When a crash occurs in the water, especially cold water, a whole new set of variables regarding survivability come into play. This is especially the case when an aircraft is “ditched” into the water. “Ditching”, as it relates to aircraft, is the act of making a forced landing on water in an emergency. There are two main elements which determine the survivability of cold-water aircraft crashes.
The first element is the mechanics, or physics, of the crash itself: The type of aircraft involved, whether the aircraft was under control at the time of impact, and the speed, angle, and positioning of the aircraft as it hits the water all play a large role in survivability. Likewise, the location of each individual victim within the aircraft’s fuselage can affect survivability for that individual. Finally, the “sea state” of the water (that is, how big the waves are) impacts initial survivability from a mechanical standpoint. Another way to frame this element is to call it “initial impact survivability.” Few aircraft are “crashworthy” in the way that consumers expect a car to be “crashworthy.” Aircraft often buckle on impact with the water, impeding ingress and egress. Passengers are sometimes trapped in a sinking aircraft with doors that have jammed shut from the impact with the water.
The second element is the environment: Here, survivability is impacted by the temperature of the water, the distance and direction to shore, the prevailing meteorological conditions, and the possibility of rescue. These are balanced against each crash victim’s individual condition, including his or her height and weight, swimming ability, and the nature and severity of injuries received by each victim in the crash. This also includes what lifesaving equipment, if any, is on-board, accessible, and usable by the victims after the crash. Another way to frame this element is to call it “post-impact survivability.” “Post-impact survivability can implicate the design and manufacture of lifesaving equipment. For example, several recent aircraft accidents have resulted in a lost aircraft or lost passengers. Poorly designed or manufactured tracking and locating equipment may give rise to product defect suits.
Krutch Lindell attorney and FAA-certificated pilot Jimmy Anderson has written on these factors in greater detail here.