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Close Encounter of the Watery Kind

After a fun day of sun and sand, an outwardly pleasant excursion nearly came to a nasty end with undercurrents of aggravation leading to a small but potentially fatal error. I related the following story to Bryan Webster right after it happened, still feeling rattled that I could have ended up in the drink.

It can happen to anyone at any time, and you’d better know how to get out of the cockpit. You may not be as lucky as I was!

Flying is fun, and going by air for a picnic is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Bob is a private pilot, and I have a commercial license, although we fly only for recreation. We have been flying together for eight years and are comfortable with each other as pilots. We made our plans; I’d fly outbound to our destination, a little airstrip about 90 minutes away, we’d have lunch on the warm sandy beach nearby, and he’d fly us back to our home airport.

Just before our departure, a young, newly licensed pilot asked if he could go with us. Why not? The more the merrier! Off we went with “the kid” in the back seat of the C172. We’d been flying since he was in Pampers…

Several hours later, we were back at our base on a long final, beautifully set up by Bob. The approach took us over a wide stretch of water; the VASI lights shone red over white as we glided in, throttled back to near idle—a perfect approach. Just as we crossed the numbers, the propeller stopped turning!

Engine failure!

We were surprised but not scared because we were about to touch down anyway. We landed normally and rolled off the active.

The cause of the failure was, as usual, fuel starvation. But why? Well, as usual, it was pilot error; during the pre-taxi, Bob had omitted one little step of the checklist – the step where the fuel selector is switched to “Both” after having run the engine on “Left” and “Right”. We had made the return flight using the fuel in just one tank, and by pure good fortune, it had run dry a few seconds before landing.

Although this particular incident had a happy ending, the really scary thing is that it might have resulted in a watery death for three people. Many high-hours professional pilots have met their end by the fuel selector switch mistake. Luckily for us, the engine ran out of fuel just before touchdown; in fact, the prop may have been windmilling for some seconds before it actually stopped turning. Had the tank run dry just 60 seconds sooner, we would have been another mile or more out – over the water at a low altitude. Even if the cause of the engine failure had been quickly diagnosed, switching over the fuel selector, restarting and getting the plane flying again would have taken too much time.

In this case, when the aircraft strikes the water, it noses over, leaving the occupants upside down in their seat belts, disoriented and in a panic.

This horrible scenario made me realize just how important it is to learn how to escape from a submerged cockpit. Despite having known “Bry the Dunker Guy” for over 20 years, I had never taken his submerged aircraft fuselage egress (S.A.F.E.) training course. I had watched him develop his methods and get Aviation Egress Systems (AES) started about 10 years ago.

I was in the cheering section when Bryan won the 2007 Transport Canada Aviation Safety Award for his exceptional commitment to underwater egress training for pilots. I had personally promoted the course to all my pilot pals, pointing out how much water there is in our area and how you never know when something could go wrong. Despite all that and even the offer of taking the course for free, I had not done it! Did I consider myself too good a pilot ever to end up in the water? What was I thinking?!

As we taxied in, the kid in the back seat rather gratuitously informed us that “fuel on both” was part of the pre-take-off check. Bob zipped his lip, and I became aware that our passenger had played a part in the string of events that had led up to a moment of distraction and the missing of a step in the checklist.

As a devotee of Tony Kern, author of Flight Discipline, I find an analysis of the lead-up to an incident quite fascinating – it is frightening to know how easily even the most experienced pilots can be diverted from their tasks by seemingly innocuous events.

So, what exactly contributed to a moment of carelessness that might have had fatal consequences?

All three of us had a hand in it. The kid vanished just as we were ready to depart the airstrip. A quarter-hour ticked by before we found him and got him into the plane. We had filed a flight plan, and our take-off time was now delayed. Hurry, hurry with the checklist; make up for the 15 minutes lost. For my part, I had failed to realize how irritated Bob was with the hold-up and kid’s non-stop advice– the lad had all the wisdom of a 60-hour pilot!

If I had gone through the pre-taxi checks with him instead of turning to the back seat and scolding the kid for delaying us, it is unlikely we would have missed the “fuel on both” step. Strangely, on the return flight, I glanced over at the fuel gauges and noticed the right tank needle on E while the left was showing half full. All that crossed my mind was that the damned things didn’t work, and I concentrated on the gyroscopic precession that was going uncorrected.

Bob and I hardly spoke during the flight, but the kid kept up his chatter, and my partner gritted his teeth harder all the while! The final straw was the dead stick landing.

