Overwater lessons for Oshkosh and other summer fun

Some of us will be flying the Great Lakes soon to reach AirVenture or otherwise cruising some lake, bay, sound or shoreline towards cooler weather. I thought I’d call up last January’s ditching in the Hudson River Corridor to ponder cautionary tales. We can all celebrate that impossibly good ditching of a fixed-gear PA-32 Cherokee Six. We can also question how prepared we are for a water landing.

Generous with her narrative to AOPA, the New York pilot said, “I hope we can all learn from this.”

OK, I nominate lessons on preparedness and procedure on survival equipment, signaling devices and good emergency radio communications.

Our sharp pilot (a former flight attendant) and her passenger were lucky in having a rare five minutes of “float time” to don life vests back in that big PA-32 cabin, then exit through that big rear door. The scary part? Those vests were apparently a lucky find; they had been left in the plane a few days before by the aircraft’s seller! Too few of us make a conscious commitment to proper overwater equipment.

I too have flown “The Corridor” many times without a vest. Heading to Oshkosh, I’ve flown the Chicago waterfront — in fact 90 miles straight across Lake Michigan — without one, too. These days, I’d wear one. In case you haven’t noticed, new “suspender type” vests are compact and comfortably worn, not stowed — all pluses, especially without a big PA-32 cabin and back door for escape. (Singles sink nose-first, don’t they?)

My friend Doug Ritter of Equipped to Survive is finally getting out the gospel on survival equipment for GA. We need more of this religion. And I’m happy the big pilot supply retailers now feature safety and survival sections in their catalogs and websites.

Happily, last winter’s Hudson ditching was superbly done…and lucky. The flyers were able to reach 911 by cell phone. Rescue from 35° water (by fire department-commandeered boat) occurred in just 23 minutes. Not every ditching will enjoy cell phone coverage or a close-by rescue boat — certainly not in the middle of Lake Michigan.

Crossing big water, radar flight following is an investment in faster, better coordinated rescue, especially where 911 coverage or nearby air and boat traffic may be sparse. And should the worst happen, making your plight known clearly and decisively to ATC and others is an equally important asset.

In the Jan. 27 ditching, ATC and CTAF recordings documented good, professional, relaxed in-the-blind position reporting from the accident aircraft. (The Corridor has its own CTAF on 123.05 and ATC apparently records the chatter.) The flight calmly checked in from abeam The Lady (Statue of Liberty) to its last regular report at the George Washington Bridge.

Engine-out abeam New Jersey’s distinctive Alpine Tower (the world’s first FM transmitter), the pilot calmly – perhaps too calmly — reported her emergency as nonchalantly as her previous position reports, merely adding Maydays at the end. What followed was other traffic comparing notes. “Was that a Mayday?” Eventually, others confirmed it to authorities monitoring the frequency. Only then did rescue begin.

Being a nut on radio procedure, my ditching call would START with emphatic Maydays done to attract attention and get people mobilized and ready to copy. It’s all in the AIM; check it out. Procedures and phraseology are standard and expected.

The New York accident pilot, also a former regional airline first officer, did deserve an “A” for repeating the word Mayday three times (and then, more!) “Mayday-Mayday-Mayday” makes a grouping of three that universally signifies emergency or caution. Think of S-O-S (in Morse Code: three dots, three dashes, three dots.) Lost hunting in the woods? Fire three shots. Ever see the triangles set out behind disabled trucks? Again, threes.

Another point: Making your Mayday on CTAF is not a bad idea in some cases (like the Hudson Corridor, where there’s always someone else out there.) And down low, as in the Corridor, there’s precious little time to re-tune. But it’s wise to keep 121.5 up and ready on #2 over water (or in mountainous territory.)

“Miracle on the Hudson” veteran Jeff Skiles commented to AOPA that “there will be little time to act when the engine fails — particularly at (low) altitude.” Keeping 121.5 ready does risk an errant transmission on Guard. A faster 121.5 call, however, pays off when descending mid-lake or into signal-blocking terrain that will soon kill line-of-sight VHF.

Beyond that, prepare! Buy vests, signaling devices (flares, strobes, smoke, etc.), a GPS-reporting satellite EPIRB/PLB, and a handheld radio or satellite phone.

And train! The Hudson Ditch pilot told AOPA her previous sailplane and seaplane time helped her fly a textbook glide speed and deck angle to her “gotta-do-it-NOW” water landing. Such skill-enhancing extra experience was also valuable to “Miracle” captain Sully Sullenberger. As always, the more you know…

One more word on the Hudson Corridor, which many will transit this season en route to summer fun: Jeff Skiles told AOPA that he and Sully were “fortunate to have a river there.” He says pilots may undervalue water as a landing option in crowded metro areas.

Admittedly, your landing choice there may hinge on 1) “feet dry” alternatives, and 2) how you feel about ditching (especially with fixed gear.) But flying low over water in congested areas (as under the New York Class B with poor engine-out choices below,) my checklist would include “life vests on before take-off.” This makes the water landing a valid option — not a desperation play you’re tempted to avoid by trying your luck with congested streets, parks or docks.

Kudos to that Hudson Ditch pilot for a great bit of flying… and for being open to lessons learned. Are you? Give yourself (and your passengers) a fair chance at water rescue when flying the big lakes, bays and shorelines.

© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.


  1. Barry Tanner says

    That’s some good info. We teach underwater egress in helicopter simulators if anyone is interested.

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