Ditching: A planned event in which a flight crew knowingly makes a controlled emergency landing in water.
National Transportation Safety Board of the United States (NTSB)
Flying, for many of us, is routine and not much fun. It’s just a way of getting from one place to another quickly (sometimes) and it often entails a degree of discomfort in the process.
Until US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River on January 16, 2009, many people thought the: “In event of water landing . . .” safety instructions were out-dated and just part of the speech left over from a distant time. According to the National Transportation Accident Report, 145 passenger interviews revealed that about 70 percent of the passengers did not watch any of the preflight safety demonstration. In addition, more than 90 percent did not read the safety information card before or during the flight. The NTSB believes that these responses clearly indicate that passenger safety information is still routinely ignored by most travelers.
Fortunately this most recent ditching was a complete success in that no lives were lost. This has not always been the case.
From 1934 until 2009 there have been 25 multi-engine commercial passenger aircraft ditchings for which I have found records. These ditchings did not include aircraft that wound up in shallow water at the end of a runway either through a missed approach or an overshot runway approach. Remarkably, 21 of the pilots put their aircraft down safely. It wasn’t until after the plane was in the water that casualties occurred in 13 of these successful landings.
In the eight ditchings where no lives were lost, two have been in rivers, four in bays, and two in the open ocean. Seven of the eight were in calm water. The eighth is a whole different story. All eight successful ditchings have one thing in common — boats or ships nearby to affect the rescue.
The first of the eight completely successful ditchings occurred on April 25, 1938, roughly 10 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica. A Pan American Airways Sikorsky twin engine flying boat ditched in rough seas after losing power to one engine. The 12 passengers and four crew members where quickly rescued by a lifeboat from the nearby cargo ship Cavina. The airplane was lost, but there were no injuries or fatalities among the passengers and crew.[i]
Of the 13 events in which the pilot put the aircraft down in one piece, only to lose people afterward, the first occurred on November 29, 1938. This was a United Airlines DC-3 on a scheduled flight from Medford, Oregon to Oakland when it ran out of fuel. After impact the four passengers and three crew members immediately climbed to the top of the aircraft through the emergency hatch in the pilot's cockpit while the aircraft rode the swells easily until the surf carried it toward shore. However, of the seven people on board only one passenger and the pilot were still alive when help arrived.
The causes of these ditchings, loss of an engine and running out of fuel, are only two reasons why aircraft have been forced to come down over water. Other causes include bad weather, faulty navigation, and in one case, a hijacking.
No matter what the cause, a successful ditching is based on many factors in addition to the pilot’s flying skills. Among these factors are the angle of approach to the water, correct airspeed, life raft location, emergency evacuation procedures, and breakaway engine design. All these were learned through trial and error, by careful experimentation, or as the result of aircraft evolution from propeller power to jets over the previous seventy years.
Part of the technology involved the evolution of long range aircraft. Initially these were flying boats designed to take off and land exclusively on water. This design was partly dictated by the lack of land-based aerodromes and airports capable of handling large aircraft as well as engineering design limitations of aircraft structure, and engines of the era.
Transoceanic flying was once an elegant experience. Passengers enjoyed amenities which rivaled those enjoyed by First Class passengers on the finest ocean liners or in a Five Star hotel. This past era of more genteel travel is as an essential part of the story as are the technical developments that made such trips possible.
Another crucial factor in safely flying across the oceans was weather. We take for granted our access to immediate weather information anywhere in the world. However, it wasn’t until the first weather satellite was launched on April 1, 1960, that meteorologists were able to get a clear picture of what was going on around the world. Until then, off shore weather reports were sent by surface ships and, from 1941 through 1977, by U.S. Coast Guard cutters manning ocean weather stations at strategic locations along major air routes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Weather forecasting and forecasting techniques were the same as those used by ships’ officers. For fast moving aircraft this was often more of an educated guess than a statement of fact.
