From the South Ramp

--Hank Bruckner:

November 1998

November. Just a few hectic days until the GACH Christmas Party (Dec 12) and the Great Hawaiian Air Race (Feb 12-14). It's the time that all the mainland pubs talk about icing and snow and freezing rain and preheat and how to preserve your plane until next spring. It is also the time that the winter surf comes rolling in, and we are again reminded that much of our flying is over water. With the exception of Island Sea Planes, a water landing is a one-time affair for most of us. Let's review what we can do to make it memorable, but not fatal. All this has been written about before--some even by me, but it can't hurt to dust it off and bring it back into the mind's light. We'll take a look at staying dry, the right way to get wet, and what to wear to the occasion.

First, how to avoid ditching in the first place? Well, it helps to not run out of consumables such as fuel and oil. Sounds pretty basic, but, tragically, fuel exhaustion has claimed lives in Hawai'i. If you are going to be close on fuel, it may be worth it to rethink the flight and/or load. My personal fuel reserve for interisland flight is an hour. A half hour just isn't much if you are :35 from the runway. A good preflight is not only required but also a good idea. Did you cap the oil? Lycoming people transitioning to Continentals tend to forget the separate oil filler cap since they are used to just removing and replacing the dip stick. How closely did you look at the empennage of that Cessna that everybody pushes around on the ground by the tail? If any of it comes loose in flight, your chances of successfully controlling the aircraft are slim indeed. You get the point; make sure the aircraft is airworthy.

No matter how careful we are, however, stuff happens, and that's what we'll deal with next. Everyone who flies over water should have survival equipment readily available that is in good condition. As a minimum, there should be a PFD (Personal Flotation Device ), aka life vest, life preserver, Mae West (remember her?) for each occupant. If you are flying a single, then the vest should be ON each occupant. This one is a foot-stomper. You aren't going to make it if the vest is in a seat-back pocket or the aft baggage compartment and your only engine decides to quit. The vest itself should be recently inspected. Commercial operators must inspect them annually. I wouldn't stretch it beyond two years for non-commercial use. The seals between the inflator device and the fabric deteriorate with time and that is where most vests leak. Have someone like Life Support Equipment do a leak check. And the vest isn't enough. You need a raft and/or something to make you a bigger target (easier to see). One of the best, and least expensive products available is the SEE/RESCUE SAR floating, orange streamer. Available in various sizes, including a personal-size POCKET/RESCUE version, these devices greatly enhance your odds of being seen. I've had one attached to my life raft for a few years. They are light, compact, and have no moving parts. Call Dr. Robert Yonover at 433-3255 for more info. A good raft, though expensive, could prove invaluable. It can protect you from hypothermia, make you easier to spot from the air, and keep your okole and extremities away from hungry/curious sea creatures. Some rafts are as light as 12 pounds for a basic 4-person raft. Call me for more info on that. You should also have a signal mirror and some flares. All these things should be in a handy pack. The next most valuable thing you could have with you is a floating EPIRB. About the size of a small hand-held radio, the EPIRB will take over after your ELT has sunk with the plane. Together, these constitute a minimum survival kit. You can always add more, payload and pocket permitting.

How to prepare you and your passengers for the possibility of ditching without scaring them out of flying with you in the first place? You could draw straws. Short straw sits in back. One way to find out who your friends are. I repeat my contention: Those with single-engine aircraft fitted with four seats and only one door should consider them to be two-seaters. The guy in back hasn't got a great history of getting out of that one door. (Let's see now; he'll jump out of an airplane at 13,000' but won't go to Moloka'i in the back seat of a Cherokee...) Regardless, before takeoff, when you do your passenger briefing (you do one, of course), make sure each occupant knows how to get out in a hurry. And, assign survival equipment to specific occupants. "Your job, in case we ditch, is to get out with the life raft. We'll meet at the tail, if the airplane is still afloat." Big if. Chances are, your bird will sink in a matter of minutes or less, depending on sea states and how hard and at what angle it hit. Everyone should know how to tilt and move the seats. And, of course, everyone should know how and when to activate their life preserver and other safety equipment. Oh, yeah. This one is really important: file a flight plan and list your survival equipment in the remarks block. It's comforting to know that someone will be looking for you if you don't show up. If the Coast Guard knows you have flares and/or strobe lights, they'll look for you all night. Otherwise, you could tread water until first light.

