Water landing

Water landing

A water landing is, in the broadest sense, any landing on a body of water. All waterfowl, those seabirds capable of flight, and some human-built vehicles are capable of landing in water as a matter of course.

The phrase "water landing" is also used as a euphemism for crash-landing into water in an aircraft not designed for the purpose. The National Transportation Safety Board of the United States government defines "ditching" in its aviation accident coding manual as "a planned event in which a flight crew knowingly makes a controlled emergency landing in water. (Excludes float plane landings in normal water landing areas.)"[2] Such water landings are extremely rare for commercial passenger airlines.

Pan Am Flight 6 (a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser) ditches in the Pacific after failure of 2 engines (1956)


By design

Apollo 15 capsule descends under two of three parachutes

Seaplanes, flying boats, and amphibious aircraft are designed to take off and land on water. Landing can be supported by a hull-shaped fuselage and/or pontoons. The availability of a long effective runway was historically important on lifting size restrictions on aircraft, and their freedom from constructed strips remains useful for transportation to lakes and other remote areas. The ability to loiter on water is also important for marine rescue operations and fire fighting. One disadvantage of water landing is that it is dangerous in the presence of waves. Furthermore, the necessary equipment compromises the craft's aerodynamic efficiency and speed.

Early manned spacecraft launched by the United States were designed to land in water by the splashdown method. The craft would parachute into the water, which acted as a cushion to bring the craft to a stop; the impacts were violent but survivable. Landing over water rather than land made braking rockets unnecessary, but its disadvantages included difficult retrieval and the danger of drowning. The NASA Space Shuttle design was intended to land on a runway instead. Some future spacecraft are planning to permit water landings (SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST-100, etc.)

In distress

Although extremely uncommon in commercial passenger travel, small aircraft ditchings are common occurrences. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there are about a dozen ditchings per year.[1]

General aviation

General aviation includes all fields of aviation outside of military or scheduled (commercial) flights. This classification includes small aircraft, e.g., training aircraft, airships, gliders, helicopters, and corporate aircraft, including business jets and other for-hire operations. General aviation has the highest accident and incident rate in aviation, with 16 deaths per million flight hours, compared to 0.74 deaths per million flight hours for commercial flights (North America and Europe) [3].

Commercial aircraft

US Airways Flight 1549, ditched in the Hudson River in 2009 with all passengers surviving

The FAA does not require commercial pilots to train to ditch but airline cabin personnel must train the evacuation process.[2] In addition, the FAA implemented rules under which circumstances (kind of operator, number of passengers, weight, route) an aircraft has to carry emergency equipment including floating devices such as life jackets and life rafts.

Ditching button on the overhead panel of an Airbus A330

Some aircraft are designed with the possibility of a water landing in mind. Airbus aircraft, for example, feature a "ditching button" which, if pressed, closes valves and openings underneath the aircraft, including the outflow valve, the air inlet for the emergency RAT, the avionics inlet, the extract valve, and the flow control valve. It is meant to slow flooding in a water landing.[3] While there have been several 'successful' (survivable) water landings by narrow-body and propeller-driven airliners, few commercial jets have ever touched down 'perfectly' on water. There has been a good deal of popular controversy over the efficiency of life vests and rafts. For example, Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project had been quoted as saying that a wide body jet would “shatter like a raw egg dropped on pavement, killing most if not all passengers on impact, even in calm seas with well-trained pilots and good landing trajectories."[4]

Also, in December 2002, The Economist had quoted an expert as claiming that "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water" in an article that goes on to charge, "So the life jackets ... have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better."[5][6] This idea was repeated in The Economist in September 2006 in an article which reported that "in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero."[7]

Of note is the January 15, 2009, ditching of US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 narrow-body jet, which successfully ditched in the North River section of the Hudson River mid-river between Manhattan in New York City and Weehawken in New Jersey. All on board survived, showing that inflatable slide-rafts and life jackets can sometimes serve their purposes, although photographs from the incident show that very few passengers were wearing life jackets. After take-off from La Guardia, initial reports cite dual engine failure due to bird strikes at a low altitude. Pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger was able to cross the Bronx in a slow turn to the south-west, pass over the George Washington Bridge and ditch the plane in the Hudson River. The left engine broke away on contact with the river.[8] All 155 passengers and crew survived with only one major injury and 77 minor injuries,[9][10] in part because the plane came to a halt adjacent to the passenger ferry route between NYC and New Jersey.

