And Related Material

© E. R. Martin*
(See Disclaimer and Release below)


This includes pre-flight preparations and a ditching checklist, but it is more than that, with considerable material on things you should do so you don't have to ditch. Some of the information on this page is for relatively long over-water flights (see Disclaimer below). Many of these recommendations can be dispensed with for shorter flights, such as flights to the Bahamas, where virtually all keep you within 50 nm of land. In fact, for such flights, the FAA doesn't even require a life jacket (although I always carry them). The need is reduced further for twin-engined aircraft like the Skymaster. Nevertheless, the prudent pilot ought to be over-informed, to be ready for any emergency, regardless of how unlikely. So, even for shorter flights, you should at least read this once and I highly recommend keeping a copy in your flight bag.


Understandably, some people are fearful of over-water flying. The statistics, however, suggest that the fear is unfounded. Controlled ditching "is one of the most survivable emergency procedures any pilot can perform" and "overall general aviation ditching survival rate is 90 percent" (see the full analysis based on eight years of NTSB data here). Moreover, the same study concludes that "if you exclude what we consider to be the high-risk over water operations--the long distance ocean ferry flights that are only a small part of the total over water flying--the egress rate [where occupants got out of the airplane] rises [from 92 percent] to an astonishing 95 percent". In a twin, and in the warm waters of the Caribbean, I would much rather have to ditch in daylight with good weather, than chance an emergency ground landing at night or over mountainous terrain. Think about it for a moment and see if you don't agree. And you can improve the survival chances of ditching even further by making adequate preparations and knowing what to do.


Hand-held Electronics. Carry two radios, one marine-band and one aviation-band, both encased in waterproof plastic pouches (sold at marine stores), and a GPS. Check to ensure fully-charged batteries and proper functioning on all 3 units. These are critical, particularly if fire/smoke forces you to immediately turn off the master switch, so that you can radio your position from the air and after ditching. Because a GPS typically needs a few minutes to start, the hand-held GPS should be on the whole flight, and it and the radios need to be readily accessible.

Survival Gear. Carry one life jacket for each occupant. A raft large enough for all occupants is highly recommended, but learn how to use it (never try to exit aircraft with it, get it after you exit). Carry at least one-half gallon jug of water per occupant (I like the 3/4 gallon jugs of Tropicana OJ with a 3-foot fishing line tied to the handle so that it may be tied to occupant's life jacket after exiting aircraft). Carry a signal mirror, survival knife, flares (see the Aviation Survival page of for more info).

Aircraft. Make absolutely certain that it's perfect. Check that you have plenty of fuel for the trip plus a margin of at least one hour (based on actual, recent consumption data and visual check of fuel level). Review your aircraft's fuel management procedures (the author's Fuel Management Page may be of assistance) and do a thorough pre-flight.

Weather. Check it with several forecasters (on the Internet, use,, and with the FAA just before departure. For VFR flights, make absolutely certain that all of these forecasts call for perfect weather for the whole trip and for 6 hours thereafter.

Briefing. After making above preparations, familiarize yourself with the checklist and procedures listed below, make sure there is a copy in your flight bag, and have a detailed ditch briefing for all occupants. This briefing should cover all aspects, and tells each occupant exactly what they will need to do in case of ditching.

Final Points. While in cruise, keep tab of vessels below, especially those you've already passed, so that you may head in their direction if needed (first point in checklist below). If you ditch, it's most important that you remain calm and avoid panic. Remember that virtually all ditchings are survivable. Mentally prepare yourself for a violent impact with possible injuries and bleeding -- but you will survive if you calmly follow the instructions below, and if your mind-set is "I won't give up, I'm gonna make it!"

(Key points: distress calls, controlled touch-down & staying buckled)

  • Look for Nearby Vessel. Head for it so you can ditch where they can see you.
  • Transponder. Set to 7700 (and remember to stay calm, you're gonna make it!).
  • Distress calls. Accomplish on 121.5 or 122.8 or CH 16. Give GPS position.
  • Survival gear. Locate them, place them nearby, remind each pax what to take.
  • Lifejacket. Locate it, then put it on or put bag under your shirt. Don't inflate.
  • Survey. Find all exits and how to open them, and location relative to you.
  • Articles. Secure them to avoid projectiles. Use soft ones to cushion occupants.
  • Door. Open it a crack below 100 MPH, then rotate handle to locked position.
  • Headsets. Remove and secure them.
  • Seatbelts. Tighten. Do not unbuckle until instructed below (key rule).
  • Relax. Avoid shock. Expect huge impact, water blasting in, windshield shards, blood.
  • Approach, touch-down. Fly the aircraft under control. Follow procedure below.
  • Orient. After stop remain buckled. Find exit path (door is best) & grab exit edge.
  • Upright. Figure out which way is up. Use light, not bubbles (too turbulent).
  • Unbuckle, Exit. While holding exit edge, unbuckle belt and pull yourself out.
  • Float. Do not allow yourself to float towards air bubble in upended rear of aircraft.
  • Assist. After you're out, take a breath and go back to assist others or get items.

(Based on U.S. Air Force O-2A procedure, courtesy of Don Nieser)

Try to ditch within view of a ship, after overflying it to ensure they see you. Plan approach into the wind if wind is high and seas are heavy. With light wind, land parallel to swells, being careful not to allow a wing tip to hit first. (Note: This suggests a parallel-to-swells landing even with heavy swells if wind is light, but avoidance of a wing-tip hit is crucial, so ensure that swell crests are much farther apart than wingspan, allowing the aircraft to fit between swell crests without hitting a wing tip first.) Approach with the landing gear retracted, full flaps and enough power to maintain approximately 300 ft/min. rate of descent at approximately 90 KIAS. (Note: This speed, about 100 MPH, is high to ensure continuous control of the aircraft, with good elevator and rudder control, to avoid a stall or a wing tip from hitting or letting the tail touch first.) Maintain a continuous descent until touch-down to avoid flaring and touching down tail first, pitching forward sharply, and decelerating rapidly. Before impact, turn both fuel-control switches to OFF and feather both props. Strive for initial contact at fuselage area below rear cabin section. It is expected that the airplane will skip clear of the water once or twice using the optimum technique outlined above. If final contact is made in the desired level attitude, the nose will submerge completely during two or three seconds of moderately abrupt deceleration, and then the airplane will float for a short time. Exit through the cabin door or emergency window. If the fuselage is submerged and the exits will not open, flood the cabin through the pilot's storm window and door window, then jettison the emergency window. If necessary, break out the windows. (Your use of this material is subject to the terms in "Disclaimer and Release" below.)

DISCLAIMER AND RELEASE: The author believes that the information above is accurate for 3-5 hour over-water flights in moderate climates (such as the Caribbean), but it is provided without any warranty. Do not rely solely on this information. It is presented for reference only and should be used only to augment other information obtained from official/reliable/credible sources. If some of this information conflicts with that obtained from other sources, ignore this information. Elements of this material may not be applicable to your aircraft. Finally, you use this information solely at your own risk and, by using it, you agree to release the author from any liability.

* E. R. Martin has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (High Honors) from the University of Florida and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Jet Propulsion Option) from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He spent nearly 20 years in satellite communications and 10 years in the jet engine business, and has consulted for various companies, including GE. He flies his '73 Cessna 337G Skymaster out of Miami, often over Caribbean waters. He has flown his prior '69 337D on search-and-rescue (SAR) missions over the Florida Straits and on a round-trip from Miami to Boise, Idaho, which included a direct hop across the Gulf from South Florida to New Orleans. He may be reached at .