Okay. Everyone is briefed and still smiling. As you reach cruise altitude, look at the ocean carefully and determine a ditching heading. To do that, find the major and minor swells, and pick an appropriate heading. In most cases, it will be parallel to the major swell. . Parallel to the swell, on the top or back side of the wave is preferred. If the secondary swell is significant, you may need to compromise on your heading. Remember, water is essentially incompressible (the big difference between hydraulics and pneumatics), so don't land into the face of a swell unless the wind is so strong you have essentially zero ground speed. We're talking of winds in excess of 35 knots (what were you doing up in those conditions?), in which case you'd land into the wind, regardless. Unfortunately, to land parallel to the primary swell you'll probably have to accept a crosswind. Try to make it a headwind component. You won't be able to read the ocean much below 1,500 - 2,000', either. Factor that in. Also, periodically re-evaluate your ditching heading. The ocean swirls around the various islands creating local conditions quite different from the en route ones.

Once your decision is made to ditch, make your mayday call on 121.5, brief your passengers on removing glasses, tightening belts, hanging on to survival gear, and assuming the position (protect face with arms, forehead on forearms). Open the door(s) or canopy, find the smoothest spot and fly the manufacturer's recommended profile. If you don't know it, look it up, now. You'll want something like your minimum sink speed. Flaps or no flaps? See what the manufacturer recommends. On some low-wing aircraft, the flaps may cause an added pitching down after impact that may outweigh their usefulness in reducing your landing speed. On some high-wing aircraft, full flaps may hinder egress. If there's a crosswind, this is one time you'll accept a crab rather than a side-slip. If you are flying a retract, leave the feet folded. If they are down and welded, expect a very sudden, harsh deceleration, the nose pitching sharply down, and probably flipping over on your back. Water will likely rush in. Don't panic. Follow your egress plan. Remember, and remind your fellow flyers, that things will retain their relative relationship. If the door handle is by your right elbow, it will still be there, even if you are hanging upside down. Always have a grip on something before you let go of something else as you pull yourself out of the airplane. Have a grasp on something solid before releasing your seat belts/harnesses, and wait until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. It may well skip once or more after the first impact. Once clear, inflate your PFD, and meet the rest of the crew at the prearranged spot (the tail, for example). Do not tie yourself or the raft to the airplane, no matter how well it seems to be floating. Once you are all together, fire off a couple of flares and begin to scan the horizon with the signal mirror (in daylight, of course). Don't use up all your flares. Save your smokes (signal, not tobacco) for guiding in rescue forces once they have seen you. Deploy your SEE/RESCUE streamer. Activate your EPIRB and wait for your rescuers. They'll be there, since you did file a flight plan, right?

We now have to fly cross country at night for certification, but I sure wouldn't do that in a single engine aircraft if I didn't have to. Night ditching would be very tough to pull off successfully. If you find yourself making a night emergency landing, turn on your landing light. If you don't like what you see, turn it off.

There are some good publications available on the subject, and some folks around who have been there and done that. Call me for more info at 836-1031 (or e-mail at

The Great Hawai'ian Air Race is really shaping up. We now have about $10,000 in prizes and a good contingent of mainland pilots coming out to either rent or fly with one of you. Applications are available. (check our web page at Call/e-mail me for details. We'd like to encourage all you owners to enter. This is an exciting cross-country race that can be entered as a speed race, wherein you try to beat yourself (in the sense of besting your handicap speed), and/or as a proficiency race, wherein you try to arrive at precisely the right time and fuel burn. The race itself will cover two days: the first will begin with a staggered takeoff from HNL's 8R, take you past Diamond Head as you head to the pier at Kaunakakai. You then cross the Kalohi Channel to Shipwreck#1 on the Lana'i coast, go to Lana'i Airport, over to Kahoo'lawe, Molokini Isle, Shipwreck#2, Lahaina Town, Kalaupapa, Elephant Rock, and stop for the night at Hana. There, all sorts of really neat stuff is planned, including some pretty good rates at the Hotel Hana Maui. Next day, the course takes you to Upolu Point, Kawaiha'e Harbor, Molokini, Lahaina Pier, Shipwreck#2, Kaunakakai Pier, Makapu'u Light House on O'ahu, Kane'ohe Bay, Kahuku, Ka'ena Point, the Kahe Power Plant, and the finish at historic Ford Island. A primo banquet will be held at the Hilton Hawai'ian, and some $10,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded in several categories. All proceeds will go to the Hawai'i Make-A-Wish Foundation. So, you get to have fun, improve your skills as an aviator, and help a worthy cause. Cool, huh? Basic entry fee is $200, but there are Bronze ($350), Silver ($500) and Gold ($1,000) donor categories available as well.

The GACH Christmas Party will kick off December 12, at the HATS Hangar (99 Mokuea Place, off Lagoon Drive) at 6 pm (or 1800 hrs for those inclined). It's a bring-a-dish affair, and we'll have the traditional GACH Christmas Gift Exchange. Bring a cheap gift, and you get to participate in the fun. It's a nice way to see nice folks have a nice time. Actually, it's a great way to see great folks have a great time.

Be careful out there.