 – One Lucky Lady

Aviation Egress Training for Pilots and Passengers

For many aviators, the prospect of crashing into the water is one of their biggest fears. If you fly over water, we highly recommend you take our two-part Egress Training Course. You’ll learn how to effectively exit a sinking aircraft and how to help your passengers get out safely. Our courses have been developed and refined over 24 years, ensuring that each student receives the highest level of training possible.

Dry Egress Training

Our Dry Egress Training is a comprehensive computer-based course to teach pilots and passengers the basics of egressing an aircraft. This program can be completed anytime, anywhere, from the comfort of your own home, office or on the run. It will take approximately 3 hours to finish, and our students have a 14-day window to complete the material after registering.

Wet Egress Training

We run our WET egress courses across Canada throughout the year. Our training for private pilots is also approved by Transport Canada to satisfy the Canadian Aviation Regulations CARs 401.05(2)(a) Recency Requirement for recurrency training. We begin our half-day session with an introduction and review of the material covered in the DRY egress course and discuss the aircraft relevant to our students of the day. Next, we introduce students to disorientation and exiting, as well as PFDs, life-raft skills, buoyancy, rescue exercises, plus a variety of underwater scenarios. Then we enter the pool for hands-on practical training.

More information is available on our course page or by contacting us.

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Winter Flying Preparation for Float Plane Pilots

Aircraft crashed into ice

You’re flying at 2,000 feet on a sunny day in January, and then, for no obvious reason, your engine quits. After investigating and trying to restart, you realize that you have no choice but to land on the frozen lake below. Luckily, the landing is perfect; you even manage to get close to shore near the woods. Were you well prepared? Let’s see. In this article, you’ll learn more about winter flying preparation, including essential survival gear you should have on board, how to stay warm, and how to be found during an emergency.

Make sure someone knows where you are

Naturally, you did file a flight plan, right? Do you have a “spot“ or equivalent?

No Flight plan. Does your neighbour or friend know that you were to be back by 16:00? Naturally, they are well versed in who to call for search and rescue, correct? The difference between having backup and not having one could lead to an extended outdoor experience. Sleeping in the bush one night or more can be fun if you’re prepared for the occasion. So now, first try to establish radio contact to get help or activate SPOT on emergency or turn on your ELT if you never acquired a“Spot”. Or another emergency locator.

In this case, it was a perfect landing.

There is no injury to take care of, but if the landing had been hard or in a bush area with rocks, then injuries may have become the priority.

Winter Flying Preparation: Essential survival gear

It is now time to do an inventory. In your pockets, do you have matches or a lighter of some sort? Before leaving, did you gather up a couple of space blankets? How about a knife or multi-tool, whistle, compass, water, purifying tablets, heat pads, zip-lock bags or possibly energy bars?

You are lucky because you were dressed to spend the day/night in the bush if required.

In your gear, are there breathable long johns, insulated snow pants, good/warm winter boots, a dry T-shirt (not cotton*), an insulating sweater (wool or fleece) or a sleeveless fleece vest? You should be aware that cotton clothing keeps you warm by trapping warm air near your skin, and wet cotton ceases to insulate you because the air pockets in the fabric fill up with water. When you perspire, any cotton clothing touching your skin will absorb your sweat like a sponge, but air is colder than your body temperature, so saturated cotton does not provide any insulation, which may lead to hypothermia.

Know that nothing beats a good winter jacket with a hood made of breathable material and then later a heavier one for when you stop moving (or to sleep in). You also should have a pair of winter gloves plus some really thick heavy mittens in your pocket and a balaclava and sunglasses.

Once you are secured, it’s time to do an inventory of what survival equipment you have in the plane/helicopter.

Possibly an 8X10 plastic tarp for shelter and a tin cup to carry water and melt snow in or to boil water. How about some 16 gauge wire to build your shelter? A hatchet, and orange garbage bags have many uses, such as a raincoat or a pillow filled with leaves or pine needles or to put on the ground as insulation or for search and rescue. Maybe some good old duct tape and rope, like 4 sections of 35 feet, a small shovel and, of course, your snowshoes. Is that some of the equipment that you would normally find in your winter-equipped plane?

Winter Flying Preparation: Staying warm

Inventory is done…now it’s time to get to work building a shelter and, of course, starting a fire.

