As with all emergencies, sound training before the event is vital. In the case of ditching, the training provided varies widely between operators. Often the degree of overwater operations will be a determining factor in the level of training provided. Whilst ditching training may be a core component of emergency training to off-shore helicopter operators, the same may not be true for those flying inland scenic flights.
It will always be impossible to train for absolutely every contingency in every emergency situation. Whilst budgets and time constraints may play a part, the varying scenarios of each emergency offer much too broad a spectrum to cover. Not to mention those events that our imaginations are still yet to conjure. As such, all emergency training is designed around regulatory requirements, training budgets and probability.
Airline training departments and aviation authorities design their syllabus to a background of risk management to assure that as wide a spectrum of non-normal situations as possible is covered. In turn, beyond the initial training, a recurrent program will provide ongoing training for the entire career of both flight and cabin crew.
The focus of training is linked to a factor of likelihood and by all accounts ditching falls into the ‘remote’ category for multi-engine jet transport operations. This is not purely a function aircraft engines’ ever-improving reliability or their safety in numbers. The regulations for over water operations are stringent and seek to ensure that the aircraft can at all times divert to an alternative airfield in the event of a critical systems failure.
Even so, it is a case of double jeopardy to lose ALL available engines and be forced to land on the water. The Hudson River case also proves that the aircraft doesn’t need to be over the middle of the Pacific Ocean to end up floating.
To this end, ditching training at airlines falls into a category of its own. The process of ditching is discussed at length in the manuals and crew training in emergency equipment, life rafts, evacuations and subsequent survival is ‘hands on’. Crews are scrutinised on these skills annually by both theoretical and practical examination. A failure to meet the regulatory body’s set standards results in the crew member receiving further training before they are allowed to return to line flying.
Yet in this stringent training environment, the training of pilots to fly the actual ditching manoeuvre in the simulator is not a mandated exercise by the FAA (US), UK CAA or CASA. That is not to say that individual operators do not include it in their syllabus of training, or that flight crews have not taken it upon themselves to rehearse for the eventuality during simulator training sessions. Simply, to date it has not been regulated. This may well stem from the risk assessment of the probability of ditching when compared to the incidence of other emergencies such as engine failure or depressurisation.
In a similar way, the thought of losing all four engines and their associated systems on a Boeing 747 was previously thought to be virtually impossible. Then in 1982, British Airways Flight 9 encountered volcanic ash over Indonesia with the subsequent loss of thrust on all engines. Again, the crew performed admirably in a situation beyond the scope of their training and manuals to ‘adapt, improvise and overcome’. Subsequently, the books were re-written, simulator training was updated and checklists modified. Today, pilot education of volcanic ash and its effects is routine.
This may well prove the case with ditching as well. Simulator exercises ‘reverse engineer’ the data from such incidents and use the lessons learnt to train pilots. With the data generated from US Airways Flight 1549, it is quite possible that a change in the training requirements in this area will be forthcoming.
So many factors came in to play in the case of the Hudson River ditching, not the least of these being an experienced and well trained crew on both sides of the flight deck door. The two pilots had over 35,000 hours experience between them, while the three flight attendants had a total cumulative service in excess of 80 years!
For a successful outcome, the entire crew had to perform their designated roles to the best of their ability and, seemingly in this instance, at a level above. This was critical, not just in executing a successful ditching, but in safely evacuating 150 passengers.
Evacuations are generally described as prepared or unprepared, depending on whether the crew has had enough time to ready the cabin, its contents and passengers for the evacuation. It is also an opportunity to call for the donning of life jackets. The flight attendants would have had some advanced warning on Flight 1549, but it would have been minimal. Fortunately, as the aircraft had just lifted off, the catering carts and crew may well have still been secured away.
On coming to rest, the cabin crew is now faced with assessing the available exits, launching the rafts or slide rafts and evacuating the passengers with a minimum of time and panic. It is a fine balance to maintain order in the cabin while they undertake their duties and voicing loud, concise commands are central to organising the potential chaos. These are the very scenarios and drills that cabin crew train for year after year throughout their career.
