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Water Landings: Certain Death?

“In the event of a water landing-”

“What’s the point of all this, anyway?” approximately 500 passengers (and counting) have asked me during the safety demonstration, always with a chuckle. “If we’re going down in the water, we are all dead.”


Besides this being a rather morbid thing to say (and really, what’s with the laugh?), it’s also untrue. Granted, water landings don’t often come without injuries and sometimes casualties. But can you survive a ditching event? Absolutely – especially if you pay attention to the safety information conveniently provided to you in the demo and the safety card in your seatback pocket. (And many of you clearly are not – see the photos from Southwest 1380, in which nearly no one correctly donned their oxygen masks.)

Here are just some examples of ditchings with varying rates of success, but all of them with survivors.

“Miracle On The Hudson” – US Airways Flight 1549

[Photo: Wikipedia]

I don’t need to give you the backstory on Sully Sullenberger’s unbelievable ditching of an Airbus A320 into New York City’s Hudson River in 2009, but all passengers and crew were able to evacuate safely following the crash, which was due to a major bird strike taking out both of the plane’s engines. Some injuries and hypothermia from the frigid winter water temperatures were reported, but all on board survived.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961

[Photo: Wikipedia]

In a post-9/11 world, it’s unimaginable that pilots would relent to a group of intoxicated 20-year-olds with improvised weapons they’d found around the aircraft, but 1996, that is exactly what happened on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. The young hijackers flashed what they claimed was a bomb, but was later discovered to be just a bottle of liquor concealed underneath some newspaper. The men demanded to be taken to Australia, which the aircraft did not have the fuel to do. The pilots tried to convince the drunk hijackers of this and pleaded with them to change their plan to go elsewhere, but the men would not shift focus. The pilots ditched the plane in Indian Ocean after a violent struggle with the hijackers inside the cockpit, just off the coast near a hotel popular with tourists. 50 people survived, but 125 did not.

Many of those who died did so because they’d inflated their life vests onboard the aircraft instead of as they exited the plane, trapping themselves inside the sinking fuselage.

Japan Airlines Flight 2

[Photo: Wikipedia]

San Francisco, November of 1968. A Japan Airlines flight headed to SFO from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport lands just under three miles short of the runway, a mistake made by Captain Kohei Asoh due to low visibility in the area. The aircraft fortunately landed on a reef, keeping the aircraft out of deep water and causing the passengers only inconvenience rather than bodily harm.

Captain Asoh took full responsibility, stating in an interview, “As you Americans say, I f—ed up,” thus creating what is called in the corporate world the “Asoh Defense“, which is the practice of bluntly owning up to one’s personal responsibility in a crisis.

Also, looking through some of the remarkable photos of the event, you’ll notice people carrying luggage into the life raft. One of the photographers interviewed after the event also stated that the passengers “just kept on snapping pictures.”

Some things never change, hey?

Pan Am Flight 6

[Photo: Wikipedia]

Yet another San Francisco-bound flight, this one in 1956, Pan Am Flight 6 was en route from Honolulu over the Pacific Ocean overnight when two of the four engines of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser failed. The Captain, Richard Ogg, made the decision to attempt to ditch the aircraft during daylight hours, as the aircraft could no longer make it to its destination nor its port of departure. He and the crew used the time to prepare the cabin and passengers for the water landing, for which Coast Guard ships were prepared, and, thankfully, all 24 passengers and 7 crew members survived – an especially impressive feat given that the aircraft broke apart on impact with the water.

No one ever boards a flight expecting to end up doing the doggie paddle in the middle of the ocean blowing into a fluorescent orange shoulder whistle. Nevertheless, it’s important not to tune out the pertinent info given to you pre-flight, in the event of the unthinkable. Where are your life vests located, or are the seat cushions to be used for flotation? If you’re traveling with a child, would he or she receive a child-sized life vest? Is there a spare life raft near your seat? (The locations are indicated in the safety demo – and if it’s near your seat, you may be the one asked to retrieve it.) It all seems like overkill, but to take momentary notice of these things could save your life later.

So next time you roll your eyes when the flight attendant in the aisle dons the vest and pantomimes a jaunty little tug at the tabs as you taxi out onto the runway, remember that some of the passengers on the above flights may have done the same.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

Comments are Closed.
eng3 December 21, 2018

As for opening the rear doors causing the hudson aircraft to sink, it would have sank anyways because a hole was torn in the bottom of the plane when it "landed" My gripe is with the safety demo/video. They rarely stress that you should not inflate your vest prior to leaving the aircraft. They never show the brace position. This seems far more important than telling people to turn off the cell phones or showing lamas.

gbs1112 June 7, 2018

The best surface for an emergency landing is a hard one like concrete so a runway or road because the aircraft will slide further, deceleration will be more gradual and the structural integrity of the fuselage better maintained but uncontrolled friction runs a greater risk of fire The next best is open ground though deceleration will be more abrupt. Water is a poor third. Deceleration may be as abrupt as hitting a brick wall with all the consequences unless the PIC can keep the nose high but low slung engine pods will “catch” and may tip the nose down. The Hudson River crash was a great example that it can be done and later computer simulation has shown that a 9 degree nose up attitude at impact is the optimal for a safe outcome and that was the case in New York.

makrom June 7, 2018

Well yeah, it's not "certain death", but very likely death, since water landings in general and successful ones in particular are extremely rare. One could certainly question whether wasting so much accumulated lifetime with these briefings is really worth it.

Proudelitist June 6, 2018

The "Miracle On The Hudson" would have been even more miraculous had someone not decided to open one of the rear doors, flooding the cabin and causing the aircraft to sink.

TMOliver June 5, 2018

I'm reminded of the water landing drill from the back of the Navy's old C1A, S2, and EA3B.... "Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye!"