As with weather information, aerial navigation relied on the same tried and true marine navigation techniques from an earlier time. Aerial charts, celestial observation, and dead reckoning skills needed to be honed to a fine edge for the pilots to hit their destination on the mark. This, too, changed with the advent of radio beacons and radio direction finding equipment, long range radio navigation systems, and early satellites. These later evolved into today’s extremely accurate global positioning system (GPS). The Coast Guard cutters also provided a mid-flight reference point for transiting planes.
One part of transoceanic flying that hasn’t changed is the risk of ditching beyond the range of search and rescue (SAR) forces. A third part of the Coast Guard’s ocean weather station duties was to assist aircraft in the case of ditching.
Nineteen of the 21 ditchings in which the plane landed in one piece took place in the open ocean. In all but two instances they were too far from immediate help, resulting in casualties from hypothermia or drowning. The two successful ditchings occurred within a half mile of Coast Guard cutters that were manning one of the weather stations.
For over 36 years there was a special relationship between airline crews and the Coast Guardsmen on ocean station. As each plane passed overhead a member of the flight crew radioed all pertinent information regarding the flight to the cutter. Often the stewardesses were the ones who handled this duty. The sound of a woman’s voice was a welcome change to the men in the midst of a long patrol.
Within this special relationship, two went even deeper. The most special was forged by USCGC Bibb and a Boeing 314 flying boat named Bermuda Sky Queen. The other one was between USCGC Pontchartrain and a Pan American Airways Boeing 377 christened Sovereign of the Skies.
These two wonderful tales encompass many facets of ditchings: bad weather, engine failure, horrific sea conditions, and indomitable courage in the face of death. In addition to these two are stories of other ditchings as well as the journey we humans have undertaken from the beginning of transoceanic flight to today.
Now ladies and gentlemen, in preparation for take-off, please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened, turn off all electronic devices, sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.
Excerpt from Chapter 6.
“Kick, kick, paddle, paddle ….”
The Face of a Swell
Flying Tiger Line Lockheed Constellation Flight 923
560 Nautical Miles West of Shannon, Ireland
On September 23, 1962, at 10:00 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time, a Flying Tiger Line Lockheed Super Constellation, under contract to MATS, ditched at sea approximately 560 nautical miles west of Shannon, Ireland. It carried 68 passengers and eight crewmembers. Of these, 24 passengers and four crewmembers died after the aircraft was in the water.
The passenger flight was from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, to Frankfurt-Rhein Main Airport, Germany, with a scheduled refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland. The original flight crew from McGuire was replaced by a new one in Gander. The members on the Gander to Frankfurt leg consisted of Captain John D. Murray, Copilot Robert W. Parker, Flight Engineer James E. Garrett, Jr., and Navigator Samuel P. Nicholson. Stewardesses Elizabeth A. Sims, Carol Ann Gould, Ruth Mudd, and Jacqueline L. Brotman were on board when the aircraft left McGuire and remained with it on the leg from Gander to Germany.
Carol Ann Gould was a last minute addition to the crew. She was staying with a friend when, at 4:30 A.M. the phone rang, jolting her awake. It was an unexpected call from the back office of Flying Tiger Airlines. Carol remembers the conversation.
“We need you to fill in for a stewardess who is sick. It will be double time,” said the man from the back office of Flying Tiger Airlines.
“When I got to the airport the head stewardess, Betty Sims, was beaming. She greeted me warmly: ‘We know you’ve been out all night and you’re tired, you can sleep. We just need your body on board to meet regulations. We are heading over to McGuire Air base to pick up soldiers and take them to Germany.’”
The aircraft departed McGuire AFB at 11:45A.M, with 68 passengers, including Army paratroopers on their first overseas assignment, service members and their families. Among these was Captain Juan G. Figueroa, an Air Force doctor, and his wife, Carmen, who were going to Germany for a vacation.
Upon departure the stewardesses briefed the passengers on over-water emergency procedures. Between McGuire and Gander the navigator calculated his Equal Time Point (ETP) and the Point of No Return (PNR) for the Gander-Frankfurt leg and placed these on the appropriate navigational chart. These calculations were based upon the weather information and weather charts provided by U. S. Air Force personnel at McGuire AFB. The flight to Gander was routine. After the new flight crew took over and refueling was completed, the aircraft took off at 5:09 P.M. on the transatlantic leg of her journey.
