Learning the Art of Escaping

KENORA ON Oct 12 2004 – A float plane is towed to shore after flipping over during landing in Kenora’s Safety Bay. The private plane landed with it wheels down by mistake after a short flight from the Kenora airport. Aviation Egress Systems, Victoria, BC

I’m of the school of thought that there is no such thing as too much training. And while you may think underwater emergency egress training may be superfluous if you stay within the confines of our borders, the day you end up upside down in an airplane in one of the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico or the Hudson River, you’ll be glad you went the extra mile. If you’re a seaplane pilot, this type of training should be considered essential.

If you have a forced landing on water, chances are quite good that you'll survive the impact. And it may not be very difficult to quickly exit the airplane if it lands right side up, which is unfortunately unlikely if you're flying a fixed gear airplane. If you have the luxury of a parachute, however, it may keep you upright. Recently, a father-daughter pair experienced this when they were forced to ditch a Cirrus SR22 near the Bahamas. If you're flying a retract and keep the wheels in the well you also have a good chance of floating on top.

Wheels tend to grab the water’s surface and flip the airplane upside down. If you accidentally land an amphibious airplane with the gear down on the water, you’re almost guaranteed to get wet, as the people in this video found out the hard way https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObLQnY5fDU8. And even if you keep the wheels up, a botched seaplane landing can turtle your airplane in a hurry.

So there you are, stressed after the impact of a forced landing and completely disoriented because you’re upside down. According to Bryan Webster of Aviation Egress Systems in Victoria, British Columbia, a common mistake people make is to pull the door handle in the wrong direction because they are disoriented. Some people even pull the handle off the door in desperation. The water can fill up the cockpit very quickly through air vents and other openings. And if the scenario happens at night, you have to feel your way through the cockpit in hopes of finding a way out before the lack of oxygen turns the lights off permanently.

You can buy yourself some time by closing up air vents and any other openings before you ditch, but for the amphib pilot who lands with the gear down, this is most likely not an option since the incident won’t be expected. Most people can only hold their breath for about one minute – even less so under stress. So unless you’re David Blaine (who was able to hold his breath for more than 17 minutes), you won’t have much time to get yourself out. This is where training pays off.

There are several emergency egress programs available in the U.S. and Canada where you can practice getting out under fully controlled conditions. Using a dunking device, in some cases an actual fuselage, you’ll be turned upside down in a swimming pool and will have to get yourself out while experienced instructors stand by to save you, if necessary. You’ll also don blackout goggles to learn to exit blind. You’ll learn the tricks to getting out in just a few seconds, knowledge that could one day save your life.

Water accidents involving airplanes are not as uncommon as you may think. Webster claims that in Canada alone there is about one such incident every month. Naturally you’re more likely to end up in this type of unfortunate scenario if you’re a seaplane pilot. But even if a water crash never happens to you, it’s good to have the assurance that you know how to exit the airplane quickly. Preparation is the key to survival.

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Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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