The keys to executing an unintentional water landing
Full disclosure: I’ve never touched water with an airplane, save for that Sikorsky twin seaplane in the mid-1990s. Both were—in flight attendant parlance–intentional water landings. I’ve flown landings and departures from short strips surrounded by water on three sides, even an undulating, narrow one surrounded by forest inside an oxbow lake. I’ve logged plenty of flights to Montauk, Nantucket, and from the George Washington Bridge down the Hudson to the Statue of Liberty and back. In Florida, I flew simulated search patterns with Mayte Greco in her Cessna 340 twin over the Gulf of Mexico—the same pattern she and her fellow Brothers to the Rescue once used to spot Cubans trying to raft it to the Free World. (That was before Cuban MiGs shot down two of their Cessna Skymasters in 1996.) Every time, nary a burp from the engine.
The only person I know to actually ditch is former colleague Amy Laboda. Amy is, how do you say, thorough. So naturally I expected her to brief her two pre-teen daughters and the nanny within an inch of their lives on handling an unintentional water landing in her Cessna 210. She made a game out of it with the kids, she says, which made it more fun for them and made them more engaged in the process. Here’s how it went: Have them open and close the doors and windows, locate the fire extinguisher and figure out how to use it; operate the seats, and find and operate each normal and emergency exit. She also had them put on the life vests, and demonstrate they could unbuckle their seatbelts eyes open or closed. You can imagine her encouraging the kids as they raced through the tasks.
Anyway, one hot, muggy afternoon at the Key West airport, Amy loaded them in the back, sat a friend in the right seat (who got a briefer lecture inside the aircraft but still had to put on an inflatable life vest on takeoff like daughters and nanny), firewalled the 210, whereupon it parted with the runway, reached all of 1,500 feet, and then the engine went bang and died. She didn’t have time to do much more than broadcast the traditional Mayday shoutout, and tell the tower she couldn't make the runway, then run through the emergency ditching checklist she found she’d subconsciously memorized. The 210 was clean—no gear or flaps down. She hit the water and the 210 skipped, then buckled; out popped the windshield followed closely by Amy through an open door (once she unbuckled her seatbelt), followed by daughters, nanny, and passenger out their exits on the right side. They surface, crawl into their life raft and Amy says they waited all of five minutes before the Coast Guard reached them. Aside from totaling the 210, and getting soaked, it’s a happy ending.
And that’s how you perform the perfect water landing if you’re not flying an amphibian or a floatplane. As for me, Greco gave me pretty much the same briefing that Amy gave her kids, although Mayte didn’t make me inflate my Mae West. And we didn’t go down.
From all this I have to say that ditching is pretty easy if you don’t have to think about it. Basically, first perform the same type of safety briefing on the ground used by the typical airline flight attendant and ignored by the jaded passenger: Show the exits (remember, the nearest exit may be behind you, like in Greco’s Cessna twin) the location of the safety flotation devices (provided there are any—the regulations state they’re required only if you’re flying for hire and out of sight of land); review the crash position—and make sure that they’re listening. Make sure the passenger next to any exit can wrestle it open, but anyone else can do it, too. If no one in the aircraft can, then that’s your job.
Once you’re in the air, well out to sea, and going down, pull the nose up to slow to the best-angle-of-glide speed and pop open the doors—once the airplane hits the water, the airframe might buckle and jam the doors and otherwise make egress tough. Contact ATC or switch to the emergency frequency—121.5—squawk 7700, declare an emergency, and, if you have time to remember, radio your location. It makes it so much easier for your rescue.
And now you’re ready to complete that unscheduled water landing.
No matter what, you definitely have no control over the state of the ocean, sea, sound, lake, or river. Try to land into the wind as you would on a less-wet runway. Judge wind direction from the waves: They break in the direction they’re heading. If it’s blustery enough for swells, plan to set up to land parallel to the swells. Unless the wind is really gusting, landing with the swells is more important than landing into the wind. It’s best to land on the crest so as not to dig a wing tip into the water. If you must set up perpendicular to the row of swells, go for the back side of the swell. Never land into the swell. Water has a way of feeling like concrete. If it’s a two-swell system, aim for the taller row. If you’re landing parallel to the swells, make the landing in the clean configuration, but at the lowest speed possible (flaps can be down on a high-wing airplane). Most important is to keep your wings level. Cartwheeling here is not the fun game of your childhood. And try to check that anyone along for the ride is in crash position.
Now relax. Once you hit the water and until you stop, you’re just along for the ride.
To paraphrase an ancient VW Beetle ad—an airplane will definitely float, but it will not float indefinitely. Once you’re out of the airplane—if it’s still afloat—secure any rafts; it’s likely to float away faster than you can swim after it. Once you’ve hit the inflation button, get inside the raft while it’s blowing up. It takes a lot of energy to crawl inside once it’s fully inflated, and if the water’s cold, you’ll be cold, which tends to sap your strength.
Then paddle to shore or wait for the rescue.
Or you can avoid all this, usually by living in the desert or, like me, just hugging the shoreline: Wet sand makes a great runway, and if you’re lucky you may not even get wet. Just make sure there’s no one sunbathing. If there is, well, it’s time to fly like Amy.