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.

I'll leave it to the experts to describe all the variations in the proper method of ditching. Don't automatically assume a retractable should be landed gear up, by the way, especially in rolling swells. The gear will absorb quite a bit of energy, and you may be better served to land a Mooney or Bonanza with the wheels down. The wheels may also help cushion the secondary touchdown, and keep the nose from digging in after a bounce off a wave.

If you do manage the landing without injury, don't be in any hurry to abandon the airplane if it's still afloat. Obviously, you'll want to clear the airplane as quickly as possible if it dips its nose and heads for the bottom.

One pilot flying a Bellanca Viking into Narsarsuaq, Greenland, ran out of fuel a mere seven miles from the airport. Sadly, he was forced to put the airplane into the fjord almost in sight of the runway. He left the wheels up and made a remarkably smooth landing, then noticed that his wood-wing airplane with empty tanks had no inclination to sink. The tanks were acting like pontoons. After the pilot was picked up by a fishing boat, the crew threw a line around the prop and, very slowly, towed the Bellanca to the airport. The pilot jumped back in, manually extended the wheels, then had a four-wheel-drive truck pull the airplane out of the water, hauled it up on the beach, repaired it and put it back into service.

Naturally, you'll be required to carry a raft capable of floating everyone on board on any ocean crossing, a two-person raft for two, etc. The better idea is to carry a raft of double capacity, a four-man raft for two people, if you can afford the weight and expense. You'll also need to carry vests for everyone aboard, but there again, many experienced ocean pilots think redundant and carry two per person. Vests are comparatively small and cheap, and I nearly always take along three on every trip.

In addition, you'll need to bring a neoprene dry suit for each crew/passenger for North Atlantic crossings. These are hot and miserable to wear, but if the engine quits and you go into the water, a survival suit may be the only thing to keep you alive, at least temporarily. Water temperature on the North Atlantic in winter can dip down to 25 degrees F, and even with a suit, you may be challenged to survive for very long unless you can get into a raft.

A portable 406 EPIRB also is a requirement, regardless of what's installed in the airplane. If you're fortunate, the G-load of a ditching won't activate the aircraft's emergency transmitter, and even if it does, the signal will attenuate when the airplane sinks. These days, you can buy personal EPIRBs that will fit in a jacket pocket, or in this case, the zippered pocket of a survival suit. A signaling mirror, dye markers and a strong strobe may be other advantages to carry along if you have the payload and a high-enough credit-card limit.

If your airplane is HF equipped (and it will have to be on most legs across the Atlantic and Pacific) and the engine quits, you'll want to transmit your lat/long at some point before touchdown. Don't wait too late, but if the engine continues to run at all, keep center advised of any change in your position.

Navigation across the ocean has become academic since GPS became the dominant form of navigation. I still always fill out a standard dead-reckoning flight plan with headings, variations, deviation and distances, wind corrections and times, just in case GPS decides to blink.

Since the North Atlantic to Europe is the most traveled general aviation route in summer, the best source of information about flying across is the Canadian government itself. Transport Canada in Moncton, New Brunswick, can offer valuable knowledge.

Throw in a chart and approach-plate trip kit from Jeppesen, advice from AOPA and a few hours of studying the route beforehand, and you may find an Atlantic crossing to be more fun than you could possibly imagine.
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