Ask the pilot

Still ignoring those flight-attendant safety lectures? The pilot is displeased, and presents a refresher course in awful airplane crashes, in the water and on the land.

By Patrick Smith
Published March 19, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

I'd like to begin by doing something I don't normally do, per common sense and editorial prescription, which is recycle an old Q&A subject. I'm doing it because of the shocking frequency -- to me anyway -- with which this topic appears, week after week, in my mailbox.

I'm speaking of the proverbial "water landing." Ditchings. Anything and everything to do with life rafts, seat cushions, and the idea of an airplane coming into inadvertent contact with lake, river or sea. There seems to be a consensus that the rarity of such instances invalidates the point and purpose of the pre-departure cabin briefing. The bulk of your letters are sarcastically incredulous: "Come on, has anybody ever used a floatation device to survive? Come on." And so on. Floatation devices? Why bother?

In the movie "Airport '77," a Boeing 747 crashes into the ocean and sinks to the bottom intact, the passengers still alive and encased inside a sort of inside-out aquarium. Guess I can't blame you, in a way, for finding the whole notion silly. Statistics argue the extreme improbability of going down over water while, just in case, Hollywood paints its usual cartoonish and completely non-believable picture of what might happen. So the next time the crew is going through that campy vest drill, best to roll your eyes and ignore it, correct?


"Water landing" is a snarky contradiction, but over the decades a handful of airliners have found themselves, through one mishap or another, floating. At least two of these -- the 1970 ditching of a DC-9 in the Caribbean, and a 1963 Aeroflot splashdown near Leningrad, were controlled impacts with many survivors.

But, you'll argue, why waste our time when a flight is over land the whole way? Well, keep in mind that planes have overshot, undershot, or otherwise parted company with runways and ended up in the harbor at a coastal airport, sometimes without leaving the ground. If you're flying from New York to Phoenix and you're smirking as the attendant blows into that plastic tube, remember that twice since the late 1980s jets went off the end of a runway at La Guardia and ended up in the bay. Both crashes left people very much alive and very much swimming.

In December 2002, in a discussion of "the realities of air safety," The Economist, normally among the most factually credible magazines in the world, quoted a Mr. Jackson of "Jane's All the World's Aircraft" who stated: "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water." While you can argue the definition of "large," or "landing," this is untrue. The Economist continued, "So the life jackets, with their little whistles and lights that come on when in contact with water, have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better." The various accoutrements of the onboard floatation devices might indeed be a bit of overkill (the larger rafts contain everything from signal mirrors to fishing line and hooks), but this unctuous remark also is false. In the above cases and others, vests and rafts were put to good use by passengers who needed them.

I'd bet the house, if I had one, that it won't ever happen, but if you're in such an accident and have, as will be the case, not paid attention to the briefing, do not inflate your vest while still inside the plane, despite the temptation to do so. When an Ethiopian Airlines 767 ditched off the Comoros Islands after a skyjacking in 1996, several people who'd pre-inflated their vests were unable to move freely and escape the rising water. The devices are designed to provide buoyancy around the neck even if punctured, so if you're unconscious and haven't yet discharged the little cylinder, you'll still float with your head above the surface.

There's an essential difference between a plummeting, disintegrative crash, and a controlled ditching. Alas, the ones that stick in our minds and make the most memorable headlines tend to fall in the former category. Most recently, this past January, was the yet unsolved crash of Flash Airlines Flight 504 -- an Egyptian charter flight that plunged into the Red Sea after takeoff from the Sinai resort town of Sharm-el-Sheik.

It's curious how the Flash accident, which killed 148 people, was able to garner such widespread press coverage, while a similar and equally deadly crash went more or less unnoticed. I'm speaking of a 727 that barreled into the surf near the West African port of Cotonou, Benin, last Christmas Day, a week before the Flash disaster. Bound for Beirut, Lebanon, and transporting mainly Lebanese expatriates, the plane went down only seconds after takeoff killing more than 130 people (the exact count is disupted). Among the dead were 15 U.N. peacekeepers from Bangladesh who'd been serving in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as the airline owner's wife and son.

Roughly 20 people survived, though judging from the photos there wasn't much use for vests or rafts, as the Boeing broke into dozens of large -- and thousands of smaller -- pieces just off the beach. Among the survivors were the airline owner himself and, as news reports, such as they were, continually put it, "the pilot." (We assume this means the captain; a 727 requires a cockpit crew of three, but which crewman survived isn't clear.) Witnesses say the jet was overloaded, though, as we've talked about, such claims are best discounted until investigations have run their course.

Here we go, maybe, into the controversy of whether the Egyptian plane's Eurocentric manifest -- the passengers were French tourists -- made it more newsworthy than a charter of Lebanese expats headed to the Middle East from a country most Americans have never heard of.

Either way, it's not the first time a serious accident was abruptly consigned to the annals of history.

The 727 in Benin was operated by a Guinean company called UTA -- Union des Transports Africains. While the acronym is eerily coincidental, this is not the same UTA involved in perhaps the most notorious Lost Accident of them all, the bombing of UTA 772 over the Sahara in 1989.

That UTA -- Union de Transport Aèriens, eventually absorbed into Air France -- was a storied airline specializing in routes to former French colonies and territories. Its network -- across West Africa and deep into the South Pacific -- was among the world's most exotic and far-flung. In September of '89, only nine months after the far more famous Lockerbie catastrophe, flight 772 was blown up by terrorists on a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris.

A hundred and seventy people from 17 countries (seven Americans) were killed when a bomb went off, Lockerbie style, in the forward luggage hold of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet's most remote areas. A news photograph of the DC-10's crushed forward fuselage -- the blue and white paint so incongruously stark against the dun-colored emptiness, is one of the more evocatively gruesome images you'll see. Viewing this picture, it's impossible not to recall the iconic photo of the Pan Am 747's cockpit lying in the grass near Lockerbie. Blue and white, again.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, that's probably because the 772 disaster has been back in the news of late. In another Lockerbie parallel, it was widely assumed that the Libyan government had orchestrated the bombing, and eventually a French court convicted six in absentia, including the brother in law of that wily and wackiest of Bedouins, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

Gadhafi has since agreed to blood money settlements for Libya's hand in both bombings. The UTA agreement doles out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims. More than 2.7 billion, meanwhile, has been promised to the Lockerbie next of kin.

In January, a U.S. government delegation touched down in Tripoli for the first time in three decades, eager to mend relations with the suddenly apologist -- or maybe "scared" is the operative word -- Gadhafi. So it goes in global politics, of course, but not everybody is apt to forgive the wayward Colonel.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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