Monday, November 23, 2009

Ocean Ditching

I believe after 35 years the statute of limitations may have run out on one of the stupidest things that I have ever done. One of the stupidest because there are a few others that I cannot recall right now, but that they occurred is etched in my mind. Eventually, something will trigger their recollection, I know.

The ditching at night, of all things, of a medical mission flight off Norfolk Island in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,200 nautical miles North West of Australia, after the pilot failed to make a successful instrument landing after three attempts to land in poor weather, brought this particular incident to mind. It took a while to convince myself that I should tell the story.

I flew my Twin Comanche with friends down from the Johannesburg region to Plettenberg Bay (FAPG-PBZ) in the southern Cape in South Africa. The friends with whom we would be staying for the weekend indicated that they’d like to see Plett, as the coastal town is affectionately known, from the air. I didn’t hesitate to take him and his wife up because, after all, they were our hosts for the weekend – it was the least I could do.

We took off, flew a typical sightseeing routine and then flew about 100 miles inland over the mountains to the north. Notorious for sudden changes in the weather, I found myself on top of a layer of cloud that covered the entire area when we returned from our inland excursion. The top of the layer must have been at about 3,000 feet with rain clouds further out over the ocean.

Instead of electing to fly back inland and overnight somewhere else, I elected to descend through the cloud layer by flying out over the ocean tracking a nearby ADF beacon outbound. (I said it was stupid.)

After passing the ADF beacon abeam, to make sure that we were over the ocean before entering the cloud layer, I maintained about 150 knots and a rate of descent of 500 feet per minute. I knew my altimeter was reasonably accurate since I set the QNH at the airport before takeoff according to the airport’s elevation, but the change in weather probably changed that a bit, so at 500 feet above the water I gradually slowed my descent rate. By this time it started to rain heavily reducing the visibility to less than half the wingspan of the Comanche. There, with the inside of the cabin and the drone of the engines the only visible clues that we were somewhere, sat the three of us and I am the only one knowing what’s happening. I must say, my passengers were awfully quiet. That was fine by me because it was no time to recite poetry.

As the altimeter wound down to about 100 feet above zero, I brought the rate of descent to about 25 feet per minute, which would get us to the water in four minutes. Knowing my vertical speed indicator to be very accurate, I could reduce the rate of descent to less than the width of the zero-line on the instrument, guessing the actual rate to be about 10 feet per minute. Then, peering outside through the side window between the left engine and the fuselage past the front of the wing, I waited. We waited. Soon, the ocean would show itself.

As the altimeter almost touched the zero line the ocean appeared through the grayness of the rain and I immediately climbed back up to 100 feet waiting to fly out of the rain. I wasn’t prepared to turn around towards land until I could see where I was going so we continued to plough through the rain for about 5 more minutes when suddenly the skies opened up and we popped out of the shaft of rain in which we descended. The overcast was about 1,500 feet above sea level giving us ample room to fly back and land at Plett, which is at 465 feet.

By the time I turned around and flew around the rain, there was no land in sight. The first thing my friend said was, ‘where are we?’ I pointed to the ADF needle pointing dead ahead and it wasn’t long before we were safely on the ground. To them, I performed a miracle. You don’t want to know what I, quietly, called myself.

Seeing the ocean appear almost within touching distance, skirting it at more than 250 feet per second, was brought to mind when I heard that the pilot of the medical mission ditched the Westwind Jet in the ocean under controlled flight. I couldn’t help but wonder if he, too, saw the ocean appear in the cone of his landing lights, and, unlike in my situation, knew that the safety of the cabin would very soon be destroyed, by choice.

I am glad I didn’t have to make that decision.

Good thing they all survived.

We did, too.


  1. Nico, Thanks for sharing this story, we all have a story to tell some time I wounder how we ever made it so fare.
    You should mail your story to AOPA for never again


  2. Thank you for the idea, David. I'll pursue it and let you know if something comes of it.


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Seeking the truth until I find it.