Hope Isn't a Strategy

Dave Unwin reports from the GASCo sea survival course.


      The Andark Dunker, ready for our dip ...

With a thump and a shudder the cabin stops revolving and the water floods in. I’m hanging upside-down in my four-point harness, and the temptation to unstrap quickly is profound, but that wasn’t the brief. Having kept my eyes open as the cabin submerged I know where the nearest window is and push it open. My other hand has not left the buckle for the harness, and I quickly undo it, shrug out of my straps and swim through the open window. As I pop to the surface I’ll freely admit to a slight sense of relief. Why only slight? Well, of course I hadn’t really just ditched, I was on a GASCo-sponsored training course at the well-known Andark Diving and Watersports Centre in Southampton and had just ‘enjoyed’ a ride in their dunker. The course really was excellent, and included lectures by GASCo Chief Executive Mike O’Donoghue about preparing for flight over water, and looking at risk assessment, distress procedures and ditching techniques, and GASCo Chairman Michael Bagshaw on the physiological aspects of survival. If you are wondering why these two gentlemen gave lectures, it’s because Colonel O’Donoghue, late of the Army Air Corps, has thousands of hours in helicopters – often over water, while Professor Bagshaw, who is also a very experienced ex-RAF fast jet pilot, is an expert on aviation medicine. We all know that when you attend a lecture your tutor refers to various text books; – well, Professor Bagshaw wrote some of those text books. GASCo had clearly lined up the A-Team for the course, and as you may imagine, the lectures were both informative and entertaining. Unfortunately, even a brief discussion of their contents is beyond the scope of this article, so if you want to learn how to ascertain the general sea-state and swell direction before take-off or the importance of ditching along the swell, or about hydrostatic pressure on the lower body, diastolic filling, tissue cooling or even the importance of taking sea-sickness tablets as soon as you’re in the life raft, come on the next course! Also in attendance was SEMS Aerosafe’s Glen Friswell, who supervised the practical drills in the ‘Andark Lake’, and Andark boss Andy Goddard. Andy has a foot (or should that be a flipper) in both camps, for as well as being a hugely experienced diving instructor and sea survival expert, he also flies a Westland Scout. One point Andy emphasised is that the mind-set of GA pilots needs to change regarding immersion suits. Even in the summer the water round the UK is cold, often around 10-15°C – and that’s not very warm (for comparison, most public swimming pools are around 26-28°C). It doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in if you’re not in a life raft. Remember when your car had a seatbelt, but no one wore them? Now we all do. Sure, changing the law helped focus our minds, but if the law was repealed would you no longer ‘clunk click every trip’ (remember that?) Of course not! Twenty years ago, few yachtsman wore lifejackets, now they all do. It’s a mind-set. Statistics show that ditching an aircraft is an eminently survivable event. Indeed, data collated by the UK CAA and American FAA suggests that almost 90% of ditchings globally result in few injuries to both pilots and passengers, yet almost 50% subsequently die of either drowning or hypothermia. This is a sobering statistic, and indicates a shocking level of unpreparedness. Essentially, almost half of the people who survived the actual ditching still died, because they either didn’t have the right equipment or didn’t know how to use it. Incidentally (and probably because the UK is quite densely populated and you’re never that far from help) post ditching survival rates around the UK are a lot better than 50%, with some sources suggesting they’re nearer 90%.


   Our participants exit the dunker

All the attendees were split into two groups, with one starting off in the dunker and the other the lake. I was in the dunker first, and while it’s a very benign environment with several well-trained professionals in attendance, including in the pool and inside the dunker, I’ll freely admit to trepidation as the machine rolled over in the water the first time, and I think most of the other trainees shared my apprehension. Yet by our fourth run I felt so much more confident. Having done it once, I knew I could do it again – and that’s invaluable. Indeed, the advantages of training in the dunker should be obvious. Incidentally, Andark deliberately keep the dunker pool pleasantly warm so – as Andy put it – “you concentrate on the learning experience and not shivering and just thinking how cold you are!”

After an agreeable lunch the learning (and also the laughing, for despite the deadly serious nature of sea survival the course is fun) continued. My group put on lifejackets, inflated them and jumped fully clothed into the Andark Lake. Again, this was a very worthwhile exercise. The actual inflation of the lifejacket is possibly more violent than I’d anticipated, and once in the water practical applications of the theory we’d learnt made their inherent wisdom apparent. Indeed, anyone who hadn’t understood why Colonel Mike had put such emphasis on the importance of a sprayhood, or why Professor Mike had extolled the virtues of huddling together and also of the HELP (Heat Escaping Lessening Posture) position soon learnt why. Being sprayed with a hose by Colonel Mike soon made us realise the importance of being able to breathe and the value of a sprayhood, and it was a real eye-opener when – having huddled together for several minutes, the group broke apart and we flung our arms and legs into star-shapes. The drop in temperature was irrefutable! Inflating and then getting into the selection of life rafts was also very interesting. Conditions couldn’t have been more benign, yet some of the life rafts required significant effort to board, until the technique was mastered.


  Out on the lake, we practise a group heat conserving huddle.

So, what did we learn? Firstly, that prevention is better than cure. Ditching is an eminently survivable emergency, but it’s preferable to avoid going into the water in the first place! You may well have seen the YouTube video where a Bonanza ditches in the Pacific, and the pilot makes several very avoidable mistakes, starting with electing to make an overwater flight almost immediately after major maintenance. Always do a post-maintenance shakedown flight over land, and if your aircraft has multiple tanks and/or tip tanks, ensure they all feed. Next, if you have coasted out and the engine starts to run rough turn towards the nearest land and put out a Pan call before troubleshooting. Also, bear in mind that the nearest land (by distance) might not be the nearest in time if you’re bucking a significant headwind. Always think about the ‘big picture’- and that includes not only the wind but the sea. Think about the water, as well as the air.


