One if by land, two if by water? The decision to fly a single over water is complicated and involves your survival training and equipment.
The multiple variables one must consider when contemplating a flight over water offer a perfect example of how our approach to safety can be reasonably malleable in the face of changing circumstances. For most of my flying career, I would always choose a land route if one is available when flying a single-engine airplane, even if inconvenient compared to an over-water choice. Recent circumstances, however, have caused me to modify my cherished affinity for land at all costs and highlighted for me the dynamic nature of our approach to safety. To bring it to life, let's explore real-world pros and cons of flying over water and over land to the same destination.
Once or twice a month I fly a single-engine turboprop between Austin, Texas, and Roatan, Honduras. Until recently and consistent with my preference for land, I always flew via Mexico, with a stop in Veracruz for fuel on the way down. The return trip was also through Mexico, but considerably messier--so messy that a growing desire to avoid Mexico was the first element in my change of heart about overwater flying. As such, some details are important in understanding the shift in thinking. They're found in the sidebar on page 10.
This routine worked well, even if the affair was slow and inconvenient. But as Mexico descends ever further toward a complete Narcostate, avoiding that country and all the hassles there has become increasingly attractive. I could avoid Mexico entirely if only I was willing to fly over water. I could fly between Roatan and Brownsville straight across the Gulf. No Mexico.
No Mexico, sure, but is that sufficient to justify flying over a vast expanse of water? A few other factors entered into the picture. One consideration was the terrain over which we flew when taking the land route; about one-quarter of the trip entailed flying over the dense, uninhabited, inhospitable jungle of the Yucatan peninsula. Landing there would be unpleasant. This reality diminishes the safety appeal of the overland route compared to the prospects of ditching. The second is the possibility of surviving a ditching in the relatively warm calm waters of the Gulf (compared to the frigid and rough Atlantic faced when flying to Europe, for example).
In the final analysis, the decision to go over water really comes down to balancing the problems and hassles, and potential dangers, incurred using a laud route and the qiestion of differential survival: When the engine quits, which is better, flying into difficult terrain or into the drink? Is a ditching even realistically survivable?
On the plus side, last year two turboprop singles ditched into the Gulf and in both cases all on board survived with oni minor injuries. Of course, negating that plus is the fact that last year two turboprop singles ditched 1.11 the Gulf. That alone is proof that flying behind a turbine engine offers no guarantees. And the fact of two survivable ditchings does not mean a third would be.
TO DITCH OR NOT TO DITCH?
To get a sense if ditching was a reasonable option, I needed training. Outside of the military, opportunities for realistic ditching training in the U.S. are surprisingly limited. The Marine Survival Training Center at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette is one option. The facility's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico is a natural fit for training off-shore oil workers. Another possibility is Survival Systems USA, inc., in Groton, Corin. With no prior knowledge, the choice was really a flip of the coin, and Groton won the toss. Mv wife's schedule limited us to one day of pool training; Survival Systems also offers a two-day course in which students are taken out to the open ocean to repeat the previous day's pool training in a more realistic environment, but we didn't have time to schedule it. See the sidebar on the previous page for some highlights of this training, which at least was enlightening.
But do not let my experience scare you from taking that or any other training course if you intend to fly over water regularly. I went on to enjoy the remainder of the training with no further incidents. Not one other person in my class had the slightest problem from the very first dunk. My wife aced every dunk without a hint of concern. Of course, nobody else was dumb enough to wear a survival suit on the first try.
If I had taken just one dunk without the suit, I would have been fine. With the experience of one or two dunks behind me, I would have had the presence of mind to compensate for the buoyancy, but the novelty of the experience, combined with the handicap of the suit was just too much for a first try. At least for me.
All the remaining dunks were uneventful, and with each we all gained a bit more confidence in the procedures we were taught. By my seventh and last dunk, I felt like an old pro. But I am truly grateful for that frightening first experience: the confusion and fear taught me just how difficult a real ditching would be, and how much we must prepare and train if we are to have any chance of surviving. I am as confident as anybody can be in the water, yet within a blink of an eye I was in trouble. The only solution is training, regardless of background or previous experience.
So now you made it safely out of the airplane, onto the water's surface. You are by no means home free. If properly equipped, you will be wearing a life vest and will have a life raft to use. If flying over cold water, you will be wearing an immersion suit. We were taught how to stay together in the water. We practiced inflating our vests and deploying and getting into the life raft. We were taught some neat tricks for securing the raft to the plane in a way that prevents the raft from floating away while you are egressing, but without jeopardizing the raft should the airplane sink. Finally, with the hopeful idea of being rescued, we practiced getting into and being lifted out of the water by the type of safety basket or harness that would be lowered by a helicopter.
If you ditch in the middle of the Atlantic, even with a personal ELT with built-in GPS, you may find that your life raft is a home-away-from-home for an extended period. You will be fighting high seas, seasickness, hypothermia (then potentially the opposite concern, sun exposure), injury, hunger, thirst, fatigue and potentially dangerous sea life, only too happy to make you lunch, just to name a few of the most obvious hazards.
