Cold Water Survivability and Aviation Crashes: Introduction

October 22, 2019

The location of an airplane or helicopter crash has a large effect on post-impact survivability. For example, a crash at a remote mountain range has a lower survivability than a similar crash at a large airport with advanced ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting).


When a crash occurs in the water, especially cold water, a whole new set of variables regarding survivability come in to 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. We have all seen the seat-back cards in airplanes explaining how to use the flotation devices and rafts on board in case of a landing in the ocean.


But what real-world factors control survivability in cold water aviation crashes?


A word of caution: discussing aircraft crashes can be stressful – crashes are, by their very nature, traumatic. Any accidents on water, whether in a boat or otherwise, are also traumatic. The combination of the two can bring up some frightening thoughts and images. 


With that said, 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.”


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 victims’ individual condition, including their height and weight, swimming ability, and the nature and severity of injuries received by each victim received injuries 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.”  


We will address these elements in two future posts. In the next post, we will explore the mechanics of the crash itself and initial impact survivability.  In a future post, we will discuss post-impact survivability. 


James Anderson is an Attorney with Krutch Lindell Bingham Jones, representing victims of aviation accidents and other aviation related incidents.



 Above: Author Jimmy Anderson behind the controls of a Piper Super Cub



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