My last column, “Asleep at the Yoke,” included a report about a Piper Seneca pilot who had to ditch his airplane in the Gulf of Mexico. The thought of having to ditch an aircraft intrigued me, especially when I realized there is a different psychology to the act of ditching vs. an intentional forced landing on terra firma.
Putting an aircraft down on the ground allows the pilot the possibility of returning to the plane, of examining it to determine the cause of the malfunction, of gaining closure.
Not the same for ditchings. In the Aviation Safety Reporting System reports I researched, half of the aircraft pilots landed in a body of water were never recovered. Those pilots never got a definitive determination on the root cause of the ditching. They never saw that aircraft again.
Every pilot I know wants to know that sort of thing. They need to know that stuff. Pilots are like other humans. We like closure.
A Cessna 310K pilot reported flying over water at 1,000 feet when his right engine began to vibrate strongly. Unable to determine the source of the heavy vibration, he shut down that engine.
Right after, the left engine experienced the same type of vibration. It also suffered sufficient power loss that the pilot determined he could not make it back to land. He shut down the remaining motor and performed a “controlled ditching.”
He and his passenger safely evacuated the plane, which subsequently sank. They were rescued by a small boat, and much later, by the Coast Guard. The pilot and passenger were later hospitalized and treated for hypothermia. The cause of the engine failures was never determined.
Another twin-engine pilot filed a NASA report after ditching into Pontiac Lake. He started the trip by requesting “25 gallons per side from ground service.” According to his fuel planning, that would have had him landing at his destination with more than 50 minutes of reserve fuel.
On the approach, he was cleared down to 2,700 feet, the crossing altitude for the initial approach fix (IAF), and was cleared for a visual approach. He descended, set up the plane and performed his Approach Checklist.
“After crossing Wakel intersection,” he wrote, “the fuel crossfeed light illuminated. I suspected a boost pump failure. I cycled the right boost pump switch, reset and armed the auto crossfeed switch.” The fuel crossfeed light extinguished.
The pilot turned his attention to the fuel panel. He remembers all switches being in the up and on position. He also recalls fuel quantity indicating 200 pounds per side.
“At that time,” he continued, “the crossfeed light came on again, followed by the right fuel pressure light. The right engine then lost power.”
Given where the pilot was on the visual approach, he elected to shut down the right engine, feather the prop and continue to the airport.
Almost immediately after making that decision and performing those actions, the left fuel pressure warning light came on and the left engine lost power. In that moment, he did not correlate both fuel pressure lights illuminating and both engines losing power with a possible switch position problem. (Remember he recalled the fuel gauges showing 200 pounds per side.)
Instead, he treated it like an engine failure. He shut down the left engine, feathered the prop, raised flaps and gear, and declared an emergency.
The pilot wrote in his report: “A few seconds later, it became clear that I would not make the field. I advised the Tower of that. Prepared for a ditching in Pontiac Lake, which was straight ahead.”
He landed successfully on the water’s surface and evacuated the plane.
After his rescue, he reviewed his fuel receipts and verified with the last fueling facility that the fuel load uploaded matched the amount he was charged. In his report, he acknowledges the slim likelihood of a mechanical failure that might result in a dual fuel starvation, dual engine failure occurrence.
“The only scenario that I can come up with after the fact is that I failed to turn on my transfer pumps and deliver the 25 gallons a side to the nacelle tanks. But when I had looked at the fuel control panel following the crossfeed light, I believe I saw them on,” he wrote.
He concluded that the incident might have been avoided had he requested the 50 gallons be put in the nacelle fuel tanks in the first place. He also acknowledged that following tighter checklist procedures might have made the ditching avoidable.
Unfortunately for the pilot, the plane had not been recovered from the lake at the time he submitted his NASA report, so he was left to second-guess himself and his memory.
Some pilots should second-guess themselves. One, a Cessna 320 pilot, took off to check out the local offshore fishing scene, only to end up being fished out of the drink.
The pilot had flown to his mechanic’s field because a new airworthiness directive had been issued regarding McCauley propellers, which his 320D had. When he found out the mechanic was not in, he decided to perform three takeoffs and landings to renew his 90-day currency status, allowing him to carry passengers.
On the rollout of his first landing, his left engine quit. He taxied back to the run-up area and successfully restarted it.
“Ran up left engine three times,” he wrote. “Checked magneto drop, fuel pump, aux on low, off and on high. All checks normal.”
So he took off for Pompano Beach (KPMP), flying one to two miles offshore at 500 feet above sea level. He flew over the fishing boats to see if any fish were being caught.
“Wanted to go fishing next day if fishing was good,” he wrote.
Abeam Boca Raton, ATC advised him to climb to 1,000 feet. He firewalled the throttle quadrant. The right propeller immediately went into an overspeed condition, exceeding maximum allowable of 2,700 rpm.
“I decreased power immediately. Decreased and increased prop control and then increased power. Again it exceeded redline,” the pilot detailed in his report.
At the same time, he began to lose power in his left engine. Despite full forward throttle, it would not produce more than 15” manifold pressure, too little to maintain altitude, much less climb.
He wrote: “The area between my position and Boca Raton and Pompano Beach airports is congested and has numerous tall condos along the beach. I decided the safest action was to ditch the plane.”
He landed his plane in two-to-three foot waves, touching down around 95 mph, near a fishing boat. He evacuated successfully and was rescued by the fishing boat crew. Though the plane sank, it was raised from a depth of 80 feet and recovered. Still, no cause for the right prop overspeed or the left engine partial failure was discovered.
As painful as it is to sink a twin, that pilot made the right decision by putting his aircraft into the water rather than risking lives in those beachside condos.
Another pilot chose a wet airplane over dead bodies after his motor quit at low altitude shortly after takeoff.
“We departed the pattern to the southeast, climbing to 1,000 feet AGL. We made a gentle left 180° turn for another pass over Cape Lookout at 1,100 feet AGL, heading 120°. After 20-30 seconds, the aircraft began to vibrate strongly, and I noticed a strong metallic, burning odor,” he reported.
The engine rpms dropped below 2,100, so he applied carb heat and full power. The plane began to shake so violently that he was unable to read the instrument panel. He turned back toward the airport.
“There were two loud bangs and the engine quit,” he continued. “The prop stopped and rpms fell to zero.”
He declared an emergency and set up for best glide. Realizing the town was between him and the airfield, and realizing he wouldn’t make the airfield, he turned toward a beach bordering the local sound.
The sand was crowded with beachgoers and people playing in the surf. The pilot decided to aim away from the beach, out in the sound. That’s where he ditched the aircraft.
“The aircraft came to rest in about 3½ feet of water, approximately 300 yards from shore.” A small boat rescued him and his passenger. The aircraft suffered a broken crankshaft.
A California pilot also had to make a quick ditch decision in a mountainous region right after departing Alpine County Airport (M45).
“At approximately 300 feet AGL, engine failure occurred,” he wrote in his report.
Unable to restart, he began a left descending turn down a mountain slope, “with the thought in mind of ditching in the Indian Creek Reservoir, located ¾ mile west of the airport.”
Once the pilot cleared the trees, he saw that the reservoir was dry. He landed instead on the relatively flat lakebed.
Sometimes just being willing to ditch allows the possibility of a better outcome.