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Cold Water Survivability and Aviation Crashes: Trauma and Immersion

This is the final part of a three-part post on cold water survivability and aviation crashes. Please note that this post discusses the emergency situations and readers who have experienced traumatic accidents may prefer not read further.

In in part two of the post, we discussed the mechanics, or physics, of the crash itself: We explored how 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 hit the water all played a large role in survivability. Likewise, we looked at how the location of each individual victim within the aircraft’s fuselage could affect survivability for that individual. Finally, we discussed how the “sea state” of the water (that is, how big the waves are) impacted initial survivability from a mechanical standpoint.

Here, we will discuss the environment: After the initial crash, survivability is impacted by the temperature of the water, the sea state and current, the distance and direction to shore, the prevailing meteorological conditions, and the possibility of rescue. These factors are balanced against each crash victims’ individual condition, including their body mass, swimming ability, and the nature and severity of the injuries they sustained in the crash. This also includes what lifesaving equipment, if any, is on-board, accessible, and usable by the victims after the crash.

Cold Water Immersion:

When an airplane or helicopter crashes in the water, the victims are subject to the effects of sudden cold-water immersion. The United States Coast Guard has summarized the three stages of cold water immersion by time in the water, after called the 1-10-1 principle.

1: Cold Shock (one to five minutes)

While the initial period of cold shock only lasts a short time, those first one to five minutes are often the most critical. Initial contact with cold water results in the gasp reflex and hyperventilation. The gasp reflex can result in a victim aspirating (or inhaling) up to a quart of water if they are underwater. Hyperventilation is rapid, uncontrolled, ineffective breathing. Even if already outside the airplane or helicopter, a victim can drown in this first minute due to panic. The effect is even worse if the victim is still inside the aircraft. The aircraft fuselage is often dark or pitch-black sinking, rotating, and filling with water. Objects inside the fuselage may have become dislodged. The combination of cold shock, and the need for immediate egress have proven fatal for victims on many occasions.

2: Cold Incapacitation (after approximately five to fifteen minutes, if able to escape the fuselage and survive cold shock)

The next five to fifteen minutes are termed cold incapacitation. This period of time is where “swim failure” occurs. Even “strong swimmers” can lose their ability to swim in cold water in about ten minutes when they are initially exposed to cold shock. The loss of muscle dexterity can reduce survival time dramatically. Often, even a strong swimmer can only stay afloat for a short time, and swim only a short distance. 3. Hypothermia (after approximately one hour)

The reality is that unless a victim has a lifejacket on, swim failure and drowning will likely precede hypothermia. If an accident victim has a life jacket on, then body composition, water temperature, and injuries from the crash all play a part in survival time. In the northern or southern winter seas, hypothermia will set in nearly immediately. At less extreme latitudes, a victim may last an hour before hypothermia results in death.

The Use of Lifesaving Equipment:

The use of lifesaving equipment also plays a role in many airplane and helicopter accidents in water. Passengers on smaller aircraft are almost never encouraged to wear lifejackets while onboard. At the same time, research has shown that victims often cannot access flotation devices after a crash.

In addition, it can be impossible to find victims in the ocean in cases where the victim has drifted from the wreckage, or where the wreckage sinks. Once an airplane or helicopter sinks far enough into the water, the signal from its ELT, or Emergency Locating Transmitter cannot be located. If the aircraft did not have GPS tracking, then searchers may not even know where to begin looking. Very few operators give passengers PLBs or Personal Locating Beacons. A PLB can assist a searcher looking for an individual who is separated from the crashed or deeply submerged airplane or helicopter.

Successfully litigating cases where the airplane or helicopter crashes into the water also raises a number of unique legal issues that go beyond the scope of this post. For example, the required equipment on board an aircraft may be covered by a legal doctrine called “preemption”. Any attorney handling an aviation case should be well versed in the doctrine of federal preemption. In addition, an aviation accident on the water raises the potential application of maritime law, including the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). I am always available for consultation on these, or any other aviation accident issues. Feel free to contact me directly at (206) 892-3102 or jta@krutchlindell.com.

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

new case inquiries: (206) 892-3121

general: (206) 682-1505

3316 Fuhrman Ave. E, Suite 250 
Seattle, WA 98102, USA

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