Survival rates of passenger airplane water ditchings

In all cases where a passenger plane has undergone an intentional water landing or ditching, some or all of the occupants have survived. Examples of water landings in which passengers survived after a planned and intentional water landing after an in-flight emergency are:

  • On 11 July 2011, Angara Airlines Flight 5007 (an Antonov An-24) ditched in the Ob river near Strezhevoy, Russia, after an engine fire.[11] Upon water contact the tail separated and the burnt port engine became detached from its mounts. Otherwise the plane remained intact, but was written off. Out of 37 people on board, including four crew and 33 passengers, 7 passengers died. Of the survivors at least 20 were hospitalized with various injuries.[12] The rate of survival was 81%.
  • On 22 October 2009, a Divi Divi Air Britten-Norman Islander flying Divi Divi Air Flight 014 ditched in off the coast of Bonaire after it's starboard engine failed. The pilot reported that the aircraft was losing 200 feet per minute after choosing to fly to an airport. All 9 passengers survived but the captain was knocked unconscious and although some passengers attempted to free him, he drowned and was pulled down with the aircraft. The survival rate was 90%.[14]
  • On 15 January 2009, the aforementioned US Airways Flight 1549 (an Airbus A320) successfully ditched into the Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey, after reports of multiple bird strikes. All of the 155 passengers and crew aboard escaped and were rescued by passenger ferries and day-cruise boats, in spite of freezing temperatures (the ditching occurred near the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises and NY Waterway piers in midtown Manhattan).[15] The survival rate was 100%.
  • On 6 August 2005, Tuninter Flight 1153 (an ATR 72) ditched off the Sicilian coast after running out of fuel. Of 39 aboard, 23 survived with injuries. The plane's wreck was found in three pieces. The survival rate was 59%.
  • On 16 January 2002, Garuda Indonesia Flight 421 (a Boeing 737) successfully ditched into the Bengawan Solo River near Yogyakarta, Java Island after experiencing a twin engine flameout during heavy precipitation and hail. The pilots tried to restart the engines several times before making the decision to ditch the aircraft. Photographs taken shortly after evacuation show that the plane came to rest in knee-deep water.[16] Of the 60 occupants, one flight attendant was killed. The survival rate was 98%.[17]
  • On 23 November 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 (a Boeing 767-260ER), ditched in the Indian Ocean near Comoros after being hijacked and running out of fuel, killing 125 of the 175 passengers and crew on board. Unable to operate flaps, it impacted at high speed, dragging its left wingtip before tumbling and breaking into three pieces. The panicking hijackers were fighting the pilots for the control of the plane at the time of the impact, which caused the plane to roll just before hitting the water, and the subsequent wingtip hitting the water and breakup are a result of this struggle in the cockpit. Some passengers were killed on impact or trapped in the cabin when they inflated their life vests before exiting. Most of the survivors were found hanging onto a section of the fuselage that remained floating. The survival rate was 29%.
  • On 21 August 1963, an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-124 ditched into the Neva River in Leningrad after running out of fuel. The aircraft floated and was towed to shore by a tugboat which it had nearly hit as it came down on the water. The tug rushed to the floating aircraft and pulled it with its passengers near to the shore where the passengers disembarked onto the tug; all 52 on board escaped without injuries.[19] The survival rate was 100%.
