Sink or Swim. (Part One) An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Friday, January 27, 2012

As images of the Costa Concordia blinked across the globe, the sight of the huge cruise ship stranded upon the rocks was almost beyond comprehension. And yet, as controversy raged about the Captain's actions, one could not help but recall the day three years ago when a US Airways Airbus A320 ditched in the Hudson River.  In this case the crew were applauded as the seemingly impossible had been achieved. Those images showed an intact airliner with itsprecious human cargo stood huddling on the wings. Even so, almost as quickly as the Airbus engines had spooled down, a single question surfaced, “How?”

There is no denying that New York is truly the city that never sleeps. From the town that burnt scenes of airliners plunging into the Twin Towers into our consciousness emerged vastly contrasting images of survival and hope. Amidst a flotilla of ferries, the Airbus bobbed gently in the frozen water as its passengers were evacuated to shore in an orderly manner.

US Airways Flight 1549 was not an isolated incident in history. Land-based aircraft have been forced to use water as an emergency runway almost as long as there has been powered flight. Whilst the instances of ditching airliners are relatively rare, a range of aircraft from Super Constellations to Convairs have ultimately ‘landed’ on water. In 2002, a Garuda B737-300 was forced to ditch near Java, whilst a chartered DC-3 put down in Botany Bay in 1994 after both engines failed after take off out of Sydney, Australia.

What made the Hudson River episode so intriguing was the relatively unscathed appearance of both man and machine as it became evident that the ditching had been made with minimal or no thrust. In such a time critical emergency, there are so many factors at play working against the crew. However, US Airways Flight 1549 proved that sometimes the planets can align.

 Against the Odds.

The variables confronting a crew in any ditching situation are enormous. The available aircraft systems, the water’s swell, aircraft design, time of day and proximity to landfall are just a mere handful of considerations that must enter the mind of a pilot as the inevitable nightmare of ditching looms in the windscreen.

Achieving clarity amongst this background hash can prove a key achievement in itself and critical to a successful outcome. As in all emergency situations, the overwhelming priority must be to fly the aeroplane. Even so, there will be factors beyond the crew’s control with which they will have to deal on the day.

A variety of aircraft have ditched over the years and a number of those have been void of thrust. The reasons are varied from flameouts in ice and heavy rain, to the serial offender of fuel starvation. Whether a ditching is to take place with or without power affords the crew a very critical component; time. The powerless Airbus on the Hudson had no such luxury as inertia and gravity dictated its time frame once it had ingested the flock of geese.

Even when an aircraft’s remaining power may not be sufficient to maintain level flight it may provide enough to time for the crew to limp closer to landfall, sustain various aircraft systems, or control the rate of descent in the final stages prior to impact. Meanwhile in the passenger cabin, this time can afford the crew an opportunity to prepare the people and equipment for the ditching.

The availability of power will also determine the availability of aircraft systems from hydraulics to electrics. While most airliners have at 30 minutes of battery power to power minimal electrical systems, the resultant loss of hydraulic pressure may limit the amount of flaps and powered controls that are available to the pilot, depending on the particular system. A number of types, including the A320, are equipped with a Ram Air Turbine, or RAT, that extends into the airflow and spins over to provide and alternate source of power and pressure.

Ironically, some of those that have been forced to ditch without power have unwittingly exhausted their fuel supply whilst attending to a lesser in-flight emergency. Once again it gets back to the cardinal rule of aviation: Fly the aeroplane.

Aircraft design can also play a hand. Whether the wings are mounted high or low and if the engines are under slung on the wings, or aft mounted on the fuselage. All of these design features play a part, particularly in how the aircraft first contacts the water and decelerates. Once on the water, the low wing may assist egress, such as the images of passengers standing on the wing in the Hudson, or hamper it in such types as the Cessna singles where the door lies below the wing.

Whether the selected water mass is a river, lake or ocean can greatly influence the outcome of a ditching. While this can determine the proximity of the aircraft to landfall and rescue, it also can also dictate the water surface conditions. The prevailing swell is a major factor in the execution of a ditching and, generally speaking, the ocean is the home to the big swells. The American Great Lakes may have phenomenal seas, but generally a river or lake will present a more level surface for the aircraft to land on.