A water landing presents the additional challenge of available exits. Notwithstanding fire, damage and extreme aircraft attitudes, in a land evacuation most exits are generally available. This is not necessarily the case when the aircraft is afloat. The attitude with which an aircraft settles on the water may preclude the use of certain exits, particularly the rear doors if the aircraft sits tail low and the door sill lies below the water line.
To further aid in keeping the hull watertight, the A320 also has a “Ditching Pushbutton” on the overhead panel. When activated, the guarded switch automatically closes valves and inlet doors which will lie below the water line.
The A320 is certified so that all doors and overwing exits can be used in a ditching and accordingly are equipped with escape slides. Despite this certification, it is a primary task of the crew that the viability of the exit is assessed before opening the door, as a door below the water line will allow the water to come flooding in and further impede the stricken aircraft struggling for buoyancy. Preventing over-zealous passengers from cracking these doors open in haste is yet another duty for the crew.
Opening the door will result in differing scenarios based on the aircraft type. For some aircraft, the escape slides double as life rafts, while others call for the crew to manually launch rafts that are stowed elsewhere in the cabin. Similarly, distress beacons can be integral to the rafts, or launched independently. The evacuation is only started at an exit when these rafts are inflated and ready to accept passengers. It is also imperative that the life jackets are only inflated when clear of the aircraft. Another tragedy associated with the Ethiopian Airlines 767 ditching was the death of passengers within the aircraft having survived the impact. With their jackets already inflated, they floated to the aircraft ceiling and were unable to escape via an exit.
With doors open and the slides or rafts inflated, the passengers are shepherded towards the exits in a speedy manner to clear the aircraft before it can submerge. The crew will check the cabin again to ensure that all of the passengers have evacuated before being the last to exit. Once clear, survival and rescue become the next priorities. Again, the crew have been trained for contingencies varying from desert survival and dehydration to arctic hypothermia. The crew of Flight 1549 fortunately ditched close to land with a readily available flotilla to ferry the passengers to safety. Facing any significant time in the sub-zero waters may well have resulted in a different outcome.
It is said that cabin crew are there to provide the passengers with life saving assistance in an emergency. When the emergencies are not taking place, they are available to provide cabin service. This is not only a truism, but a very healthy mindset for all those involved with air transport. The crew of Flight 1549 and their wealth of experience emphasised the critical role to be played by those in the cabin in case of emergency.
In the Wake.
Being confronted with a multiple engine failure is the dread of any flight crew. To be further confronted with ditching the aircraft with only minutes to react is the stuff of worst case scenarios.
Yet events such as US Airways 1549 and the British Airways 747 left powerless by volcanic ash have proven that ‘worst case’ can on occasions become reality. The investigators will seek out the facts, volumes will be written and procedures modified. As proactive as aviation safety endeavours to be, sometimes lessons have to be learnt from experience. Undoubtedly this will be the case again in the wake of the Hudson River ditching.
Fortunately, landing a jet transport aircraft on water is a rare event. Despite the mass of variables that can confront a crew and the time constraints that may be imposed by fate, training, experience and measured, appropriate responses can make the seemingly impossible survivable. It is a credit to the entire US Airways crew that all of the passengers went home to their families.
Safety briefing cards in the seat pockets and preflight presentations are provided with the hope that the actions contained therein are never required. In the same way flight and cabin crew train for most conceivable eventualities year after year, crossing their fingers that simulations are as close as they get. Yet time and again when the unthinkable has occurred, training has kicked in and the crew prove that they are up to the task.
The ability for a crew to ably fulfill their roles when confronted with an emergency is a function of both thorough training and the correct mindset under pressure. The landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River is testimony to this. These are invisible intangibles to the passengers as they board yet another routine flight, yet are possibly the most valuable component of the ticket price.
Should the unthinkable occur and their aircraft is faced with ditching, it will be this training, preparation and mindset that dictates whether they sink or swim.
Title Image. edp24.co.uk