  • On 23 September 1962, Flying Tiger Line Flight 923, a Lockheed 1049H-82 Super Constellation N6923C, passenger aircraft, on a military (MATS) charter flight, with a crew of 8 and 68 U.S. civilian and military (paratrooper) passengers ditched in the North Atlantic about 500 miles west of Shannon, Ireland after losing three engines on a flight from Gander, Newfoundland to Frankfurt, Germany.[20] 45 of the passengers and 3 crew were rescued, with 23 passengers and 5 crew members being lost in the storm-swept seas. All occupants successfully evacuated the airplane. Those who were lost succumbed in the rough seas.[21] The survival rate for landing and evacuation was 100%. The final survival rate of the accident was 63%.
  • In October 1956, Pan Am Flight 6 (a Boeing 377) ditched northeast of Hawaii, after losing two of its four engines. The aircraft was able to circle around USCGC Pontchartrain until daybreak, when it ditched; all 31 on board survived.[22][23] The survival rate was 100%.
  • In April 1956, Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 2 (also a Boeing 377) ditched into Puget Sound after what was later decided to be caused by failure of the crew to close the cowl flaps on the plane's engines. All aboard escaped the aircraft after a textbook landing, but four passengers and one flight attendant succumbed either to drowning or to hypothermia before being rescued. The survival rate was 87%.
  • On 26 March 1955, Pan Am Flight 845/26 ditched 35 miles from the Oregon coast after an engine tore loose. Despite the tail section breaking off during the impact the aircraft floated for twenty minutes before sinking. Survivors were rescued after a further 90 minutes in the water. The survival rate was 83%.
  • On 19 June 1954, Swissair Convair CV-240 HB-IRW ditched into the English Channel because of fuel starvation, which was attributed to pilot error. All three crew and five passengers survived the ditching and could escape the plane. However, three of the passengers could not swim and eventually drowned, because there were no life jackets on board, which was not prescribed at the time. The survival rate was 63%.
  • On 3 August 1953, Air France Flight 152, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation ditched 6 miles from Fetiye Point, Turkey 1,5 miles offshore into the Mediterranean Sea on a flight between Rome, Italy and Beirut, Lebanon. The propeller had failed due to blade fracture. Due to violent vibrations, engine number three broke away and control of engine number four was lost. The crew of eight and all but four of the 34 passengers were rescued.[24] The survival rate was 91%.
  • On 16 April 1952, the de Havilland Australia DHA-3 Drover VH-DHA operated by the Australian Department of Civil Aviation[25] with 3 occupants was ditched in the Bismarck Sea between Wewak and Manus Island. The port propeller failed, a propeller blade penetrated the fuselage and the single pilot was rendered unconscious; the ditching was performed by a passenger.[26] The survival rate was 100%.
  • On 11 April 1952, Pan Am Flight 526A ditched 11,3 NW of Puerto Rico due to engine failure after take off. Many survived the initial ditching but panicking passengers refused to leave the sinking wreck and drowned. 52 passengers were killed, 17 passengers and crew members were rescued by the USCG. After this accident it was recommended to implement pre-flight safety demonstrations for over-water flights. The survival rate was 25%.

