Airliners and Water Landings - Will You Survive? March 17, 2023

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Airliners and Water Landings – Will You Survive? March 17, 2023


March 17, 2023

Good Morning,

There have been a number of articles written on the subject of water landings, so I thought I would take a look at some of the data and do a little research myself. The experts say that in a water landing the aircraft would break apart instantly killing most if not all passengers on impact due to “G” forces. We are all familiar with what is now known as “The Miracle on the Hudson,” and have probably seen the movie; however, there have been many others prior to this. Before I tell you about two of these, please consider the following which I found on another blog. You can read this blog in it’s entirety by clicking on the source document shown at the end of the comments below.

How Many Successful Ditchings of Commercial Airliners?

  • Aviation Safety Network lists 312 occurrences with a result of Emergency, forced landing – Ditching. There’s no way to limit this to only commercial flights but it is certainly immediately obvious that US-based passenger aircraft have been ditching since the 1930s.
  • Wikipedia’s Water Landing page states in the first paragraph that there have been nine intentional commercial airliner ditchings and then goes on to list twenty examples, where Ethiopian 961 is listed both as a planned and as an unplanned water ditching.
  • Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s Emergency Landing page claimed that there were only eight 8 intentional ditchings, a list which has since been removed.
  • Jet airliner Ditching Events, the most commonly cited list, gives only four ditching events but it is clear that they are limiting their list to passenger jet airliner services. I’m not sure why one would be specific about jet airliners; it seems an odd restriction to me.
  • Skybrary’s article on Ditching: Fixed Wing Aircraft doesn’t give a number but offers four examples.
  • In an academic paper Review of Transport Aircraft Ditching Accidents, a compilation of all known planned ditching events of passenger transport jet aircraft, six ditching events are named.

Note: all of these lists include the “Miracle on the Hudson”, the United US Airways Airlines Airbus A320-200 landing in the Hudson after a bird strike. All but the page (which to be fair doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive list) also mention Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 which attempted to ditch near Grande Comore island after being hijacked; however it impacted at high speed and tumbled, breaking into three pieces.

      Ethiopian airlines flight 961 ditched, but not successfully, killing 125 out of the 175 on board.

Part of the problem is varying definitions. Wikipedia specifies “intentional commercial airliner ditchings” which seems fair enough, but AirSafe only lists jet airliners, which seems an arbitrary restriction. In 2006, another Economist article We’re about to crash claimed that “in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero”, limiting their definition to wide bodies… but even so, in 1993, there were two incidents of Boeing 747s which overshot the runway and landed on water. Did they mean successful ditching events? Probably, but that’s not what they said.

Source Document

Now I know that most readers may not have a good feel for the history before Captain Sully’s ditching in the Hudson, so lets take a look at two ditchings which I discovered/rediscovered during my research.


Remembering Flying Tiger Flight 923

(Published By Brady McCarron Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs)

Sixty years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, Flying Tiger Flight 923 took off from Gander, Newfoundland, headed for Germany. Seventy-six souls boarded the aircraft, but only 48 survived when the plane went down approximately 500 miles off the coast of Ireland.

A newspaper headline from morning after Flying Tiger Flight 923 was reported as going down on Sept. 23, 1962, off the coast of Ireland. (Courtesy photo from Eric Lindner)

A newspaper headline from the morning after Flying Tiger Flight 923 was reported as going down on Sept. 23, 1962, off the coast of Ireland. (Courtesy photo from Eric Lindner)

With freezing temperatures and waves over 20 feet high, the story of the survivors has impacted not only members of the U.S. Air Force but those in the civilian aviation world as well. The event has even brought changes to air safety itself. Yet, many service members know very little about the heroes and how their actions ensured such a high survival rate when all the experts expected no survivors.

The Crash

There was no warning; nothing to indicate Flight 923 would be anything but normal. All of that changed when engine No. 3 caught fire. The flight crew was able to extinguish the flames, but more trouble lay ahead — and they knew it. Almost immediately, engine No. 1 had to be shut down because of a bad propeller would spell disaster for the flight. The crew had no other choice but to tell the passengers to prepare for a compromised landing when the time came. As the flight continued, everyone on board began to realize reaching land safely was not going to happen.

Life jackets were passed out and put on. Instructions were given on what to do when the plane ditched into the water. According to manuals, the plane would skip along the water’s surface and stop, and then the passengers would walk onto the wings and climb onto one of the five life rafts.

After this, a loud thump was heard by all; engine No. 2 caught fire and then went silent.

The plane started to plunge. All the lights went out. The end was near.

Because of the 20-foot waves and 50-mile-per-hour winds, the crash was violent. Instead of skipping on the water, the aircraft’s hull was torn open, and the right wing was shorn off. The winds were so powerful that four of the five life rafts blew away.

Yet, no one seemed to panic—those healthy enough to walk moved towards the emergency doors and jumped into the freezing waters.

Fifty-one people crowded into the last 25-person raft; in the chaos and darkness, it had been mistakenly inflated upside down, so there was no access to potable water, flares, or medical supplies. Though no one remembers exactly how long it took for the plane to sink, after 15 minutes, it had disappeared entirely. No other survivors could be seen other than those on the raft. For the next six hours, they were driven by fierce winds and continuously soaked by freezing waves while huddled together. Finally, the raft of survivors would travel another 22 miles, lost at sea, and invisible to the dozens of aircraft racing to the scene or orbiting above. Sadly, three of the 51 on the raft would not live to see rescue.

