances goes on.
Although no one expects to ditch, the risk is not zero, he said.
“Approximately once a year, professional pilots attend simulator training. I have been going for over 41 years. For 41 years the simulator operators have been trying to kill me,” Montgomery said. “We do V1 cuts, engine fire scenarios, hydraulic failures, electrical malfunctions, missed approaches, high speed aborts and 20 other scenarios over and over, year after year. But about 15 years ago, the ditching scenario was deleted.”
Experts encourage flight crews – pilots and flight attendants – to take as little as one hour annually to go over ditching techniques together. Spending that time during initial training and each recurrent training cycle can mean the difference between life and death by establishing clear duties and processes and then reinforcing those each year, said Molly Hitch, NBAA’s senior manager of professional development and staff liaison to the Flight Attendant/Flight Technician Committee.
“When possible, flight crews should train and practice all emergency scenarios, including ditching, as a full crew – pilots and flight attendants training together,” Hitch said. “This provides crucial perspective about crewmembers’ roles and responsibilities during a ditching event. Walking through these scenarios together can avoid confusion during an already busy emergency response.”
Hitch added NBAA supports business aviation flight attendant training, including emergency situations training, through its annual Flight Attendants/Flight Technicians Scholarship.
Montgomery suggests flight crews consider this scenario when training:
Your engines have failed and you’re facing a subsequent ditching. Should you dive the aircraft down to a lower altitude to afford the crew and passengers breathable air, or should you put everyone on oxygen so you can drift down slowly to increase range? Keep in mind, passenger masks are not pressurized like pilot masks.
“Flight crews should train and practice all emergency scenarios, including ditching, as a full crew – pilots and flight attendants training together.”
MOLLY HITCH NBAA Senior Manager of Professional Development
Delaying touchdown can buy crucial time to communicate with search and rescue entities, plan the ditching itself, prepare your passengers and execute the safest water landing possible. Of course, always keep in mind that there are time-critical emergencies, such as a cabin fire, where quick decisions must be made instantly and having as much data as possible to draw from will increase your chances for a successful outcome.
If all engines fail at altitude, the crew must make decisions: do you use drift down speed if all occupants can go on oxygen to sustain life until they can get below 15,000 feet or – as in the case of a fire – do you use a rapid descent procedure?
“Time is the crew’s friend. If drift down time is 30 minutes, every minute can be spent on preparation,” said Montgomery. “The Boy Scouts have the best motto – be prepared.”
Crew Resource Management
Good crew resource management (CRM) is absolutely essential in a ditching event. That includes coordinating with the flight attendant.
“In a ditching situation, the flight attendant is invaluable,” said Montgomery, explaining that without a flight attendant, one pilot – likely the first officer – will have to leave the flight deck to prepare for water landing, preparing the cabin, pre-positioning the raft, preparing life jackets, gathering supplies to take into the raft(s), and doing the very challenging task of preparing the passengers. “Taking a pilot off the flight deck while descending for a water landing is not good CRM.”
The Right Tools
Know what tools are available to assist you in a ditching event and add those tools to your standard operating procedures.
“It’s important to have the right tools,” said Mark Larsen, CAM, NBAA’s director of safety and flight operations. “Think about it in terms of risk mitigation and how you can improve the chances of someone picking you up after a ditching event. Use your SMS processes to work through it.”
While Parts 91 and 135 both hold regulatory requirements for overwater flights, including life rafts and survival kits, some operators might find the regulatory requirements are insufficient to properly mitigate their risks, Larsen explained.
Items not required by regulation but potentially lifesaving in a ditching event include survival suits, also known as gumby suits, and personal locator beacons (PLBs). Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) transmitting on 121.5 MHz might not be enough to guide rescuers to your location. Off-the-shelf PLBs operate on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz. Most have built-in GPS and those commonly used for boating are buoyant.
Of note, 406 MHz ELTs and PLBs transmit on frequencies that are monitored via satellites by COSPAS/SARSAT, greatly increasing your location identification by search and rescue authorities. Using 406 MHz PLBs are especially critical for ditching as your life raft may drift a considerable distance from the ditching point and the aircraft’s ELT is likely to submerge with the aircraft.
Be sure that any tools identified through your risk mitigation efforts are added to your standard overwater operating procedures and emergency checklists and train all pilots and flight attendants on their use.
Operators should also consider assigning flight attendants to all overwater flights, regardless of whether one is required by regulation or not. In the event of an emergency, a properly trained flight attendant enables the pilots to manage the flight aspects of the emergency while the flight attendant assists passengers.
In addition to training for flight attendants and pilots, consider providing emergency training to frequent passengers, including your principal.
“Take advantage of an expired raft and show your crewmembers and frequent passengers how to deploy it,” said Larsen. Ideally, operators can combine that training with emergency exit door training. “In an emergency, knowing how to safely egress the aircraft can be a matter of life or death.”
Mapping Possible Rescuers
ERGO Blue is a new app designed to essentially map out all ships, each a possible point of rescue, within a particular range, using each vessels’ Automatic Identification System (AIS) data (think ADS-B, but for boats).
“While there might be 40,000 or 50,000 registered aircraft capable of flying over water in a given day, there are exponentially more ships in the sea,” said Jim Stabile, ERGO Blue iPad app developer and retired airline pilot. “Ditching your aircraft near a ship capable of rescue dramatically improves the outcome.”
At the pilot’s direction, ERGO Blue is designed to transmit an alert to all vessels in VHF range (over 180 nm at altitude) and repeats that message every 2.5 minutes with updated aircraft information. Meanwhile, the pilot can program the desired ship’s coordinates found in the app into the aircraft flight management system (FMS) and ditch near the vessel.
ERGO Blue was developed by pilots to use with existing onboard equipment such as the FMS, autopilot and weather radar to determine the best course of action to take based on the current situation. And while ATC can help a pilot identify a nearby vessel, this is time-consuming for the pilot and the controller.
According to Stabile, empowering the pilot with this information dramatically decreases task saturation in a high-stress environment and increases the chances of a successful outcome.