607 of 875 occupants of the above listed emergency water landings survived. A lot of passengers weren't killed by the impact but drowned because of hypothermia or panic. The average survival rate is 69%.

Aircraft landing on water for other reasons

Aircraft also sometimes end up in water by running off the end of runways, landing in water short of the end of a runway, or even being forcibly flown into the water during suicidal/homicidal events. Twice at LaGuardia Airport, aircraft have rolled into the East River.

  • On 30 April 2002, DAS Air Cargo DC-10-30F freighter N800WR approached Entebbe, Uganda runway 35 following a flight from London-Gatwick carrying over 50 tons of cargo. The airplane landed long: 4000–5000 feet down the 12000-foot runway. The nosegear touched down 13 seconds after the main undercarriage. The DC-10 could not be brought to a halt and slid off the runway into Lake Victoria about 100 meters from the southern end of the runway. The DC-10 ended up with the no. 1 and 3 engines submerged and cockpit section separated from the fuselage. The crew members were rescued with a life raft within just 10 minutes of the accident.
  • On 3 February 2000, Trans Arabian Air Transport Flight 310, a Boeing 707-351(C) carrying cargo, grossly overshot the landing strip at Mwanza Airport after a first attempt failed and eventually landed in the middle of Lake Victoria. The plane continued floating after the landing and all five crew survived, some with light injuries.[27]
  • On 12 September 1993, while landing in poor weather conditions at Faa'a International Airport, Papeete, Tahiti, an Air France Boeing 747 registered F-GITA hydroplaned, overshot the runway and ended in a lagoon. All 272 passengers and crew evacuated successfully, even though the engines were still running and there was a risk of ingestion.[28] The survival rate was 100%.
  • In 1993, China Airlines Flight 605, a Boeing 747-409, ended up in water after it overran runway 13 at Kai Tak International Airport on landing during a typhoon with wind gusting to gale force. All of the 396 occupants donned life-vests, boarded the eight slide/rafts and no fatalities resulted. The airframe remained above water even after the aircraft was evacuated.[29]
  • In 1989, USAir 5050, a Boeing 737-401 with 63 people aboard, overran the runway while taking off from New York's La Guardia Airport, landing in the East River and breaking into three pieces, sustained two deaths.[30]
  • On 9 February 1982, Japan Airlines Flight 350 landed in shallow water of Tokyo Bay short of the runway on approach to Tokyo International Airport after the captain engaged thrust-reversers due to mental illness. Crew members tried to stop him but were not fully successful. 24 of the 166 passengers and (ironically) none of the eight crew members died. The captain was found not guilty of any crime due to insanity.[31][32][33]
  • On 23 January 1982, World Airways Flight 30, landing at Boston Logan International Airport after a flight from Newark, New Jersey, slid off the runway due to ice and landed in Boston Harbor. The cockpit area separated from the remainder of the fuselage at first row of seats. Two passengers in the first row disappeared and were presumed dead, but the other 210 people aboard survived (99% survival).[34]
  • In 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 went down in the icy Potomac river after taking off from Washington National Airport during a snowstorm without proper de-icing. Only 6 out of 79 passengers and crew survived the initial crash, with one of the survivors eventually drowning after helping others to safety. The plane also hit a bridge, killing four and injuring another four motorists. The survival rate from the plane was 6%.
  • On 7 August 1980, a Tupolev 154B-1 operated by Tarom Romanian Airlines ditched in the water, 300m short of the runway at Nouadhibou Airport (NDB/GQPP), Mauritania. 1 passenger out of 168 passengers and crew died. The survival rate was 99%.
  • On 22 November 1968, Japan Airlines Flight 2, a DC-8-62, landed short of the runway in San Francisco Bay on approach to San Francisco International Airport. There were no fatalities, and the aircraft itself was in good enough condition to be removed from the water, rebuilt, and flown again.


There is a distinction between a controlled ditching and simply crashing (not even crash-landing) into the water; the latter is capable of killing everyone upon impact and disintegrating the plane. For example:

On a smaller scale, John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his two passengers died in a water crash. As pilot and columnist Patrick Smith comments, these crashes tend to be more memorable than controlled water landings, perhaps fueling the public's suspicions of the survivability of aircraft that hit water.[38]

Water bird emergency landing technique

The water bird emergency landing is a technique developed by the Canadian Forces to safely land the Sikorsky CH-124 Sea King helicopter when one engine fails while flying over water. The emergency landing technique allows the boat-hull equipped aircraft to land on the water in a controlled fashion.[39]