  Mike O'Donoghue gives everyone a spray down


  Glen Friswell of SEMS advising on  life raft etiquette

Well, the motor just stopped and the inherent wisdom behind turning towards land first and getting that Pan out early should both be apparent. Upgrade that Pan to a Mayday and make your position and intentions known, then select 7700 on your transponder and see if there are any ships nearby, before trying a re-start. For a variety of reasons ferries are best, but if all you can see is a large tanker or container ship remember to ditch well in front as large ships need a lot of sea-room to stop. Of course, you considered the sea-state and surface wind before you took off and also the direction of swell, so armed with this information you can prepare to ditch. Along the swell is best in light to medium winds, into wind and on the downslope of the swell if the wind is much above 20kts. This is where the speed and strength of both wind and swell is critical. Alight at the minimum speed but do not stall. Wait until the aircraft has stopped moving, open the nearest suitable door, window or hatch before undoing your seatbelt and do not close your eyes. Egress completely before inflating your lifejacket, and aim to get in the life raft as soon as possible. Remember your ABCs (Always Be Cool) and do NOT panic. Help is coming, and the Will to Survive is paramount. Take your seasickness pills and preserve your body heat, for if you can stay alive, you will be rescued. All of these things may seem self-evident, but far too many pilots probably don’t think about them enough.

By now you may be thinking “but Dave, you’re the Editor of GASCo Flight Safety Magazine – you’re bound to say it was great.” Fair point, so here’s a selection of testimonials from a few of the other guys and gals on the course.

John Evans flies a DR400 based at Headcorn and crosses the Channel frequently, including long legs over water to the Channel Islands. He said, ‘I’m confident to fly my single-engine aircraft over water and accept that there is a small but ever present risk that I might have to ditch. Having completed the GASCo Ditching Course I feel much better prepared for that scary possibility. Although the Dunker and other practical drills were challenging they were also great fun and we were in safe hands. Classroom sessions provided seriously attention-getting information and advice from experienced, well-informed folk. If you fly over water, especially with passengers, this course is a must do.’






Rob Churchward had a similar opinion to John’s, observing ‘We all hope we never have to deal with a real emergency, however, learning how to deal with an emergency in a controlled environment, I believe is a lifesaver. I would recommend this course to all GA pilots even if you don’t intend to fly over water. There are so many safety tips covered, some so simple you wonder why you had not thought of them before.

Cessna 185 driver Jim Chapman was equally candid. He said, “I was really surprised at my ignorance – I had made lots of assumptions that were rubbish – the course straightened me out and was a lot of fun”.

Nick Griffin is a Guernsey-based pilot and flies a Rockwell Commander. For him, flying over water literally ‘comes with the territory’ and he said that “while I certainly hope I never have to do it for real, the practical training and expert talks were invaluable in helping to appreciate what to expect and the various ways to maximise chances of survival for myself and any passengers. The dunker was certainly an experience I’m sure none of us will forget (!) but I also found that deploying and clambering into a life raft for real was really worthwhile training that I’d recommend to anyone who flies over water”.

Deborah Day and Mike Scholes are preparing to make a transatlantic balloon flight, and Deborah observed that it was “a valuable, informative and fun day learning techniques in and out the dunker and giving us insight on elements that we had not even considered.” Incidentally, Mike is partially sighted, and while we all waited nervously for our first ride in the dunker I was profoundly impressed by his cool, calm courage.

NATS controller Andy Amor said “I found the course to be excellent. I learnt much, some of which I will probably forget, but there will be one or two lessons that will stick….and those could turn out to be lifesavers.”

Greg Harrington also flies a C185. He told me that “although I have spent years around boats, kayaking and noticing every change of engine note whilst flying over water in our and previous aircraft but, had never fully prepared for a possible mishap. The Sea Survival course provided a very informative balance of practical and theory imparting far more information than I was expecting. I would thoroughly recommend it for anyone who could end up in the water from a flying incident.” Piper PA28 pilot Grant Bedford felt “it was an intense yet enjoyable course that surpassed my expectations. It was also great to meet so many inspirational people too” while Malcolm Greenslade, who regularly crosses the channel in his Grumman Tiger said it was “a very well managed and informative course, where I picked up some very useful tips. Have recommended it to colleagues.” Sven Miserey agreed, saying “I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of inflating my jacket and having to experience climbing aboard the rafts in the lake. The medical description and experience in the water have made me ensure the plane is in the best possible working condition before going on a crossing.”

These are just some of the testimonials I received, and while the course isn’t cheap, it is excellent value for money (and of course, how much do you value your life?) I can honestly say that my session in the dunker would genuinely help in a real emergency, because my brain would know “I’ve done this before, I can do it again.” Similarly, I now know the best way to climb into a life raft while wearing a life jacket, jeans and a shirt (and it’s amazing how heavy saturated clothes are). And that is the real worth of training such as this. Like most of us, prior to going on the course I’d never been strapped in a box full of water and upside-down. Now I have, and it’s no longer ‘an unknown’. I know what to do, and – just as importantly – what not to do. Theory is fine, but sometimes you’ve got to get your hands dirty (or in this case, wet!)

I’d like to finish on the same note that Colonel Mike finished his lecture on. Known as the Stockdale Paradox (after James Stockdale, a US Navy A-4 pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent seven years as a PoW) it is a philosophy of duality, and a very important lesson that is particularly applicable in any survival situation. The Stockdale Paradox is quite simple; – you must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.