You have to pace yourself; otherwise, you will get wet, then chilled, and become hypothermic. The shelter will vary depending on the local terrain and what you have to work with. With an 8X10 tarp, you could build a lean-to or an “A“ frame; if not, maybe a snow house or quinshee made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow in contrast to an igloo that is made from blocks of hard ice. You might simply dig a hole in the snow the size of your body, put some spruce branches in the bottom as a mattress, then spruce branches on top as a roof, and then you would cover yourself completely with snow.

SNOW is your FRIEND as it will act as an insulator and a wind barrier.

Now, getting back to the fire, again pace yourself. How much wood do you really need to last the night? A pyramid-shaped pile of wood approximately as high as your hip should be good. Gather all the materials that you need, kindling small branches and logs before starting the fire. Lighting a fire with kindling and a few branches can play tricks on you, providing a quick fire with flames, and then by the time you turn around to gather more wood, the fire will die, and you will have to start all over again. When your fire is hot with a strong flame, you will build a backing to reflect heat inwards towards the shelter.

Luck might be on your side, and there is a big rock where you can build the shelter as a rock backing will help to reflect the heat, then, in time, get warm and keep the heat longer. Should we be unlucky enough to crash a plane in tree tops or a vast wilderness, what will stop an incident from turning into an accident is simply how well prepared and trained we are for winter survival while we are waiting for

Taking this information to your world now, first off, is your aircraft type resembling a multi-seat DeHavilland Beaver capable of hauling around eight beefy passengers or a Cessna 120 with two of you crammed in like sardines wrapped in snow gear? This will make the difference as to what would be required on board for any trip but also what is pertinent and practical given your gross weight.

I always personally am certain I have a lot more fuel in the tanks than required for any journey when the OAT shows the mercury in the bottom of the glass tube.

Want to learn more about surviving a plane crash? Register for one of our Egress Training Courses, where we go over everything you need to know to survive when the unexpected happens.

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Floatplane Safety for Passengers

Upside down floatplane

Any licensed pilot will tell you it takes a great amount of time and dedication to complete both the ground school and flight testing, which enables them to be the captain. From the time a person decides to take flight training through completion, there is a barrage of studying, testing and hurdles hoping to prove the individual is capable and competent to hold a pilot’s license.

Once this phase has passed, many continue for years without re- visiting the POH (Pilots Operating Handbook). To refresh their memory on how to handle engine failures and other unscheduled conditions that may arise in flight, why not put the person at the controls to the test? On occasion, pull out the aircraft manual stuck way in the back of the glove box, and quiz your captain on emergencies and critical speeds, such as engine out descent rates which should be committed to memory. (If this upsets them more, the reason to continue).

Remember one thing about flying any aircraft you are suspended by thin air at great speeds without any brakes and, before long, guaranteed to be returning to mother-earth. This being said why is it so important frequent flyers of the aviators club be informed of what exactly to think about when going flying?


Because you are directly involved in all events which take place on any particular flight.

Unfortunately, even with high standards in flight training and maintenance, there are still many variables that contribute to damaged aircraft and injuries all over the world on a daily basis.

So what can you do as a passenger to aid in the safe uneventful return of each flight as you have?

Firstly, be a part of the flight crew from the point of helping organize the equipment for any flight and to keeping the captain honest in their duties by the occasional quiz. When planning a trip into far-off lands, be sure there is a lighter on board and emergency equipment, including bug spray in the summer for the unlikely event you find out the battery is dead late in the day at that wonderful remote lake you have just discovered.

Never ever wear anything that gives buoyancy in flight, such as a boater-style life jacket or floater coat. This is especially important for children! Simple logic for this is if an aircraft does end up inverted in water for any reason, it will be near impossible for the individual pinned to the ceiling to evacuate and equally difficult to aid in their Egress. As for life vests, next time you are over open water, think about where yours is, and know how to inflate it should your life depend on that knowledge.

Next time you are entering any aircraft:

  • Look around at things such as door handles and exits, touch them, feel them, and know how they work.
  • Shoulder harnesses in the front seats were designed and tested for forward impacts, wear them at all times without any exceptions.
  • When you wrap the seat belts around your waist and buckle them together, be aware of how they buckle up and be sure they are facing forward.
  • Get information on the brace for impact position, which in simple terms, means cross your arms and grasp the shoulder harness at chest level.

The last suggestion I have for you is, before long, to enroll yourself and your fellow flyers in Aviation Egress Training. My personal experience in warm pool Egress Training with over 9000 pilots and passengers is that none did well on the first few tries in our simulation equipment.