If an aircraft is forced to ditch at night, many of the visual clues may be lost unless a bright full moon can illuminate the white caps. Early assessment of the water surface and swell may be impossible and a ‘best guess’ plan must be devised on the planned prevailing winds at a lower level. Descending in the darkness will also make the actual approach and touchdown far more difficult to judge as there will be no runway lights in the peripheral vision and no horizon ahead to assist in assessing the rate of closure. Flight instruments and radio altimeters will be critical in guiding to the aircraft to the final moments and support calls from the ‘pilot not flying’ (PNF) will free the flying pilot to divert some attention out the windshield to catch the first glimpse of the waves in the landing lights.

Similarly, poor weather and a low cloud base will greatly reduce the visual information available to the pilot to execute the manoeuvre. Breaking out beneath the cloud base at low level with rain thrashing against the windscreen may leave the pilot with less than a minute of poor visibility to guide his aircraft to the surface.

The crew of US Airways Flight 1549 had daylight, reasonable weather and a relatively smooth water surface working in their favour. But -and it’s a BIG ‘but’- they had lost both engines and were effectively a 60 tonne glider. The crew had only minutes from losing the engines to touching down on the Hudson in which they had to decide, plan and execute their course of action.

A Landing with a Difference.

Landing on water is not the natural environment for aircraft not equipped with floats or a flying hull. Each manufacturer will make recommendations on how to best ditch their aircraft, though thankfully it is often not the voice of experience. The advice may stem from computer models, similar past ditching or pure hypothesis.

Generally speaking and where possible, the goal is a controlled touch down at the minimum safe speed, with the wings level, landing gear retracted and a minimal sink rate. Healthy conjecture will always flare amongst pilots as to the best means to achieve this. Thankfully, it will remain theoretical discussion for the great majority.

To achieve the lowest speed over the water, a landing into wind would normally be the prime choice. However, the swell also needs to be considered as landing head on to a rolling wave will exclude the chance of a smooth touchdown. Hence, landing parallel to the swell is advisable.
The selection of flap is also often debated. While the ditching procedure in certain manuals calls for the use of full flap to minimise the speed and afford better visibility at touchdown, these checklists are also predicated on having thrust available to control the rate of descent. (And enough time to carry out the checklist.) Often a mid flap setting is suggested to offer a compromise between reduced speed, sink rate and wing configuration on first contact with the water, particularly if the approach is without power.

The flare, hold off and touchdown is critical. Judging the flare over water is void of the normal cues associated with landing and can prove difficult, particularly over calm, glassy water. Similarly, not too many pilots are routinely judging the landing flare with their wheels retracted and the associated changes in height and ground effect. Keeping the undercarriage retracted is designed to prevent the wheels ‘digging in’ on touchdown and pitching the aircraft violently into the water.

Maintaining a wings level attitude will also guard against one wing striking the surface first and slewing the aircraft around in an uncontrolled manner. This was graphically illustrated in the case of the widely circulated footage of the Ethiopian Airlines 767 of Comoro in 1996.

Approaching touchdown, at around 500 feet, the flight crew will warn the cabin to brace for impact. Dependant on the aircraft type, the ideal nose attitude is cited to be in the realm of 10-12 degrees as the water looms close and contact with the surface is imminent.

 A smooth, single touchdown on the aft fuselage is the goal, though often not the case. ‘Skipping’ along the surface will inherently expose the aircraft to a series of impacts, but in reality, touching down in a relatively ‘clean’ configuration there is a high chance of more than one contact.

In the end, on the day there will be compromises and judgement calls based on the remaining aircraft systems, time available and prevailing conditions. If it all comes together successfully, there will be some very grateful passengers and the possibility of a slot on the talk show circuit.....


Check back soon for part two of 'Sink or Swim'.

Title Image. KLEWTV.COM


Careers in Aviation, A Degree of Satisfaction. An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Thursday, January 26, 2012

Should you sit in an American hotel room for any period of time and have the pleasure of hunting through 500 channels of cable TV, it becomes apparent that one can undertake a ‘college course’ in just about anything; from leg waxing to law enforcement. Furthermore, it seems that unless you have the associated piece of paper your chances of employment may be severely compromised. Are tertiary studies in aviation worth the time and money to Australian pilots?

As an unemployed 737 pilot in his thirties, the Ansett collapse threw up a whole spectrum of new challenges. Career, financial and personal security had taken an unplanned leave of absence and the future seemed a rather murky place. It was a bit like a mid-life crisis without the red convertible. Throughout this period of self-assessment and priority shifting, a new career was always a distinct possibility. It was this examination of all options that led to a visit to Centrelink that is still with me to this day.