At 7:20 P.M. the aircraft passed over the USCGC Owasco manning Ocean Station Charlie. John E. Ulibarri, a Radarman Second Class, was on duty and recalls:
“I remember working Flight 923 and talking with the pilot, Captain John D. Murray. After relaying Flying Tiger’s position, speed, and additional information, Captain Murray wanted to know if I was interested in talking with the stewardess. Being at sea for weeks at a time, I jumped at the chance to converse with a female voice, a good distraction.
A stewardess came on the radio and we joked back and forth for a couple of minutes.
‘Do you sailors ever get lonely in the middle of the ocean?’ she inquired, to which I replied, ‘Of course we do; there are no girls to talk to.’ When she asked if talking to her helped, I told her that the only thing better would be to be in the airplane with her. She laughed and said, ‘Maybe next time.’
“We signed off, and the flight continued east.”
Approximately three hours after departing Gander a fire developed in the No. 3 engine. This engine was shut down and its propeller feathered. A few minutes later the propeller of No. 1 engine oversped when the flight engineer inadvertently closed the No. 1 engine firewall shutoff valve. This engine was also shut down and the propeller feathered. At this time the captain altered course to proceed to Shannon. After flying approximately one hour, the No. 2 engine developed trouble and the aircraft, with three bad engines, was in serious trouble.
At 8:25 P.M., the aircraft requested sea conditions from Gander Radio. These were later given by an eastbound DC-7 (identified by the call sign Riddle 18H) as winds from 260 degrees at 28 knots; primary swells from 260 degrees, 8 to 12 feet high; secondary swells from 300 degrees, eight feet high.
The requested escort aircraft, a U.S. Air Force C-118 four engine aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Joseph K. Lewis, and Riddle 18H were in visual contact shortly before 9:00 P.M. About this time the No. 2 engine failed; however, its propeller was not feathered. Captain Murray turned on the public address system and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We are going to ditch.”
After the second engine failure, the senior stewardess, Betty Simms, announced over the loudspeaker system that they would conduct a ditching drill, at the same time assuring the passengers that the aircraft could proceed to Shannon on two engines. She then called attention to a ditching folder inside the pocket behind each seat. The three remaining stewardesses circulated among the cabin passengers and assisted in explaining the ditching procedure.
All of the passengers donned lifejackets and were instructed not to inflate them until they were outside the aircraft. None of the lifejackets were equipped with lights.
Sometime before ditching, two soldier passengers, at the direction of the crew, removed the emergency liferaft stowed in the crew compartment and placed it in front of the left rear main exit door where it was tied down. The door between the crew compartment and the main cabin was removed and stowed in the left forward coat closet. The stewardesses requested the passengers to remove dentures, pens, pencils, glasses, and other sharp objects from their persons and to place them in the pockets of the seatbacks.
Passengers were asked if they had any knives or flashlights and those collected were then distributed to certain passengers who had been given special duties such as opening emergency exits and launching liferafts. According to the passengers, most of the stewardesses did not have knives or flashlights, as required. Passengers’ shoes and boots were also collected and these were stowed in the forward lavatory.
Many paratroopers tried to act with bravado. One group filled plastic bags with sandwiches and told stewardess Carol Gould to join them on their raft.
Shortly before the ditching, Nicholson, the navigator, went into the cabin and removed the tie-down strap from the liferaft. He then seated himself in an aisle seat which was in the last row on the left side just forward of the main cabin door.
A ditching heading of 265 degrees magnetic was then decided upon and C-118 was alerted to stand by. Then Captain Murray turned to the left in order to obtain the heading of 265 degrees.
Just prior to impact Murray turned on the landing lights and cut the power on the No. 4 engine. The plan was to land just past the top of a swell. However, just before impact the nose of the aircraft was brought around parallel to the face of the approaching swell and ditching was accomplished into the swell. After initial impact, there were no skips or subsequent impacts.
The time was 11:12 P.M.
