Ditching in Water vs. Trees

Published by: Dave Schultz on 24th Apr 2013 | View all blogs by Dave Schultz
 Ditching in Water vs. Trees
Featuring Wally Moran - view profile
Subscriber Question:
"I live on an island in NW Washington, as a result I obviously do a lot of flying over water. I have a Socata/Tobago TB 10 with fixed gear and gull wing doors. The question is - given a choice with an engine failure, would you recommend an emergency landing in shallow water near the shoreline or go for a tall stand of pine trees? There is no guidance in the POH." - Anonymous
"Of course our first answer to this question is neither one. I would work hard to keep myself from having to make this choice.
As a glider pilot, we have a rule that we do not fly over unlandable terrain unless we are high enough to glide to landable areas. I try to follow that same rule as much as possible when flying a power plane. But, that does not answer this question.
The first place to always go for questions like this is the pilots operating handbook, since you say there is no guidance there, I suggest you write the manufacturer to see if they have published any data on the subject. I did a quick review of the NTSB and AOPA accident data bases and found nothing related to Socata TB10 ditching.
History shows that landing a fixed gear aircraft on the water usually results in the airplane flipping over with some serious G forces in the stop. Now you are upside down, disorientated, perhaps injured and face a possible drowning. Not a pretty picture. I recently read of a Piper Warrior landing in a river and it turned over on the landing and two of the passengers drowned.
In my opinion, a tree landing is a better choice. While there are of course many hazards about a tree landing, pine trees are a soft wood that give way as they dissipate the energy which help in reducing the deceleration forces. Further if you or any of your passengers are injured, they can stay in the plane until rescued without fear of drowning. 
I sincerely hope neither you or I have to make this choice in our flying career."



  • Arthur Thompson
    by Arthur Thompson 5 years ago
    All of my 25 years of flying have been in NW Washington State where it is a fact of life that cross country flights will be over either water or forrested areas. The old POH admonition to always know where your next landing will be was drilled into me from my first dual lesson out of Boeing Field. Without floats, water landing would be my second to last choice, last choice being a landing in the clear cut, (think stumps). Given no cleared pasture or road to land on (very common), I would be looking for 10-15 year old new growth forrest. High enough to clear the stumps, soft enough to prevent catastrophic damage and not so high I would kill myself falling to the ground from the tops of the trees. Out of all other options, I would shut the engine off and deploy the chute while making a mayday call.
  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    Hi Arthur,
    That's good advice! I've always been taught that "Having an engine-out is no excuse for an accident". If you regularly fly over hostile terrain, a BRS is a must. Otherwise, fly high enough to glide to safety or go around. Many GA pilots never think about having an engine-out. It takes good planning and constant attention. You also have added responsibility and diligence when carrying passengers. Thanks for sharing!

  • Glade Montgomery
    by Glade Montgomery 5 years ago
    I'm a fellow northwesterner, with Art. There are areas here in the northwest with lots of fields, but, where Art and I mostly fly, anything resembling pasture and/or cropland is rare indeed. I find Art's notion about looking for new-growth forest interesting, because it's exactly the same conclusion I've reached.

    Often while driving along the roads (and therefore able to examine conditions near the ground rather more intimately) I'll look off into the forests or open spaces and try to imagine what an emergency ditching would be like within the conditions seen.

    First, I agree with Art that a clear-cut open space with stumps remaining would be terrible. I've noticed from the sky these areas often look as though they'd be hospitable. It's only the closer, near-ground view that shows how awful they'd truly be.

    Quite similarly, when driving alongside more mature forest, I try to imagine striking in my aircraft at speed along the very high treetops. I can imagine the initial strike being, potentially (and with perhaps a little luck), not too terrible. The real problem I see is the vertical fall that would inevitably await (perhaps 200') after the treetops stop your forward progress. In most places the trees do not appear sufficiently dense to hold you aloft, or even to much slow your aircraft as it begins falling from their tops. I do not think a vertical drop from anything over 75' is going to end at all happy.

    Contrast this with young growth (trees between perhaps 15 and 40'). Concurring with Art, it looks to me like these forests might present a rather good prospect. They look forgiving enough to gently absorb your energy -- perhaps even making a nice, soft catch of your aircraft. Not that there would not be damage, of course. But it looks to me, as I drive alongside such new growth, it could potentially be a rather good option.

    Another option we have around here (at least at certain times of the day) are tidelands. Many of them are muddy and the plane would likely flip, but I think they are generally viable, regardless.

    As for water, I can't imagine ever deliberately "choosing" it as an option (at least from a non-float equipped trike). Even if you are not killed by the control bar as it strikes your chest when you're tumbling forward and the nose of your wing hits the water, you're going to very suddenly be upside down, submerged in very cold water, and sinking (depending on water depth, the distance between you and surface my be growing rapidly with each passing second). With at least trauma to your chest, I don't think odds are at all good you're going to manage to extricate yourself and get to the surface unless you are at least wearing a life jacket. Many flyers around here do routinely wear life jackets.

    I am thinking of adding another safety aid, to improve chances in the very outside event of a no-choice water landing. You can buy very small (hand-size), emergency scuba outfits that give you 2 to 5 minutes breathing time (depending on model chosen). I think if wearing one of these, in addition to life jacket, your chance of surviving a water ditching would be very much improved (though still not good, given that control bar problem).

    Overall, I estimate chances are good that, with an engine out in these parts, I might find the BRS is my first choice as method for making re-acquaintance with the ground. Of course, I've indeed had two engine outs in these parts. For one, I happened to be approaching one of the few areas, not too far distant, that has an abundance of flat fields (and I was within gliding range). For the other, I happened to quickly see a very nice and suitable-looking paved staging area for logging trucks that was momentarily empty (my engine re-started on that occasion, so I did not have to use it). Regardless, there is a lot of time while flying here where nothing is in view that seems at all reasonable as a landing option. In these areas, I'd go BRS, plain and simple.
  • Chuck Burgoon
    by Chuck Burgoon 5 years ago
    Here is an audio on this topic:

Please login or sign up to post on this network.
Click here to sign up now.