If rescue personnel happen to approach, you need to be spotted, not an easy task as a small orange dot in a vast sea of endless blue and white. The challenges are many, but the science of survival is fairly well-established, providing good tips on how to mitigate each of these various threats. All pertain too to the more benign Gulf, even if to a lesser degree. The sidebar at right details just some of the challenges you'll face if you're raft-bound for any length of time.
And that length of time can be significant. Even if you're simply cutting a corner over the Gulf of Mexico, flying over the Great Lakes on the way to Oshkosh or popping across to Catalina Island for lunch, you could be in the water for an uncomfortably long time if you have to ditch.
How long? Maurice and Marilyn Bailey survived adrift in a tiny dinghy for 117 days after their yacht capsized off the coast of Guatemala in 1973. I believe their ordeal still holds the endurance record. Meanwhile, Bill and Simonne Butler survived 66 days adrift in a leaky raft after pilot whales attacked their boat in the middle of the Pacific. Such long-term tales of survival could only be told if food could be obtained from the sea and fresh water collected from rain or a de-salinization pump. These castaways had in common a strong will to survive, an important ingredient in any success story.
In order to be found, rescuers need to know your approximate location so that the search can be reasonably narrowed. Once rescuers are on site, you need to stand out from the background. You can help on both counts.
By far the best means of helping others find you is to carry a personal locator beacon or equivalent device. Such a device transmits its GPS-derived latitude/longitude coordinates to an accuracy of no more than 110 yards using the 406 MHz COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system. You register the unit with. authorities, so the rescuers know not only where you are, but who you are as well.
But even with that level of accuracy, rescuers still need to see you. Of course, your life raft is bright orange, which helps, but can easily be missed against foaming whitecaps and the vast expanse of an endless ocean. Carry a signaling mirror. Good life rafts come with flares. Only fire the flare if you are confident the rescue aircraft will be able to see you. An airliner passing over at 37,000 feet will do you no Good Be careful too not to waste the flare on a passing ship unless you are nearly certain you will be seen; most large ships not specifically looking for you will probably miss your attempts to get noticed. From the bridge of a large vessel you are nothing but a tiny dot; modern ships usually have a small crew, and a flare could easily get missed.
Sometimes a rescue helicopter will lower a basket, and you are expected to get in, on your own, and hold on. Other times a safety swimmer will jump in to assist you. If so, do exactly what that person says, without question, with no hesitation and without resistance.
So, should I avoid Mexico and fly over water? Can we expect to survive a ditching? Clearly, landing in water is no picnic, and is potentially life-threatening in the best of circumstances. I am thoroughly convinced that the only hope for survival, even if not great, is to call upon experience derived from realistic training.
For example, the challenge of finding an exit after being flipped upside down in the water cannot be simulated on a computer or in a classroom; you need to experience the event by getting wet. If you fly over water, a ditching course is essential. But understand one is no guarantee of a good outcome; neither is flying over the jungle, or landing in a country in the grips of a drug war.
The perils of overwater flight are real, but as with all aspects of aviation, the potential for harm can be diminished with proper preparation and a realistic approach to risk management. Assess the risks, reduce or eliminate those that can be and mitigate what remains. Flying over water when a land route is available can be justified, but there is no perfect answer. And therein lies the dynamic nature of safety.
RELATED ARTICLE: Survival Training
As this article's main text notes, I recently took an aircraft ditching course provided by Survival Systems USA, Inc., of Groton, Conn. Some highlights from that training include:
In most fatal accidents, investigators can determine who was flying at the moment of impact by noting who had broken thumbs. We desperately need those thumbs if we are going to escape from the airplane, so we were taught to grip the yoke in a way that protects our hands. This was made clear when we heard from a ditching survivor, who offered a sobering look at the real world: injury, disorientation, fear, the sudden rush of cold dark water and panic.
IN THE POOL
As a veteran diver with deep-diving, hard-hat and mixed-gas experience, I was confident my superior talents and huge ego would serve me well. I was appropriately humbled. It turns out that being thrown into the water and yanked upside down while strapped into a seat in a small space is somewhat disorienting. Here is the serious point: if my first dunk was disorienting, and indeed it was, somebody with less experience in the water would certainly find the experience even more difficult. Without training, I can say with some confidence that my chances of egressing from a sinking airplane in rough seas after a violent impact would be less than zip.
ORIENTATION, ORIENTATION, ORIENTATION
In real estate, one is always taught that the only important factor is location. In ditching, the most important factor is orientation: If you get confused about where you are, you will never find an exit. If by a miraculous stroke of luck you happen to find an exit, you will not know in which direction the handle operates. With one held breath, you do not have much time to work out that puzzle. You absolutely must remain oriented to the airframe at all times, no matter if the airplane is upside down or sideways. That is the first key to survival.
