From two miles up, big water looks pretty much the same all over the world. Okay, the 20-foot swells of the Pacific aren’t quite the same as the flat expanse of Lake Michigan, but you must look hard to recognize the difference.
Whether you’re navigating across the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean, or simply spanning one of the Great Lakes, the similarities are easier to recognize. In my case, today’s leg is about 850 miles across Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
Water is water. True, here at two degrees above the equator, there are no icebergs drifting below as there would be in the Labrador Straits off Greenland, but it’s still pretty much the same bottomless blue, occasionally interrupted by splashes of whitecaps.
My altimeter indicates I’m cruising 11,000 feet above this particular stretch of the South Atlantic, but my Garmin 496 GPS suggests I’m only 390 miles from today’s destination—Libreville, Gabon—moderately good news.
Still, there are few places to park below that won’t involve getting wet. The tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe is a consolation prize somewhere ahead, a small, mountainous outpost of humanity in an otherwise unforgiving ocean.
No matter. I know there’s essentially no search-and-rescue service available in this part of the world. If I go down, I had best be a really strong swimmer or have a compass, a good raft and a large paddle. Fortunately, I have all three, though I’d need to be doing everything exactly right to use them.
I filed IFR in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, this morning, but I’m flying what’s sometimes referred to in this part of the world as “passive IFR.” There’s no radar in this region, and even HF contact is often intermittent. SAR assets are similarly almost nonexistent. As with so much of Africa, IFR and VFR traffic is frequently left to its own devices. If I were to lose the Mirage’s engine now, the search-and-rescue effort would consist of little more than putting a note on the bulletin board in the pilot lounge at Libreville and Abidjan.
I look back warily at the pile of survival gear behind me, and wonder for the 37th time if I really would stand any chance of using it in the event of a ditching. Things don’t always go smoothly for even the most experienced aviators.
My friend Ray, who had already been in the water twice (you’d think…?), lost the engine on a Skylane five years ago, and went into the Pacific, 600 miles south of the Big Island of Hawaii. At the time, I was about 50 miles ahead in a Shrike Commander, also headed for Ray’s next destination—Christmas Island. We were hoping to deliver to Sydney, Australia, three days away.
Facing big swells, Ray eased the 182 into the water, but the airplane flipped inverted in the big sea, and submarined so fast, Ray didn’t have time to grab his raft. He did get out of the airplane before it submerged, but he was left floating in his vest for five hours before the U.S. Coast Guard C-130 arrived, found him and dropped a survival package. Fortunately, he was picked up by an Australian container ship late the same night, and got a welcome but somewhat slower ride to Sydney than he had planned.
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.
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.