As I sat in my best interview suit, the employment officer flicked through my Curriculum Vitae and supporting documentation. He flipped the pages of my green covered ATPL whimsically and even glanced at the log-book that told the tale of 10,000 hours. Returning to my resume, his face lit up, “You were an Ambulance Officer previously. This might be of use.” This was the first inkling that my dedication to a career in aviation may be worth zip. He then rummaged further through my papers, squinted and asked me, “Have you any tertiary qualifications?” I replied in the negative, but explained that a first class Airline Transport Licence requires years of theoretical and practical application. It called for numerous exams and none of those 50% results that they call a pass in the real world. I then proudly informed him that it was all paid for by my own hard earned dollars. He looked back at the paperwork and then at me, “You were an Ambulance Officer previously. This might be of use.”

It was shortly thereafter that I decided to reassess my options. Fortunately, within months I was able to secure another airline job and many of my previous career issues became mute. Even so, the matter of a tertiary qualification stayed with me as I no longer possessed the naïve, laissez faire ‘job for life’ attitude. It was to this backdrop that I began to research university studies. I discovered that I was fundamentally a ‘mature age’ student, yet this far from guaranteed a place in any course of study. Many required evidence of more recent studies. Catch 22.

Wary of my eggs being in one basket, I reluctantly examined aviation Degrees and was pleasantly surprised. My industry experience would be recognised and I could enter a course of post graduate studies; a Masters Degree in Aviation Management. The course was available full time, part time and via correspondence over the internet. Within the syllabus lay generic subjects such as Project Management that could be of use in any field of endeavour, not just aviation. Additionally, if I established a track record of study in this course, entry to other faculties may be possible as a mature student. I decided to enroll.

Formalising Qualifications:

One of my primary motivations for undertaking tertiary studies was to formalise my qualifications. We operate in a specialised industry that can render us highly qualified and thoroughly unemployable. Tertiary qualifications are able to speak the universal language of the workplace and offers a yardstick to those who are unfamiliar with our chosen field. Some subjects may not bear direct relevance to the world in general, but this is the case for many degrees.

What the tertiary qualification does signal is application. Particularly when studied in conjunction with full time employment, a high degree of resolve and dedication are required. This is recognised by employers, be they airlines or anybody else. Certainly, so does an ATPL, but it does translate into a tangible quantity for many. A high proportion of recruitment staff at airlines are non-pilots and whilst one would hope they understand the commitment required for an ATPL, you can almost guarantee that they understand the effort required for a degree.

 An Edge:

As we all know, aviation is a highly competitive industry and a good proportion of ‘right time and right place’ doesn’t go astray either. In such a fierce environment, any edge an aspirant can get is time and money well spent. That is not to say that the old-fashioned slog of accumulating hours should be put on the back-burner: far from it. What is worth stating is that if you can apply yourself to gain a qualification above and beyond the next applicant, you stand a good chance of getting the nod on the big day.

It is now possible to obtain a Commercial Pilot Licence through Universities and graduate with both a licence and degree. This would have to be advantageous in the long term. If the opportunity is not there, or the timing is not right, consider studies again at a later date. The flexibility of studies over the internet and recognition of industry experience means that it’s never too late.


Let’s face the facts, aviation and the airlines cannot offer the long term security that they once did. Our world and our industry is in constant state of flux. Fuel prices, low cost carriers, US Chapter 11 operations, terrorism and so on. Unless your crystal ball is extremely well tuned, it is very hard to make any predictions about the future. Remember a little operation called Pan Am? Having been through the collapse of an airline I am aware that you need everything going for you to keep moving forward. Whilst I never could have seen job security being an issue when I was twenty, I certainly can now I’m forty with three children and sleep better knowing that there are options available to me.

Similarly, I used to be seven foot tall and bulletproof. These days I’m not so tall and definitely not bulletproof. Medical issues have plagued pilots, at times, from a relatively young age. Your medical is your licence. You may blitz every check and simulator session with flying colours, but a stone in the eye from the neighbour’s ride-on mower will put paid to that in a heartbeat. Protecting yourself isn’t about being pessimistic. To the contrary, it’s about peace of mind and the ability to thoroughly enjoy the present. A tertiary degree is a very sound form of insurance.

There’s more to aviation than flying:

For Beech and Boeings to stay in the air safely, there is a myriad of support staff. In time pilots often develop a taste for management, training, flight safety or projects, such as the introduction of a new type. Such options do not wrench the pilot from the cockpit for life, but offer a challenge and change to routine. These positions are numerous in airlines and often provide an interesting mix that brings about greater job satisfaction but, once again, competition for the jobs can be fierce. A tertiary qualification not only assists in the application process, but may well provide the individual with the skills to successfully undertake the task.