The impact threw some passengers forward when seats broke loose. Water poured in through the bottom of the plane. It was pitch black and little more than shadows could be seen.
Captain Murray’s head struck the instrument panel. He later recalled that the copilot got out of his seat and asked him: “You all right John?” He answered, "Yes.”
Murray got up and followed the copilot and the flight engineer out of the cockpit into the main cabin compartment. Upon reaching the cabin he remembered his flashlight and went back into the cockpit and retrieved it. Returning from the cockpit he said he observed the cabin to be clear of all persons. However, he noticed some seats piled up in the rear of the cabin on the right side, but blood in his eyes from a cut on his forehead prevented good vision.
Captain Murray then left the aircraft through the forward left emergency over-the-wing exit and inflated his lifejacket.
Nicholson had some difficulty in opening the main cabin door. Wing exits were opened easily with the exception of the aft over-the-wing exit on the right side, which was opened after moving a seat which had partially blocked this exit. Immediately after opening the main cabin door, Nicholson pushed out the liferaft, but forgot to tie the lanyard provided for the liferafts’ retention to the aircraft and the raft drifted away. Jumping in after it, he managed to inflate it, although upside down with its emergency lights facing down.
One survivor stated that he stood on the right wing after evacuating the cabin, some recalled observing the right wing while exiting the aircraft, but other survivors stated they saw no right wing.
During the evacuation of the aircraft a few of the survivors said they could see clearly, and others said they could hardly see at all. However, by following other people they were able to find an exit. When the last passengers left the aircraft the water inside was at least waist deep. A passenger who indicated that he was the last one to leave said that he did not see anyone remaining in the aircraft, although, he added, it was possible that some of the broken seats may have concealed someone.
The aircraft sank five minutes after impact.
In addition to the 25-man liferaft stowed in the crew compartment, the aircraft carried four 25-man liferafts which were stowed in four compartments, two in each wing aft of the rear spar. A cable control, actuated by a handle located inside the jamb of the aft over-the-wing exits, sequentially unlatches the wing compartments’ cover doors and opens the valves to the CO2 cylinder of each raft on that side of the aircraft.
As each raft inflates it ejects itself automatically from the compartment. The stowed rafts in the left wing can also be released by actuating a lever in the cockpit. In addition to these releases there is a release mechanism on each wing’s liferaft compartment.
None of the liferafts stowed in the wings were seen by the survivors during the evacuation; however, all rafts were later recovered. There was no evidence that these rafts were used by any of the people who didn’t survive.
Meanwhile, Carol Gould quickly removed the emergency window and shouted for the passengers to follow her. She was anxious to drop down onto the left wing and open the raft compartment door. As she looked down, she saw there was no wing; it had sheared off on impact.
Twenty foot waves pitched the survivors violently in and under the frigid water. One huge wave swept Carol away from the plane while its undertow pulled Garrett directly into the jagged edge of the broken wing, killing him instantly.
The numbing cold and confusion left Carol in a coma-like state. The only clue she was alive was the sound of her own heartbeat. She fought the urge to give up and swam upward. As she broke through the debris-ridden surface Carol gulped for air and cried out “I will not die this way.” She inflated only the left side of her inflatable life vest, thinking she might need the other side later.
The survivors alternately swam and treaded water until they eventually found the raft. Some said they saw a light, but it could not be established whether they saw the automatically activated lights on the raft or the flashlight carried by the captain. A total of 51 persons including Murray, Nicholson and Gould swam to the raft and boarded it. As this number exceeded the capacity of the raft by over 100 percent, the crowded conditions restricted movement.
Badly overloaded, the raft took on water over the sides. Bailing was almost continuous throughout the entire time on the raft and it was necessary for those on the raft to hold the heads of others out of the water.
Somehow the small grey raft remained intact. A few passengers had broken bones and internal injuries. Many had second degree burns aggravated by the constant chafing of their clothing as the waves buffeted them. Nearly all were suffering varying degrees of shock and exposure.
Suddenly, they heard propellers overhead as the C-118 swooped down and dropped a bright red flare. Carol Gould remembered its eerie glow. “When it first dropped it was like daytime on the raft. It was good, but it wasn’t. I could see everyone around me and they were all bloody. The water in the raft was turning a sickening red.