THE BIG DUNK
I decided to take my first dunk wearing a survival (immersion) suit, essentially a big air bag from which your neck sticks out through a tightly fitting and highly uncomfortable rubber opening. Once in the pool and upside down, I reached for the door handle just as practiced. But I could not find it. Nope. Here was the problem: I practiced finding the handle in the air; underwater, the survival suit was so buoyant, my arm had a completely different trajectory. My muscle movement was the same, but the resulting arc was not. I was not near the handle. As soon as I released my seatbelt, my buoyant survival suit slammed me up against the top (bottom, actually) of the airframe. I had to claw my way toward the back opening and pull myself away so I could get to open water. By the time I reached the surface, I was close to full panic.
RELATED ARTICLE: Mandatory Detour?
In planning my first trip to Roatan, I discovered to my great annoyance a rule now four years old that I believe is unknown to many pilots. Here is the official language:
"Effective February 1, 2008, all GA aircraft operating into Mexico from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America will have to stop in Cozumel (MMCZ) or Tapachula (MMTP) for illegal substance inspections. Countries that are considered to be within the Caribbean zone are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. While operators may stop at either MMCZ or MMTP, Mexico is recommending Cozumel (MMCZ) due to better customs facilities at that location."
As a consequence of this little gem of a rule, when returning home via Mexico, I must fly from Honduras to Cozumel or Tapachula to go through Customs and Immigration. Neither city is anywhere near my intended route of flight. I have tried both and the experience is quite different in each.
In Cozumel, you pull up to the GA ramp just like at home. The similarity to operations in the U.S. ends there. The first clue you aren't in Kansas anymore is the welcoming committee of soldiers sporting automatic weapons. At these two chokepoint checkpoint airports, the military inspection comes first. You are asked to completely unpack the airplane, an act followed by canines sniffing the plane's interior and then any bags, which sit forlornly on the tarmac before being carted off to be X-rayed. An adventure with an overzealous dog resulted in a technical stop lasting about three hours instead of one. Thoughts of spending my remaining days in a Mexican jail crossed my mind.
The routine continues: From Cozumel, we fly to Veracruz, where we traditionally have had to go through Customs and Immigration all over again since we leave the country from there. From Veracruz, I return to Austin, bypassing closer ports of entry (like Brownsville) with the authority of my U.S. overflight permit. But that stop in Cozumel is a pain, so I decided to give Tapachula a chance.
After landing, you are directed to huge, cavernous military hangars, where you shut down for your first course of close scrutiny under the watchful eyes of a phalanx of soldiers. Empty the plane, dogs, the whole routine. Then you are escorted under guard, papers in hand, to a table set up at the opening of the second hangar, behind which sit two officers. You want to have with you the correct papers: passport, pilot's license, airworthiness certificate, aircraft registration, general declaration, insurance endorsement, passenger manifest and flight plans for your arrival and departure.
After you have properly sacrificed to the gods of military bureaucracy, you repack the airplane, start the engine and with tower clearance, taxi over to the commercial terminal. And start all over again: unpack, bag inspection, customs, immigration, landing fees and then finally flight plan filing. The ordeal takes about two hours.
RELATED ARTICLE: After The Ditching
Cold is a nasty, unrelenting enemy. You will not survive more than one hour in water colder than 40 deg. F. Even in water as warm as 60 deg. F, you will only survive for about six hours. When flying over cold water, the only solution is to deploy a life raft and wear an immersion suit. Even properly suited, you definitely want to get into the life raft as soon as possible.
Our life raft, a Winslow six-man, comes with a first-aid kit that includes Dramamine. Even if you are not prone to motion sickness, you will want to take that medication immediately upon entering the life raft. You cannot afford the dehydration that comes with the obvious symptoms of sea-sickness. Your fellow travelers will be happier, too.
You will not be performing open-heart surgery in the raft. The first aid kit is meant to treat only minor injuries; if you are seriously injured, the best you can do is try to minimize bleeding, remain calm, stay hydrated and hope for quick rescue.
Once in the raft, you become vulnerable to dehydration and sun stroke. These are again reasons to carry a life raft when flying over water. Good life rafts come equipped with a canopy that offers full protection from the sun, as well as against the spray of sea water, which can be extraordinarily abrasive against skin. Skin sores and infection are big problems with any extended stay in your new floating hotel.
The canopy on many life rafts contains a rain-collection groove; a hose at the bottom allows the rainwater to be collected. The higher-end rafts come equipped with a hand-powered desalinization pump; the trick is to stay ahead of the curve, and pump and store enough water in advance to always have on hand a sufficient amount to meet minimal needs.
Upper-end life rafts come with a supply of food, good for the number of people for which the raft is rated, for 24 hours. So a six-person raft will feed six people for 24 hours; or two people for three days. Beyond that, hope that you can catch fish, and learn to love sushi if you don't already. Immediately eat any fish you catch.
Jeff Schweitzer recently retired from his position as editor of the MMOPA Magazine; he flies a Jet-Prop and has just hit 5000 hours total time.
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|Title Annotation:||RISK MANAGEMENT|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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