Then fly the airplane. Trim to your minimum
sink rate, and once you’re within 1,000 feet, resume
a normal glide for landing, Doug says. If you’re
ditching in a river, your best bet is to point downstream to minimize the landing speed. On a small- to
medium-sized lake, head into the wind; look for
whitecaps, the drift of the airplane, or even smoke
along the shore, John says.
On bigger lakes, watch the swells. Land along
(that is, parallel) to them, preferably on top. This is
your best choice in light winds, John says. If that’s not
an option, land in the trough between them. If the
wind is stronger, say, more than 15 knots but less than
30, plan for a crosswind landing.
Landing perpendicular to swells should be
reserved for only those conditions where the wind is
especially potent; in that case, land on its downwind
side, so you don’t pitch into the rising face. Review
the FAA Aeronautical Information Manual if you
want to brush up on this. And if you have the option,
land near boats, platforms, or other inhabited structures to expedite your rescue.
Checklist: DITCHING PROCEDURES
You’ll probably never get the chance to practice a ditching; that’s
why it’s so important to have a thorough ditching checklist. If you
don’t have one in your pilot operating handbook already, here’s a
suggestion from John Heiler of Pro Aviation Safety Training.
HOW DO I SET IT DOWN?
Ditchings are rare, so there are few hard-and-fast
rules. Unless your pilot operating handbook (POH)
says differently, slow to 5 or 10 knots more than your
stall speed, John says. From there, it depends on what
you’re flying. A retractable-gear aircraft should ditch
gear up, and you should fly it onto the water in a 200-
to 300-fpm descent, John says. With fixed-gear, Amy
recommends trying to make a full-stall landing so the
tail smacks first; that way, you won’t plow the gear
into the water, which may cause you to flip.
Before then, though, open a door, and jam something
into the gap—again, unless your POH says otherwise,
John says. Make sure loose articles are stowed so they
don’t wedge somewhere inconvenient, and unplug and
stow your headsets so you don’t get tangled.
When you’re approaching touchdown, brief your
passengers to tighten their seat belts and lock their
shoulder harness inertial reels. Advise them to brace;
usually, that’s upright in their harnesses. If they want
to grab something, they can cross their arms and grab
their shirts, John says. If they grab part of the airplane, they could break their wrists.
High-wing aircraft are typically ditched with
flaps deployed, unless that prevents you from opening the doors. Low-wing aircraft are typically
ditched without flaps. In both cases, avoid dragging
a wing, and as you touch down, pull back to keep the
nose up, like a soft-field landing, Doug says. If the
airplane skips, keep flying. When it stops, prepare to
go, and ignore the water that may be rushing
through your windscreen.
Transmit mayday with location, altitude, course, and speed.
Fly the aircraft. Fly minimum rate-of-descent or best endurance speed. At 1,000 feet, trim for a normal approach speed.
Set your transponder to 7700.
Turn on your ELT.
Configure the aircraft for ditching. High-wing aircraft should
be ditched with full flaps to reduce speed. Low-wing aircraft
should not extend flaps. Retract landing gear. Make a shallow
approach over the water at 5 to 10 knots above stall. Avoid a
full stall prior to ditching.
Don life preservers if not already wearing them.
Unlock or open exits.
Secure loose articles. Unplug and stow your headsets.
Lock seat belts.
Close ram-air vents.
Locate a landing area, considering swells.
Brace for impact.
For a printable checklist go to www.SportAviation.org.
DO WHAT? GET ME OUT OF HERE. NOW.
Calm down. Once the airplane stops, release your seat
belt; find it by sweeping a hand to your hip. Second,
grab a reference point. Third, find the door; aim low
and run your hand up to the latch, Doug says. When
the door opens, pull yourself out. Don’t kick; unless
you’re solo, someone may be behind you. Once out,
head to the surface, put a hand over your head to protect yourself from pointy airplane parts, and inflate
your PFD, he says.
In a high-wing airplane, you may have to wait
until the airplane floods before you can open the door.
“Calm yourself,” Doug says. “There’s plenty of time to
get out, as long as you don’t panic.” You can hasten
the process by opening vents. On aircraft with a canopy, you might also use a window punch, Amy says.
Get clear of the aircraft, gather together, and
take a head count before you inflate the raft; otherwise it may drift away without someone, Doug says.
Deal with your first aid issues, and prepare to wait.
You earned that sigh of relief.
John Heiler is a former
Sea King helicopter crew
commander and Canadian
Coast Guard pilot. He’s chief
instructor of Pro Aviation
Safety Training, which
teaches aircraft ditching and
survival in Surrey, British
Aviation journalist Amy
Laboda ditched her Cessna
210 on June 14, 2001, during
a climb-out from Key West,
Florida, on the Cayman
Caravan, when her engine
Doug Ritter is a consultant
and speaker on survival
equipment and practical
survival techniques. He
publishes the website
Equipped To Survive,
Greg Laslo, EAA 9004198, is a pilot, writer, and editor in Kansas