  1. ^ Bertorelli, Paul (1999). "Ditching Myths Torpedoed!". http://www.equipped.com/ditchingmyths.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  2. ^ CFR 14 Part 121 Appendix D — Criteria for Demonstration of Emergency Evacuation Procedures Under §121.291
  3. ^ "Airbus Overhead Panel". Data. www.smartcockpit.com. http://www.smartcockpit.com/data/pdfs/plane/airbus/a340/instructor/A330-A340_Overhead_Pushbuttons.pdf. Retrieved 09/10/2011. 
  4. ^ Brus, Michael (1999). "In the Event of a Water Landing". Slate. Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. http://www.slate.com/id/1003275/. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  5. ^ Unidentified (December 2002). "Help! There's nobody in the cockpit". The Economist. http://economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?story_id=1487553. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  6. ^ Smith, Patrick (2003). "Ask the pilot #24: Can we stop bombs in our baggage?". Salon.com. http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/feature/2003/01/13/askthepilot24/index1.html. Retrieved 2006-06-28. 
  7. ^ Unidentified (September 2006). "Welcome aboard". The Economist. 
  8. ^ Unknown. "NTSB: Right engine of plane still attached". CNN. http://cnnwire.blogs.cnn.com/2009/01/17/ntsb-right-engine-of-plane-still-attached/. Retrieved 2009-01-17. 
  9. ^ Samantha Gross. "Passengers in NY plane ordeal marvel they're alive: A female passenger received two broken legs". Associated Press. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090116/ap_on_re_us/plane_splashdown_survivors. Retrieved 2009-01-16. [dead link]
  10. ^ "Pilot hailed for 'Hudson miracle'". BBC. 2009-01-16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7832439.stm. Retrieved 2009-01-16. 
  11. ^ Hradecky, Simon. "Accident: Angara AN24 at Nizhnevartovsk on Jul 11th 2011, water landing after engine fire". The Aviation Herald. http://avherald.com/h?article=43f853ce&opt=1. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  12. ^ "An-24 crash in Tomsk region now claims 7 victims" (in Russian). Lenta.Ru (Lenta.Ru). 2011-07-11. http://lenta.ru/news/2011/07/11/plane2/. 
  13. ^ Hradecky, Simon (7 June 2011). "Accident: Solenta AN26 near Libreville on Jun 6th 2011, ditched in the sea". The Aviation Herald. http://avherald.com/h?article=43dbcc52. Retrieved 5 September 2011. 
  14. ^ ASN Aircraft accident Britten-Norman BN-2A-26 Islander PJ-SUN Bonaire-Flamingo International Airport (BON)
  15. ^ Robbins, Liz (2009-01-15). "Jet Ditches in Hudson; All Are Said Safe". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/16/nyregion/16crash.html?_r=1&hp. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  16. ^ Garuda Indonesia Fl421 at AirDisaster.com retrieved 2 November 2007.
  17. ^ Mark V. Rosenker. "NTSB Safety Recommendation". http://www.ntsb.gov/Recs/letters/2005/A05_19_20.pdf. 
  18. ^ Aviation Safety Network. "McDonnell Douglas DC-9-33CF N935F - St. Croix, Virgin Islands". http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19700502-0. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  19. ^ AirSafe.com (2002-03-28). "Jet Airliner Ditching Events". http://www.airsafe.com/events/ditch.htm. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  20. ^ [1], Accident Details Flying Tiger Line Flight 923, PlaneCrashInfo.com
  21. ^ Born Again Irish by O'Caruso
  22. ^ Kebabjian, Richard. "1956/1956-27.htm". PlaneCrashInfo.com. http://www.planecrashinfo.com/1956/1956-27.htm. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  23. ^ Hokom, Wayne. "Ditch and rescue". Coast Guard stories. Jack's Joint. http://www.jacksjoint.com/panamrescue.htm. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  24. ^ Accident description Air France Flight 152
  25. ^ AviationSafety.net Accident Description VH-DHA Retrieved 2010-08-02
  26. ^ Loss of Drover VH-DHA Retrieved 2007-08-02
  27. ^ Aviation Safety Net. "ST-APY". http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=20000203-0. Retrieved 2009-03-17. 
  28. ^ Aviation Safety Network. "Boeing 747-428 F-GITA Papeete-Faaa Airport (PPT), Tahiti". http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19930912-1. 
  29. ^ Aviation Safety Network. "Boeing 747-409 B-165 - Hong Kong-Kai Tak International Airport (HKG)". http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19931104-0. Retrieved 2006-06-26. 
  30. ^ Smith, Patrick (2002). "Ask the pilot #4: Do seat cushions actually save lives?". Salon.com. http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/07/26/askthepilot4/index.html. Retrieved 2006-06-28. 
  31. ^ Accident Database: Accident Synopsis 02091982
  32. ^ Stokes, Henry Scott. "COCKPIT FIGHT REPORTED ON JET THAT CRASHED IN TOKYO," The New York Times. 14 February 1982. Retrieved on 10 November 2011.
  33. ^ "Troubled Pilot". Time. 1 March 1982. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,922801,00.html?iid=chix-sphere. Retrieved 10 November 2011. 
  34. ^ World Airways, Inc., Flight 30H, McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30CF, N113WA, Boston-Logan Int'l Airport, Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 23, 1982 (Revised) (AAR-85-06) Aircraft accident report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, adopted July 10, 1985.
  35. ^ Aircraft Accident Report AAR-78-13 (PDF)
  36. ^ Moindjie, Ali (1 July 2009). "Yemenia plane crash survivor found swimming among bodies in Indian Ocean". Agence France-Presse. http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,25717076-401,00.html. Retrieved 1 July 2009. 
  37. ^ Guilfoil, John M. (2009-01-16). "Deadliest crash involving birds: Boston, 1960". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/01/16/deadliest_crash_involving_birds_boston_1960/. 
  38. ^ Smith, Patrick (2004). "Ask the pilot #71: Still ignoring those flight-attendant safety lectures?". Salon.com. http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/col/smith/2004/03/19/askthepilot71/index.html. Retrieved 2006-06-28. 
  39. ^ Prince performs 'waterbird' landing, but what is it?

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