The Rescue

Before going down, the captain of Flight 923 was able to send off an SOS call intercepted by a Swiss freighter ship, the MS Celerina. Assisted by flares dropped by two aircraft that also heard the SOS and diverted their course, the Celerina was able to bring all 48 survivors aboard. They were safe, warm and taken care of for the remaining journey to land. The storm that made their landing so deadly continued, which delayed their journey. However, after three days aboard the Celerina, the seas calmed, and the remaining crew and passengers finally made it to land in Belgium.

The Heroes

Capt. John Murray was a World War II pilot who never thought his most difficult flight would take place after the war.

The 44-year-old pilot could not brace: he needed to try and steer the shuddering, unbalanced 72-ton aircraft traveling at 120 mph. Despite being knocked unconscious when his head slammed into the control panel upon impact with the ocean, bleeding to a point where he was unable to see, and with the water inside the plane up to his chest, Murray made sure all the 75 souls on board were off the plane – alive. Then, out of instinct, he went back into the cockpit to grab a flashlight. During a brutal swim to the raft, he rescued a teen newlywed. Weak from the hours-long ordeal in the air and sea and losing a lot of blood, he had to be pulled into the raft by the other survivors. He was the last aboard the aircraft.

His last-minute thought before the plane sank ended up saving everyone. After hours afloat, the captain of the Celerina saw the lone beam of light and knew there were survivors.

“If not for that flashlight, no one would have found us,” said Carol Ann Gould, Flight 923 flight attendant.

Gould was supposed to have the day off, but Flight 923 needed an additional flight attendant to accompany the 68 servicemen and their family members. At 22 years old, she would be the only cabin crew member to survive. As many of the survivors would later recall, Gould’s relaxed, calm demeanor helped them prepare for and survive the crash. Knowing that the inevitable would happen, she had a comforting smile and reassured the passengers their captain was the best pilot to handle this situation.

Gould did not secure herself for the crash until she confirmed that every passenger was buckled in and in the proper crash position. She was the very last one to prepare, just mere moments before the plane went down. Immediately after impact, she got up and started leading the passengers out of the plane. She went back and forth, getting everyone she could out. Finally, she was pushed out of the aircraft by a Soldier who told her there were no more people she could help.

After she was pulled onto the raft, Gould started helping take care of the wounded and making sure she spoke to all of them on the raft. To keep hopes high, she led them in song. She never stopped until they were finally rescued. Even in her exhausted state, once on the Celerina, she continued to talk with the passengers until they were all safely back on shore.

Capt. Juan Figueroa-Longo, a physician, was supposed to be on vacation with his wife, Carmen, but instead, the OB-GYN became the emergency doctor who made sure everyone who could survive, did. With the assistance of Gould, while on the raft, Figueroa dealt with hundreds of life-threatening injuries, including severe aviation fuel burns, deep cuts, broken bones, hypothermia, and, most importantly, shock. He did so despite having lost his glasses in the crash. He also received assistance from Senior Master Sgt. Peter Foley, a reporter for Stars and Stripes.

“I guess it was a sense of duty that kept me going,” Figueroa said in an interview. “It was something that had to be done.”

The U.S. Air Force played a vital role in the rescue from start to finish. Lt. Joe Lewis found the raft while piloting his checkout flight out of Scotland; Figueroa tended to those on the raft; and Capt. John Riddle raced from Châteauroux Air Station, France, to meet the Swiss ship when it arrived in Antwerp. Riddle was put in charge of ensuring all survivors were adequately taken care of.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1991, then-Maj. Gen. Riddle shared how meeting and helping the survivors altered his life.

“It forever changes your perspective on life,” Riddle said. “I had to be the first step in trying to help these people take the first step in getting their lives back after such a devastating event. Some lost spouses and friends. For the rest of my career, and even today, I cannot imagine the pain they went through not only at that moment but for the rest of their lives.”

The Lost Ones

Though Flight 923 is a story of survival, there were 28 people who lost their lives that day. Included were 17 members of the military, five crew members, and six family members, including two children who died with their mother on their way to join their father and husband, who was stationed in Germany.

Lt. Col. George Dent sat crowded on the raft with the other survivors, all but six feet away from his wife, Elizabeth. He panicked when on the raft and called her name but was relieved to hear her respond. However, when the survivors were being pulled onto the rescue ship, he discovered she was one of three who had died of their wounds while on the raft.

Most of the military members lost that day were U.S. Army combat paratroopers. Some as young as 18 were heading to their first duty assignment. Others were mid-level non-commissioned officers, as well as one officer.

Back in the cities and towns where each of the lost came from, the pain was hard on all. Like the survivors, their lives were changed forever.

The Lessons Learned

Flight 923 is not only a story of survival and loss; it also brought changes to the way water landings are governed today. As evident with U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which landed on the Hudson River in 2009, ditching an airplane on smooth water and close to shore is one thing, but when it is not smooth and far from land, Flight 923 led to essential safety improvements.

The Coast Guard was key in using the example of Flight 923 to push for changes in water rescues of downed aircraft. They pushed for laws that mandated reversible rafts on aircraft. More importantly, all rafts and life jackets now have lights on them so they can be seen by ships and passing aircraft.

Other rules and regulations that can be traced to Flight 923 include improvements to the black box digital recorders and better deicing procedures.

Source Document

Below is the actual footage of Pan Am 6 which is the second item I wanted to provide for you today; however, I have chosen not to provide any lengthy details, other than the video, in an effort not to make this posting to long. There is an abundance of articles, however, that you can find on the web that will detail the specifics.

Enjoy the weekend, take care, and fly safe/be safe.

Robert Novell

March 17, 2023