Is it worth it?

Sometimes you can be blessed and waltz through life and career without a hiccup. It is, however, very rare. Furthermore, pilots are inherently a self-critical bunch who hold themselves to higher standards than any Test Officer or Check Captain would ever seek. They need challenges. Tertiary studies seem to offer not only security, but a level of satisfaction that is often sought after by pilots at all levels. Notwithstanding, there is the genuine worth of a degree in the gaining of knowledge and the enhancement of employment and subsequent career potential.

The financial cost of a tertiary qualification is not unsubstantial. If it can be gained concurrently with a Commercial Licence, tremendous. If not, it may be a while before the coffers permit the extravagance of further education, however, do not let the passage of time completely extinguish the flame. A degree may be out of reach in the short term, but there are still tremendous courses on offer in Accident Investigation, Safety Management and the like. The main point will always be to build your logbook, but also try to extend your portfolio.

The pursuit of further education is never easy. It is a test of persistence, motivation and resources. The rewards, however, are great and will provide benefits of a varied nature regardless of the stage of your career. A tertiary qualification may land you that job you desire, allow you to start your own enterprise or earn a promotion within the ranks of management. Whatever your particular goals may be, it will certainly provide you with a great degree of satisfaction.

Boeing Dusk. An Aviation Blog Image by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

...readying for departure from Hervey Bay, Queensland.


Here Comes the Sun. An Aviation Blog Image by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The sun creeps above the horizon as the top of descent into Sydney approaches....

Learning to Fly at An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Monday, January 23, 2012

Hi All,

Firstly, thank you again for the amazing response to my new website and blog. The number of visitors continues to grow rapidly each day, from the farthest reaches of this amazing planet.

Of particular interest are the messages and questions that I am receiving about the varied aspects of aviation. From pursuing a career as a pilot to the subtle points of aerodynamics, commercial aviation, private flying and more. Consequently, I will tailor my content to what you good people are calling for, so standby for some diversity!

I will continue to post photos and footage in addition to the articles as it is apparent that a glimpse from the cockpit is always popular and may well be worth "a thousand words". I'll also look at learning to fly and discuss some of the common principles of flight. Really, the possibilities are endless, so please continue to contact me and let me know what you want. I'll be only too happy to respond with more new content.

Thanks again and please continue to share this exciting journey with me.


The Heart of the Storm. An Aviation Blog Image by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Saturday, January 21, 2012

...I think we'll give this one a wide berth.

Thanks for supporting my aviation blog!

Owen Zupp - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hi All,

It’s rather early here in Australia, but I couldn’t let the opportunity to pass without thanking everyone for supporting my new website. The number of people visiting, and in particular the blog, has been overwhelming when I consider that the website was only launched about six weeks ago.

The concept was to share my thoughts and writings on aviation and other interests that I have, although I know that I am just one miniscule fish in the internet’s vast ocean. The interest shown by everyone out there has firmed my resolve to keep writing and build this blog even further. 2012 promises to unveil some exciting new projects too, so I’ll be spreading the word through this newly found means.

There were a number of family and friends that encouraged me to launch this website, but Hayley Dean from ‘Me Marketing’ who supported my charity flight in 2010 was a major force. As was another amazing ‘There and Back’ stalwart, Rob Brus. Since the site launched it has been kindly been picked up by a range of other aviation sites and podcasters, so I thought I should mention them here.

Australian Aviation Magazine

Plane Crazy Down Under Podcast

The Airplane Geeks Podcast



The Aircrew Book Review

Me Marketing

Rob Brus

Thirty Thousand Feet

So finally, thanks again. Please keep coming back as you have all inspired me to continue building the blog and there’ll be new content appearing all the time. Thanks also for your messages and comments, I gladly welcome them. That’s what the contact page is for. Contact Owen.

Thanks and take care, but for now it’s back to the writing.



A Boeing 747 at the rainbow's end. By Owen Zupp

Owen Zupp - Monday, January 16, 2012

                  ...even on a wet day, there's a bright side.

Spitfire. The Battle of Britain and Beyond.... By Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Sunday, January 15, 2012

Something Old. Something New. An Aviation Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Sunday, January 15, 2012

Despite powered flight’s mere century or so of development, it has come an awfully long way in that time. From frail craft of rag and tube to supersonic fighters of savage stealth, the range of creation seems to have only been limited by the imagination.

