Preparing to ditch

"I must have been unconscious for two or three minutes," recalled Dean Mortimer, president of Ontario, Canada's Cloud Air charter service. "I woke up looking upside down at the bottom of the lake, yet inexplicably I released my seat belt and fell headfirst to the roof of the aircraft."

Mortimer was flying an amphibious Cessna Caravan that flipped during a water landing. "After I oriented myself, I was able to open the door and step onto the fuselage," he said. "A boat picked me up right away. I was very fortunate."

Michael Smith, a pilot for the U.S. Department of the Interior, had a similar experience. Smith had to ditch a Pilatus PC-12 as he approached Russia over the Sea of Okhotsk in July 2001, after the gearbox seized up, forcing him to shut down the engine. He and his passengers were uninjured but, he said, "You think, 'Damn, I'm out in the middle of nowhere and I hope this raft holds up and someone finds us.'"

Smith and his passengers had immersion suits to help retain body heat, but their low-cost life raft had only a single flotation tube on the sides, so waves kept coming over the top. They had to keep bailing it out for about 15 hours with a collapsible bucket. "When night fell, [we experienced] hypothermia within a few hours," he recalled.

A passing vessel discovered Smith and his companions in time to save them. "We were very, very lucky," he said. "If I'd been trained, I would have had a better life raft and more equipment, such as a satellite phone and GPS."

Two-day Course
Ditching incidents like Mortimer's and Smith's occur rarely, but when they do, training can spell the difference between life and death. So said Ken Burton, president of Stark Survival Training in Panama City, Fla., which offers a two-day course designed to test life-support equipment in the environment where it would be used in emergencies. The course is popular with pilots and crews, but few passengers sign up. "That's one of my frustrations," Burton said. "They think it's not for them, but this training is just as important for passengers as for pilots and crews."

The course covers day and night scenarios, raft management, signaling devices and use of the latest emergency equipment. It stresses the "three Ps" of ditching survival: planning, preparation and practice.

"If you know what you're doing, ditching is statistically safer than an off-airport landing attempt on the ground," said Burton, who has 45 years' experience, including 21 years in the Air Force, as an instructor in aviation physiology, hyperbaric therapy and water survival.

During the first morning of the course I recently attended, Burton covered water-survival techniques and equipment. He also explained the automated mutual-assistance vessel emergency rescue (AMVER) system, a U.S. Coast Guard-operated program that constantly tracks some 15,000 vessels worldwide. These vessels will respond to calls for rescue or assistance from other vessels or people in distress.

After lunch, everyone boarded a boat and was transported out into the Gulf of Mexico. We practiced survival techniques in daylight, then repeated them after dark. Getting into a life raft in a pitching sea during the day isn't too difficult, but in the dark, it's challenging and without training could be catastrophic.

On the boat, Burton had a box of FAA-approved flares. He began with the inexpensive brands. Twenty attempts failed to produce a single lit flare. "I don't sell these things, so I have no axe to grind," he said, "but when it comes to survival equipment, you don't want to buy cheap." The higher-end flares all performed as advertised.

Throughout the course, Burton stressed the importance of preparation and admonished us to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants when we fly. "Once you're in the water, the object is to close airspace around your body," he said. "You can't do that effectively with exposed skin."

Burton handed us a large trash bag and told us to jump in the water fully clothed with a life vest on. He instructed us to get inside the trash bag, hold it closed around our necks and huddle together. In about a minute, it got surprisingly warm.

We also practiced throwing and activating the life rafts. "I only use Winslows," Burton said. "They've designed these rafts to fully deploy very easily and to be secure in the worst conditions. The user has to do very little to make them completely operational. It's the only thing between you and disaster, so this isn't an area where you want to cut financial corners."

Into the Pool

On the second day of the course, Burton gathered everyone into the hotel swimming pool, where he'd set up a dunker for underwater egress training. He helped us develop both the psychological and manual skills necessary to get out of a submerged aircraft. "The keys to survival are to maintain your orientation and have a plan," he said. He also showed us that with training it's possible to hold your breath far longer than you might think.

Does the training really pay off? Richard Bird of Whippany, N.J., thinks so. In a letter to Burton, Bird recounted a helicopter flight that ended up in New York City's East River in 1997. "The training I received from you...made all the difference in my getting out of the aircraft and to the surface in time to save my life," Bird wrote.