Airplane Water Landing and Ditching Statistics: Rates of Survival
Commercial aircraft rarely make water landings, but it does happen. A US Airways flight landed in the Hudson River today, and it is believed that no passengers were seriously hurt. The plane, and Airbus A320, was carrying 155 passengers and crew and appears to have remained intact - much to the surprise of many. What are the different kinds of water landings, and what are the corresponding survival rates when a plane goes down?
Ditching is the intentional and controlled water landing of an aircraft, and the survival rate is actually quite high. This must be distinguished from water crashes, which usually involve a spiraling aircraft and extremely high speeds - and thus, little to no control on behalf of the pilot. Water crashes have an extremely low survival rate and are generally catastrophic events:
Armavia Flight 967, Alaska Airlines Flight 261, EgyptAir Flight 990, SilkAir Flight 185 (which disintegrated in midair) and Swissair Flight 111 left no survivors when they crashed, while just 8 of 73 on board American Airlines Flight 320 and 10 of 179 on board Kenya Airways Flight 431 survived their crashes.
A number of factors come into play when examining ditching survival rates. The size of the aircraft, what kind of water body the plane is landing upon, and the speed at which the pilot eases the craft into the water are three key elements that determine how safe the landing will be. Other scenarios may also come into play, such as wing height.
One study puts the average ditching survival rate at 88%. An examination of National Transportation Safety Board records from 1985 to 1990 and 1994 and 1996 revealed the following figures:
Of the 179 ditchings we reviewed, only 22, or 12 percent, resulted in fatalities. Although survival rates vary by time of year and water-body type, the overall general aviation ditching survival rate is 88 percent. Yet, even that record is somewhat misleading; the potential ditching survival rate is actually a bit better.
Most airplanes, including commercial crafts, are well equipped to float for a reasonable length of time for passengers and crew to exit; the notion that they would quickly sink is considered to be a myth. The evacuation slides that are equipped around the exit doors of a commercial aircraft are also designed to double as flotation devices and life rafts.
Whether or not pilots are trained in ditching methods varies by country. As of 2004, US Federal Aviation Regulations 121.417 and 135.331stipulate that "each certificate holder to provide emergency training for its crewmembers. These training requirements include, among other things, training in the operation of emergency equipment, the proper use of first aid equipment, instruction in handling illness, injury, or other abnormal situations involving passengers or crewmembers." This survival training course includes training on standard First Aid, the will to survive, survival aid, skills and equipment, climate survival, and ditching and water survival. It remains unclear how much emphasis these regulations receive in standard commercial pilot training courses.
The Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Ralph Nader group, says that in an attempted water landing, a wide body jet would “shatter like a raw egg dropped on pavement, killing most if not all passengers on impact, even in calm seas with well-trained pilots and good landing trajectories." Possibly because ditchings are both virtually nonexistent and virtually nonsurvivable, the Federal Aviation Administration does not require commercial pilots to train for them. Instead, it has various rules about how close planes must be to an airfield on land.
But is this true, is ditching training a fruitless effort in light of their rarity and often dismal outcome? While ditching survival rates may be high for smaller crafts, what evidence do we have throughout history that could confirm or deny the claim that a commercial aircraft would essentially shatter upon a water landing?
Here are some well-publicized passenger plane ditching events, most of which had high survival rates, leading off with the most recent:
- On 15 Jan 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, ditched into the Hudson River in New York City, after reports of multiple bird strikes. All of the 155 passengers and crew aboard escaped and were rescued by passenger ferries. Survival rate was 100%.
- On 6 Aug 2005, Tuninter 1153 (an ATR 72) ditched off the Sicilian coast after running out of fuel. Of 39 aboard, 20 survived with injuries including serious burns. The plane's wreck was found in three pieces. survival rate was 59%.
- In 2002, Garuda Indonesia Flight 421 (a Boeing 737) successfully ditched into the Bengawan Solo River near Yogyakarta, Java Island after experiencing a twin engine flameout during heavy precipitation and hail. The pilots tried to restart the engines several times before taking the decision to ditch the aircraft. Of the 60 occupants, one, a flight attendant, was killed. Survival rate was 98%. Photographs taken shortly after evacuation show that the plane came to rest in knee-deep water.
- In 1996, Ethiopian 961 (a 767-200ER) ditched in shallow water 500 meters from land after being hijacked and running out of fuel. Unable to operate flaps, it impacted at high speed, dragging its left wingtip before tumbling and breaking into three pieces. The panicking hijackers were fighting the pilots for the control of the plane at the time of the impact, which caused the plane to roll just before hitting the water, and the subsequent wingtip hitting the water and breakup are a result of this struggle in the cockpit. Of 175 on board, 52 survived. Some passengers were killed on impact or trapped in the cabin when they inflated their life vests before exiting. Most of the survivors were found hanging onto a section of the fuselage that remained floating. Survival rate was 26%.
- In May 2, 1970, ALM Flight 980 (a DC-9-33CF) ditched in mile-deep water after running out of fuel during multiple attempts to land at Princess Juliana International Airport in the island of Saint Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles under low-visibility weather. Of 63 occupants, 40 survivors were recovered by U.S. military helicopters. Survival rate was 63%
- In 1963, an Aeroflot Tupolev 124 ditched into the River Neva after running out of fuel. The aircraft floated and was towed to shore by a tugboat which it had nearly hit as it came down on the water. The tug rushed to the floating aircraft and pulled it with its passengers near to the shore where the passengers disembarked onto the tug; all 52 on board escaped without injuries. Survival rate was 100%
- In 1956, Pan Am Flight 943 (a Boeing 377) ditched into the Pacific after losing two of its four engines. The aircraft was able to circle around USCGC Pontchartrain until daybreak, when it ditched; all 31 on board survived.Survival rate was 100%
- Also in 1956, Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2 ditched into Puget Sound after the flight engineer forgot to close the cowl gills on the Boeing Stratocruiser's engines. All aboard escaped the aircraft after a textbook landing, but four passengers and one flight attendant succumbed either to drowning or to hypothermia before being rescued. Survival rate was 87%
- Miami Air Lease Convair CV-340, December 4, 2004, Mall lake, Florida, 2 occupants, 2 survivors, 100% survival rate
- Antillian Airlines Flight 980, 02 May 1970, The flight was scheduled to fly from New York to St. Maarten. Because poor visibility, the aircraft could not land at St. Maarten and was diverted to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Five minutes later the crew was told the weather had improved at St. Maarten and were directed back. After 3 missed landing attempts at St. Maarten, the crew asked to be diverted to St. Thomas. By this time the plane was low on fuel. While flying to St. Thomas, the aircraft ran out of fuel and ditched into the ocean. Improper management of fuel by the crew. Inadequate warning given to passengers before the ditching with 23 of 63 passengers survived.