By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the July 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
A flight along a river or coastline is almost always scenic and enjoyable. But, once we head out across the water, we can find ourselves facing unanticipated challenges. Coastal areas often have their own unique weather that differs significantly from what we see just a few miles inland. And that’s just one factor that can amplify the risks for a flight over water.
Clearly, one advantage of having an aircraft is that we can take a more direct route to our destination. We might shave minutes or hours off our flight by crossing over open water, but taking the overwater route is not a decision to take lightly. We need to examine the options and weigh the risks.
The most obvious risk is the potential for an unplanned water landing — or more appropriately, a ditching. While it isn’t required under Part 91, a good rule of thumb is to remain within gliding distance of shore so that we don’t end up in the water if something goes awry. In most light aircraft, we might be able to glide 1 to 1.5 miles for every thousand feet of altitude above the water. Some aircraft do better, many do worse, and we should never forget the effects of winds and course reversals on the expected glide distance. As the distance traveled over water increases, and ceilings get lower, we may find it impractical to use gliding distance as a strategy to avoid getting wet.
Another often overlooked risk of overwater flights involves maintaining good visual references. Haze, fog, and nightfall can all put us in a precarious position when over the water since we have few (or zero) visual references and the horizon easily becomes obscured. Even if conditions are legally VFR, unless we’re able to fly on instruments, we could easily find ourselves in dire straits.
Yet another risk in overwater flights, particularly in some regions, is weather. As if thunderstorm activity isn’t enough, pilots flying in tropical regions do well to avoid waterspouts that can form beneath or embedded in rain and storm clouds. There’s probably no worse situation than flying headlong into a column of solid water at cruise speed.
If we do decide to make the overwater trip, we should be prepared and make the right moves. Rule No. 1 is to take all the altitude we can get to maximize glide distance. We need to know which way the wind is blowing, and how strong, to aid in decision-making in the event a problem develops.
At night or in less than perfect conditions, we should choose a route that follows the shore as much as possible and minimizes overwater distances to help maintain good visual references. Just following this tip could have made the life-or-death difference for John F. Kennedy Jr. on his tragically fatal night flight to Martha’s Vineyard.
Another major consideration is safety equipment, starting with a personal flotation device for each occupant of the aircraft. Many different types and styles are available, but it’s best to choose those that are FAA approved. The most popular and practical are those that can be quickly donned, or comfortably worn during flight, and inflated after egress from an aircraft following a ditching.
For longer stretches of overwater flying — particularly over cold water — we might consider having a life raft aboard. Under Part 135.167, life rafts and other survival equipment are required if operating more than 50 nm from shore. This is a good practice even when flying under Part 91 and when the swim to shore is less than 50 miles. Even in 60- to 70-degree water, hypothermia can set in sooner than we might think, with survival times ranging from a mere two to 40 hours.
Getting help soon after rescue can be a critical factor in survival, so it’s good to have someone know where we are. We can do this by filing and opening a VFR flight plan and making regular position reports. More immediate action will occur if we use flight following or file and open an IFR flight plan. Having a rescue initiated immediately could make the difference in a survival scenario.
Of course, a better option for flying over water is the addition of a second engine — or more. I met a B-52 pilot who had his own philosophy on the risks of overwater flight. To him, it just didn’t make sense to head out over the water with less than eight engines. Not a bad option if it’s open to you.
Specialized Training and Knowledge
The final factor to consider is how to make a successful ditching and safely extricate ourselves from the aircraft.
As with any landing, we want to have the aircraft slow, but not stalling, and into the wind to reduce the relative speed. But on the water, we also want to factor in the sea conditions. We should plan to land at an angle to the wave crests, and in the direction of the swell to reduce our relative speed to the waves.
If we happen to be flying an aircraft with retractable gear, we’ll want that gear up for the landing to reduce the potential for flipping over — which can still occur even if we make the right moves.
Some experts recommend opening the doors prior to touching down on the water, but this practice has pros and cons. Our best bet is to follow the recommendations laid out in the aircraft’s pilot’s operating handbook.
The final step is to extricate ourselves from the aircraft once it comes to rest in the water, and this is where specialized training can be important. In a perfect world, we would end up in our low-wing aircraft, floating on the surface in calm waters, just minutes from a Coast Guard rescue vessel. But this isn’t how the scenario typically plays out. In-water egress training gives us firsthand knowledge and experience in techniques for exiting a submerged and possibly overturned aircraft in the water. The insights we gain from such training are well worth our time and money. Some basic elements for an egress strategy include:
- Make sure you can easily find and release the seat belt. This means rolling up or tucking in the loose end of the strap to keep it out of the way. But never release the belt until one hand is outside the cockpit.
- Use physical references from your body (for example, starting with your hand on your knee) to be able to find and operate the door handle.
- Take a deep breath as the water level comes to the top of the cockpit.
- Don’t open the door until the motion of the water stops.
- Open the door and put one hand out of the aircraft, and then release the seat belt.
- Once clear of the aircraft, inflate the life vest to help get moving toward the surface.
- Swim for the surface. Follow your bubbles if the direction is unclear, and keep a hand raised above your head to avoid bumping into obstacles and debris.
Flights over water can be especially gratifying and enjoyable if we can stay dry. And that’s more likely if we plan appropriately, take sensible precautions, and get the proper training.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.