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.

Close Encounter of the Watery Kind
Aircraft crashed into ice
Winter Flying Preparation for Float Plane Pilots
Students in pool
An Aviation Egress Student Story
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