Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fear Of Dunking

The airplane doesn’t know if it’s flying over water or land. The pilot does.

Bill Cox has flown into Narsarsuaq, Greenland, well over 100 times on ferry flights across the Atlantic Ocean. The pilots fly over the Tunugviarfik Fjord, which greets the runway threshold. The beginning of the Greenland ice cap is visible in the background.
Another friend, Harry Rhule, ditched a Twin Comanche south of Iceland without a survival suit, and managed to remain conscious for 20 minutes before being picked up by a freighter. (Perhaps ironically, Harry died a few years later when he spun a Lake Renegade amphibian into a mountainside in Pennsylvania.)

For this trip, my collection of survival gear includes a Bailey "dry" survival suit, a two-man life raft, two life vests, a 406 EPIRB, a King KX99 backup VHF radio, water, emergency rations, flares, dye marker, a Swiss Army knife, a miniature fishing rod with some hooks and lures, a signal mirror and some other stuff I can't remember. As on most international trips, I may have to leave some of the gear at my destination, especially flares and vests. Almost incomprehensibly, the airlines don't allow you to bring back life vests, despite the fact they have 300 of them already on board. Go figure.

For better or worse, no one seems to care much about equipment requirements on short water crossings. That's because in some instances, it's possible to fly high enough to glide across a minor body of water. I live in Southern California, and occasionally fly to Catalina Island, allegedly "26 miles across the sea," for a buffalo burger. Flying my Mooney, I have about a 10 to one glide ratio, assuming I'm doing everything right. That means I'd need about 8,000 feet of altitude to make it to the island or back to the mainland if the engine quit at midchannel. Accordingly, I fly at 8,000 every time.

If the distance is more than 26 miles (and oceans tend to be wider than that), you may as well select the altitude that works best with the wind, and not worry too much about height AWL (above-water level). A few years ago, a client hired me to fly his Cessna 414 to Perth, Australia, with him in the right seat. The usual wind pattern to Hawaii is strong headwinds for the first 1,000 miles, followed by a gradual shift clockwise to a tailwind for the last 400 miles. Sure enough, that's what we had when we departed Santa Barbara on the long, 2,166 nm leg to Honolulu. Headwinds dictated an initial altitude of 6,000 feet, with a climb to higher just past the halfway point when the wind shifted around to the northeast.

The client was nervous about the low altitude, right at the IFR MEA for a Pacific crossing. He asked why I didn't fly in the flight levels since his airplane was turbocharged and pressurized. I showed him the wind chart and explained that even with our load of ferry fuel, we definitely wouldn't make it to Hawaii if we flew much higher. I also commented that we'd need to file for FL5755 if we hoped to glide to land in the event of an engine failure out in the middle. He gave me a nervous laugh, and settled in for the 12-hour ride.

If you're planning to cross open water greater than a few miles, you'd best have a plan on what to do if. Ocean survival is a sometimes thing, notably more difficult in some places than others. With the exception of a universal need for flotation, the warm, placid water of the Southern Atlantic isn't as immediately life threatening as the North Atlantic or High Pacific.

For that very reason, the strictest regulations and the ones that make the most sense to pilots are in the harshest climate: Canada, Greenland and Iceland. Northeastern Canada has some of the world's roughest, coldest water and the worst weather you can imagine, and the Canadians offer the most modern search-and-rescue (SAR) equipment to go with it. Canadian SAR forces often are called on to rescue pilots off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Search-and-rescue efforts in the far, upper-east regions of North America can be extremely expensive, not to mention inordinately hazardous for the searchers and rescuers. Accordingly, Canadian authorities insist that pilots flying the ocean be appropriately equipped and trained.

Cold weather/over-water survival gear can be pricey. Buy your own equipment, and you can easily invest over $2,000. Buying cheap isn't a realistic option. Good survival gear is worth the investment if it only saves your life once.

Even the best survival gear isn't of much use if you don't survive the water landing, however. Entire books have been written on how to ditch an airplane, and we won't even attempt an in-depth analysis here. If you're dropping into an ocean, the consensus suggests landing parallel to the swells unless the wind is greater than 20 knots; then you'd want to consider landing somewhat into the wind, but never directly into a swell. That can be the equivalent of flying directly into a concrete building.


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