“Private Brown was bleeding so badly from the big gash on his head that I knew something had to be done. Then, I remembered my slip. I took it off and made a compress out of it and put it on his head; then a wave washed it off. The only way to keep it there was to hold it. He blacked out a few times.”
Aircraft were overhead continuously from the time of ditching. Among them were three Albatross amphibian search aircraft from Prestwick, Scotland. Originally their pilots had hoped to land alongside any rafts they spotted, but the heavy seas made this impossible. They were forced to head back to base for more fuel and to get ready for another try.
Roughly four hours later the small, 150-foot long Swiss freighter S. S. Celerina spotted the raft after being directed to the scene by the C118.
Celerina’s sailors threw rope ladders over the side, but by now the seas had reached 20 feet. At times the survivors were level with the deck of the vessel, only to fall below the waterline the next moment.
From the raft, Murray grabbed onto one ladder but fell back into the sea. Paratrooper Fred Caruso grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him back into the raft. One by one the exhausted survivors pulled their way up the ladders into the arms of sailors.
Once on deck, a sailor gave Carol a shot of whiskey and it warmed her. She searched the deck for Doctor Figueroa and became his assistant, treating the wounded. Passengers remember that she seemed to be everywhere, giving comfort and medicine.
Carol paused only to look out to sea, hoping to glimpse another raft, hoping to find her co-stewardesses. Betty had been sitting just behind Carol on the plane. Her last words were to reassure Carol on how to retrieve the raft once on the wing. “You will do fine, Carol, just fine.”
Throughout the next hour Celerina’s crew continued rescuing survivors. No one realized three people in the raft had died during the night: two servicemen and a woman. The last man to exit the life raft had been holding his wife’s body; she had perished during the night, he had not known.
Later the sailors informed Carol that three empty rafts were picked up by other ships in the area. Seven bodies were recovered near the ditch site, those of Stewardess Brotman, Engineer Garrett, copilot Parker, and four servicemen. The other eighteen were never found.
As soon as he got aboard Celerina, Dr. Figueroa stripped off his clothing, put on an old, greasy pair of pants and a shirt donated by a member of the Celerina’s crew and went to work. He treated the injured, whose wounds ranged from severe burns to deep slashes as well as shock and exposure.
Asked in a interview how he kept going although himself a victim of the crash, he modestly replied: “I don’t know. I guess it was a sense of duty that kept me going. It was something that had to be done.”
The doctor said he was too busy to stop, even though he had difficulty seeing—his glasses were lost in the crash. “We worked with what we could find in the ship’s emergency kit and a Canadian helicopter from the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure brought some supplies, but that proved to be not enough. So then we had to have the air evacuation people take them off,” he added.
Seventeen of the most severely hurt were airlifted by helicopter off the ship to the HMCS Bonaventure.
When the aircraft ditched, Owasco, then 10 hours away, departed Ocean Station Charlie and plowed through the night toward the crash site. Electricians Mate Third Class Phil Gorman remembers: “I stood watch in my slicks on the forward-most deck above the bridge in the rain and spray from the rough water, staring into the wind and rain for hours.
At 6:00 A.M., September 24, Owasco arrived on scene. Electricians Mate 3rd Class Phil Gorman recalls: “The port bow watch spotted a yellow raft. Out went a Monomoy life boat, which snagged a life raft. Nothing. The Mae West’s were empty and that’s all there was in the raft. It didn’t make sense. It was morning before anyone was found. The first, the body of the stewardess who Ulibarri had been talking to was found floating face down. Then another body, a young Marine [sic]. That was all.”
The bodies on board Owasco were later picked up by a helicopter from Bonaventure and taken to Scotland.
Stewardess Ruth Mudd was on her last flight as a crew member after receiving notice from the airline that she was being furloughed. Chief Stewardess Betty A. Sims, married secretly two weeks before, had given notice this was her last trip. Ruth Mudd’s body was not recovered. Carol Ann Gould was the only stewardess to survive the ditching.