Yet within this sphere of rapid change and new frontiers, there have also been craft that have created their own legends. Whether in the form the Supermarine Spitfire’s classic lines, or the global reliability of the pioneering Douglas DC-3, certain aircraft have a means to charm their way into history, whilst others do not. Some have burst into the headlines announcing a revolution of sorts, while others have slowly endeared themselves through the years like a dependable friend. Occasionally, a machine will do both; the Boeing 747 is such an aeroplane.

I recently flew on the flight deck of the impressive Boeing 747-8 Freighter; an aircraft that has made a massive stride in extending the longevity of this already venerated aircraft. To add some context, it must be considered that the first Boeing 747 took to the skies on February 9th, 1969 and at the time represented a quantum leap from the already successful Boeing 707. Since that time nearly 1,500 have been built and variants have served in roles as varied as “Air Force One” to the aircraft used to piggy-back the Space Shuttle home. It changed the face of international travel and the bottom line for many of its operators. Yet despite such a tremendous history, it seemed that after 40 years its race may have been run as the Airbus A380 became the modern monolith and mammoth twin-jets began to stretch across many of the routes the 747 had called home. But the 747 still had one more card to play.

The 747-8 boasts a new wing, with both stylish and effective raked wingtips as well as engine and flight deck technology common to its younger stable-mate, the Boeing 787. In addition to the 747-8F freighter, there is the 747-8I ‘Intercontinental’ passenger version with a stretched fuselage and an increased fuel capacity compared to its 747-400 predecessor. The 747-8 is a modern, more efficient model of a proven performer that will see the type flying even further into the 21st Century.

Through the astute, ongoing adaptation of an established aircraft, the Boeing 747 has not only survived, but flourished, while other models have come and gone. In the beginning it was a wide-body revolutionary, with its upper deck and enormous capacity. However, its ability to remain at the top of its field is by every count equally impressive.

While the 747 has proven to be a giant in both name and nature, a team of aerospace engineers have been busily starting their own revolution at the opposing end of the slide rule. Far from a long range mammoth, they have been exploring the possibilities of air travel on a very small scale. However, the project is only small in terms of physical dimensions as its potential has this aircraft fighting well above its weight. This is no “Jumbo Jet”; in fact it is the “Puffin”.

Born from a Doctoral degree by aerospace engineer, Mark Moore, the Puffin is a concept aircraft designed to uplift a sole occupant. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound too special, however, consider that the craft is electrically powered and stands upright on four legs before lifting off vertically and transitioning into level flight with the pilot lying prone. Offering VTOL capability and reasonable horizontal flight performance in a manner reminiscent of the VF22 Osprey, this little bird packs a punch.

The Puffin is a far cry from the novel ‘rocket’ back packs that have emerged from time to time since the Germans first investigated the subject in World War Two. The pilot is enclosed and by virtue of its electric powerplant it is not only efficient, but stealthy. Being low on both noise and thermal signature, potential roles for the Puffin include the rapid deployment of elite troops and the delivery of supplies as an unmanned vehicle. Its quiet noise footprint would also render it desirable in a civil application as a personal transport.

With a basic weight well under 200 kg, including the 45kg battery, the Puffin has the ability to cruise around 140kt and sprint to 280kt. As with all electric vehicles, the battery technology is a limiting factor and gives the Puffin a range of only about 80 kilometres for the moment, but that is bound to improve along with the batteries. This is no longer the stuff of cartoons like ‘The Jetsons’, this is an emerging frontier with the evolving technology to support the concept. The first third scale unmanned Puffin is set to fly shortly and the interest in this project is bound to grow.

Behind the great aerospace advances are the men in the white coats with their vision and their science. In a field of endeavour so often associated with wings, gold bars and epaulettes, these ‘shadow men’ are the unsung heroes of the aerospace industry. They conjure the concepts and breathe life into them through uncompromising calculation. Without them, the 747 could not become a legend and the Puffin could not become reality. As a planet, we would never have heard the words about “one small step for a man...”

We were once told that the sky was the limit, but this has been proven not to be the case. As legends continue to fly farther and faster and new birds make their first tentative hops, it is worth considering the legacy of the men, women and machines that have gone before. For aviation, sometimes the way ahead will involve extracting one more dance out of a proven performer, while other tasks will call for an entirely new approach. As with so many aspects of life, the choice may come down simply to something old, something new.


Title image from NASA.

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