Hello Capt Lim,
I am a frequent flyer (isn't everyone who lives in Singapore?) and in every flight, we listen to the safety lectures and demonstrations of life vests? Has there ever been a case where an aircraft ditched at sea and a significant number of people were saved because they were wearing life vests? Has a modern airliner ever made a controlled ditch at sea and had anyone being rescued? Thanks for a useful site.
Being a frequent flyer – the life vest safety demonstrations have certainly stir up your thoughts as to the purpose of this ritual in all the flights that you have flown. Just to clarify on your queries, such routines are a legal requirement. Having said that, I would like to further elaborate a little more on the subject of ditching.
Ditching events on commercial Airliners are relatively rare. According to FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) statistics from 1957 to 1979, there were only 11 “water contacts” around the world and only one can be considered as ditching. Since then, the figures have not changed significantly.
However, most ditching occurred in general aviation flying, that is, they were confined to smaller airplanes. Statistics from 1983 to 1999 shows that there were 143 ditching and 20 of them were unsuccessful. Most of these fatalities occurred after ditching in cold water. The overall success rate for survival in this smaller category of airplanes is around 88 per cent.
Since you are more concerned with Commercial Airlines, the chances of modern jets having to ditch because of mechanical failure or insufficient fuel is so low that I am unable to precisely give you a typical example of a controlled ditching where most passengers were saved because they were wearing life vests. The closest incident that comes to mind is the one by a Boeing 767 that I mentioned in my FAQ on a similar topic earlier.
In this incident, an Ethiopian Airline Boeing 767 had to ditch off the coast of the Comoros Island in Eastern Africa when it was hijacked and it consequently ran out of fuel. The ditching sequence was probably not well executed, possibly because of interference by the hijackers. It cart wheeled and broke into a few sections. Despite this blotched up ditching, 48 out of the 175 passengers survived. The life vests they were wearing certainly saved their lives.
For your information, FAA regulations states, “all airplanes must be designed to float long enough so that all its passengers can be safely evacuated…” Therefore, any modern commercial jet planes can safely survive a ditching or water landing without a total loss of lives if the ditching is properly performed.
At a speed when an airplane contacts water (at around 150 to 200 kilometers per hour), liquid water has the same consistency as concrete. Hence, water surface at these speeds provide a fairly firm support during ditching. Furthermore, engines below the wings are designed to shear off cleanly without damaging the wings. This also serves as a braking force, decelerating the forward motion of the airplane.
So, to improve your chances of survival in a ditching that is so rare, your attention to safety life vest demonstrations will go further to save your life if you think it warrants your attention the next time you fly again! Have a safe flight!