Would You Survive A Crash Into Water?

Adam Hunt


With spring on the way it seemed timely for COPA Flight 8 to host a presentation on the subject of water survivability.This presentation focused not only on surviving floatplane accidents, but indeed any accident where an aircraft ends up in the water.

Our speaker, Kathy Fox, who after retiring from the vice-presidency at Nav Canada, is now a member of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (www.tsb.gc.ca).

Fox is also noted as an air traffic controller, former member of the Canadian Precision Flying Team and as a flight instructor, a role she still fills part time at the Rockcliffe Flying Club.

As a member of the TSB she takes an active interest in what helps keep pilots and passengers alive in accidents and that lead her to address water accidents.

Fox started her talk with an explanation of what the TSB’s role is, explaining that it investigates air, marine, pipeline and rail accidents, reporting to parliament and not Transport Canada. Accidents are investigated to identify safety deficiencies and not to assign blame.

In the field of aviation water accidents the TSB conducted an extensive study that was published in 1994 and covered the accident record from 1976-90. The report SA9401 A Safety Study of Survivability in Seaplane Accidents is available on the TSB website. Fox noted, even though the report is a bit dated recent data reviews show little has changed in the intervening time and the risk factors are still the same.

The study covered 1,432 seaplane accidents, including 234 fatal accidents and 452 deaths. The causes of death tell a clear story. Of those who died 10% were from impact, 2% from exposure (hypothermia), 10% who drowned after being incapacitated and 67% who drowned while not incapacitated.

A further 10% of deaths had no recorded cause. Seventy per cent of those who died inside the aircraft drowned and 86% of those who died outside the aircraft drowned.

In the years since the report was published 70% of the fatalities in water aviation accidents have also been due to drowning. Clearly the biggest risk in water accidents is death from drowning.

Of 276 occupants, 8% were able to escape from the aircraft unhampered, 26% escaped with difficulty and 44% did not escape. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the TSB has identified the key issues.

High on this list is the fact many aircraft, especially light aircraft, are not well designed to allow easy occupant egress.Many aircraft types also do not allow a rescuer outside the aircraft to open the doors, since the doors are latched and locked from the inside. This problem has prevented timely rescue in many cases.

The good news in all of this is that the TSB has identified the problem areas and has good information on what you can do to increase your chances of surviving a crash on the water.

Seat belts and especially shoulder harnesses play a big role in water survival.

Not wearing shoulder harnesses often leads to head injuries and loss of consciousness, which means you won’t get out of the aircraft.

Several studies have shown that shoulder belts significantly improve survivability, especially when the aircraft cartwheels on water impact, which is a common impact scenario. Even though they help immensely, many light aircraft passenger seats aren’t even equipped with shoulder harnesses and even when they are available 40% of occupants don’t wear them.

One major factor in escape is that many people overestimate how long they can hold their breath in cold water. While the average person can hold their breath for 37 seconds in water at 25C, in water at 0C that time is reduced to 5-10 seconds, due to the gasp reflex. The TSB has recommended that helicopter passengers flying offshore be issued with escape breathing apparatus. The Canadian Forces have equipped their Sea King helicopters crews with this for many years.

Aircraft door handles are a major issue in survivability. The variety of door handles and latching mechanisms is staggering and many pilots are not that familiar with how they work when they can’t be seen in a submerged aircraft. In some aircraft types the seats can block access to the door handles or make the handles impossible to reach from the seat next to them.

Can you operate your door handle if you are upside-down in the cockpit? Many water accidents result in that occupant orientation.Are passengers properly briefed on how the door handle works and are they given a chance to actually practice opening the doors?

Some latches require a surprising amount of force to open and the passenger who has to open the door may not be prepared for that. As noted once latched many aircraft doors, cannot be opened from the outside, so opening them from the inside is critical.

With drowning the leading cause of death in water accidents, flotation is a critical factor. Life jackets must be of the type that is inflated after exiting the aircraft.The type that provides flotation all the time, such as boating-style PFDs, will prevent the occupants from escaping and contribute to their deaths. Since water accidents usually happen with little warning, having the life jackets stowed is of no use, they must be worn for at least takeoff and landing if they are to do their job.

Passenger briefings for floatplane operations and flights over water need to be different from land briefings. Transport Canada has a useful website section on just this issue (www.tc.gc.ca/floatplanes). Perhaps the most important point is to ensure that passengers know to open the exit door first, before releasing their seat belt, otherwise they will probably not be able to open the door.

Of particular note both Transport Canada and the TSB recommend that people who fly over water get formal underwater escape training. This training is offered by several providers in Canada and is very effective. Having done the training will greatly increase your chances of getting out of a submerged aircraft. Without this training people only escape by luck.

Flight 8 would like to thank Kathy Fox for taking time from her busy schedule to come and brief us on water accident hazards.