You may be familiar with safety procedures demonstrated by the Flight Attendants who explain what to do in the event of a water landing. Now, read on to find out why a water landing takes place, and how safe you are in the hands of a skilled pilot who knows exactly what to do.
Words: Capt. Lim Khoy Hing
How long can a plane stay afloat after a successful water landing or ‘ditching’, as it is known amongst the pilot community? I was asked this question recently.
Well, it depends on how well the ditching was executed. A perfect landing would enable the plane to stay afloat like a boat for quite a while. A badly executed one would lead to tragic consequences. Let’s get to the bottom of this scenario so that, as aircraft passengers, you will be truly educated on the procedures in the event of a ditching.
What is ditching?
Ditching is the intentional and controlled water landing of an aircraft and the survival rate during this procedure is actually very high. However, ditching needs to be distinguished from water crashes. Where ditching is intentional, water crashes usually involve an uncontrolled aircraft at extremely high speeds.
Ditching survival rates would depend on the size of the aircraft, the condition of the water surface and, the speed the pilot eases the plane onto the water.
A successful ditching
On January 15, 2009, Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 operated by US Airways, ditched into the Hudson River in New York City after reports of multiple bird (flying geese) strikes. In this incident, the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) made a perfect water landing and all 155 lives were saved.
The Airbus A320 was able to stay afloat because the plane was not damaged above the waterline. However, below the floating wing, there was slight damage at the cargo compartment; the left engine was detached and sank about 65 feet into the river.
Most commercial airliners are well equipped to float for a reasonable length of time, enabling passengers and crew to exit safely. The evacuation slides around the exit doors are also designed to double up as flotation devices and life rafts.
When Flight 1549 landed on water, it remained on the surface for quite some time before slowly sinking, as it drifted down the river. This was because the cabin of the plane is designed to act like the hull of a boat and will stay afloat as long as there are no leaks.
Unfortunately, the impact with the water had ripped open a hole in the underside of the airplane and twisted the fuselage, causing the cargo door to pop open and slowly filling the plane with water from the rear.
Pilots are also able to shut off all intake and outlet valves on the entire plane (if the ‘Ditching’ switch is activated), thereby making the cabin fully water tight and more buoyant. The duration can easily last more than an hour. However, in the Hudson River case, it was aggravated by the damage in the rear cargo compartment.
Nevertheless, the plane stayed afloat long enough for everyone to get out safely. Fortunately, all passengers were rescued by a small armada of police boats, fireboats, tugboats and the Coast Guard. Some of these boats were even seen supporting the plane on its side to keep the jetliner afloat.
Ditching of commercial airliners
Besides the success of the Hudson case, there have been at least three other safe ditching incidents in recent times. In 2002, a Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 successfully ditched onto a river near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, after experiencing a twin engine failure during heavy rain. The pilots tried to restart the engines several times before making the decision to ditch the aircraft.
In 1963, a Russian plane, Aeroflot Tupolev 124, ditched onto a river as it ran out of fuel. The aircraft floated and was towed to shore by a tugboat, which it nearly hit as it came down on the water. The tug rushed to the aircraft and towed it to shore. All the 52 passengers on board escaped without injuries.
In 1956, a Pan Am Flight ditched into the Pacific after losing two of its four engines. All 31 on board survived.