Would you be able to get out?

By Kathy Fox,
Member, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was originally published in the October 2013 online edition of Wings magazine

The floatplane, shown here after being removed from the water, was heavily damaged in the crash

(Click image to enlarge.)

On the 25th of May 2012, a commercially operated de Havilland Beaver floatplane crashed into Lillabelle Lake in northern Ontario.Footnote 1 There were three people on board. And although the initial impact was survivable, only one person made it out of the wreckage. The other two, including the pilot, were trapped upside down in the submerged floatplane and drowned.

Commercial seaplanes—floatplanes—operate all over Canada because they can go places other aircraft cannot. Whether they are used as air taxis to ferry wilderness travellers in and out of remote lakes, or to get commuters to work every morning, they are a valuable part of Canada’s transportation network. How valuable? In just one region, the Vancouver Harbour, there are about 33 000 floatplane movements a year, carrying about 300 000 passengers.

But when trouble strikes, the very thing that makes floatplanes unique also makes them vulnerable. Too many times over the past decades, the TSB has investigated accidents involving floatplanes only to find the same risks appearing time and again, namely:

  • If you don’t get out, you will drown.
  • Even if you do get out, without personal flotation, you might still drown.

The numbers are shocking: According to a 1994 safety study conducted by the TSB, roughly 70 percent of the fatalities involving aircraft that crash and are submerged in water are from drowning. Not from the crash, not from the impact—but because people are unable to get out. Or if they do, because they’re too exhausted or injured to stay afloat.

That’s why, in 2011, the TSB recommended that TC require all new and existing commercial seaplanes be fitted with regular and emergency exits that allow rapid egress following a survivable collision with water, and that personal flotation devices be worn by all occupants. Then, at the conclusion of our recent Lillabelle Lake investigation, we went even further and recommended that all commercial floatplane crews be required to take underwater egress training. Here’s why.

In an emergency, you only have seconds to orient yourself and get out of that aircraft. Underwater egress training can make a real difference, and pilots who have this training stand a better chance of getting out of a submerged plane. In fact, following the TSB’s investigation into a 2009 Beaver accident in Lyall Harbour, British Columbia,Footnote 2 in which the pilot and one passenger survived, while six other passengers drowned, the TSB’s final report stated: “It is likely that the pilot’s recent egress training contributed to him being able to open the door and escape from the aircraft.”

This kind of training doesn’t just benefit one person, either. Uninjured pilots who escape a submerged aircraft are also more likely to be able to help their passengers get out.

As a member of the Transportation Safety Board since 2007, I have reviewed many accident investigation reports over the years. I have also travelled a number of times on commercial floatplanes, and, as a pilot, I regularly take off and land over water at my home airport. In 2002, I decided to confront my own fears about being trapped in a submerged aircraft, and took underwater egress training.

The one-day course cost a few hundred dollars—roughly the equivalent of 2-3 hours of rental flying at my local flying club. First, there was a classroom session covering the basics of flotation devices and other water survival equipment, as well as practical egress techniques. We heard stories and saw videos about floatplane accidents and those who made it out. Then we spent several hours in a pool, learning first how to don and inflate a PFD while in the water and enter a life raft from the water. We then continued with simple “dunks” to practice retrieving the life vest, grasping the exit prior to releasing the seatbelt, and then swimming to the surface. As skills and confidence improved, we graduated to more complex aircraft simulators—the better to imitate larger aircraft with multiple exits, one or more of which might be unusable. All of this took place in a controlled and safe environment—a warm, indoor pool—under the watchful eye of professional divers or lifeguards.

The experience, which I repeated in 2011, left me firmly convinced of the benefits. I believe that learning—and practicing—how to remain calm, retrieve (or preferably wear) a suitable PFD and take the right steps to locate the nearest usable exit prior to releasing the seatbelt, significantly enhances my chances of survival if the unthinkable happens. As a pilot and a member of an organization dedicated to advancing safety, that’s a recommendation I can endorse—both personally and professionally.