My cold water splash: an airline pilot learns a painful lesson

My first (and I hope last) aircraft incident in 45 years of piloting took place a few years ago on the first really nice spring day, with clear skies and glistening water beckoning for the first seaplane flight of the season.

I was a very new seaplane pilot at the time, though my IACRA paperwork showed 29,000 hours total time when I applied for the rating.

Airbus A350
Being proficient at flying an Airbus doesn’t necessarily translate to flying a Husky.

Having just completed upgrade training to the shiny new A350 at my airline, and arriving home the evening prior, I was itching to get back to little airplane flying and forget about simulators, hotels, and type rating check rides. While my heart was in the right place, my mind was not—I was exhausted from the training regimen, and had not slept well for the previous few nights (not uncommon as training pressures come to a head in advance of a check ride).

I gave our Husky amphib a careful preflight and had mentally rehearsed water operations and procedures before arriving at the hangar. Taxiing out for some solo water practice, I found myself number two for takeoff behind a Super Cub, also on amphibs, and queried the pilot on his destination. The Super Cub was headed for a lake seven miles southwest of our home field, so to avoid getting tangled up on the same landing surface, I chose another just four miles northwest of the field.

I was very familiar with the lake, and found myself in the pattern there just a few minutes after takeoff. On downwind I reduced power, reached up and lowered the gear, and visually confirmed it was moving to the extended position. On base I again confirmed the gear position, both visually and via the position indicator lights. I never recited the amphip pilot mantra, “this is a water landing, the gear is up,” but instead reverted to my 40 years of flying retractable gear land aircraft and confirmed the gear was down.

Our Husky had a gear warning safety system actuated by an airspeed switch that included a synthetic voice annunciating the gear position and appropriate landing surface (“The gear is up for a water landing”). Each time the airspeed passed through 70 mph, the voice would return; typically this happened a few times on each approach and landing. While my airline career exposed me to a long history of aural warnings, some truly critical to flight safety, I reacted the way many pilots do to repeated mechanical voices—I blew it off.

The approach and landing were textbook and I touched down in a nice attitude at minimum speed (aided by the vortex generator kit installed on the airplane). I was briefly pleased with myself, and then realized something was causing a powerful (though smooth) nose-down pitching moment. I immediately snatched the stick back while thinking I might have inadvertently landed with a tailwind (doing so in a seaplane leads to a nose down pitching moment due to the much higher water drag at touchdown).

Full aft stick did nothing to mitigate the nose-down pitching and I came to an abrupt stop with the airplane pointed straight down, a cockpit full of very cold water, and a very slow continuation of the pitch change as the airplane gently rolled onto its back.

The event felt like an unwanted, slow-motion hug: you can’t stop it, don’t like it, and are observing yourself from a slight remove. I was startled enough that I did not realize until later that the windshield had been punched out by the contact with the water and had resulted in that cockpit full of 50-degree water.

Exiting the airplane was easy, and instinctive, which might not have been the case in murky water, or had my stop been more violent. Pilots of faster, heavier amphibians that have experienced this very common landing accident have reported a much more abrupt deceleration, and more difficulty getting oriented for the upside-down water exit.

As I exited, the airplane was just assuming what floatplane pilots euphemistically call the “position of maximum stability.” As it slowly rotated onto its back I noticed the extended gear and my initial thought was that it had somehow fallen out—I still could not imagine that I had landed with the gear extended (an amazing cognitive disconnect from my actions in the pattern).

I made one ill-advised trip back into the submerged cockpit in a futile search for keys and cell phone (both of which likely fell out the hole where the windshield had been). I sat atop the port float in bright sunshine and chilly air. Twenty minutes later, two fellows in an aluminum row boat came alongside and gave me a lift to a public boat launch that was just beneath me on short final. By now I was hypothermic and the recently arrived EMS folks put me in their ambulance, stripped me down, and covered me with warm blankets.

The retrieval effort consumed the rest of the day. Good friends arrived to supervise and we soon had a very large crane on site, a boat to tow the airplane to shore, and divers to hook the crane harness to the prop. They were able to lift the airplane onto the boat ramp parking lot. We removed the wings, loaded all onto a trailer, and moved it back to the airport.

In the end, the insurer wrote the airplane off as a total loss—there was very little structural damage (and that was caused by the crane extraction), but the water damage to engine, electronics, and the risk of corrosion in the tubular steel airframe led them to write it off. I bought and subsequently re-sold the airplane as salvage, and a resourceful guy has it flying again, though this time on wheels. We replaced the Husky with another on floats and my float flying avocation has continued, this time with more landing gear discipline and a very smart laser gear warning system that can determine whether the surface you are approaching for landing is land or water.

Husky coming out of water
It’s a humbling sight for an experienced pilot.

I own the seaplane with partners, and we’ve collectively changed our operating rules to forbid water operations when the water temperature is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a good part of the year where we live, but sensible given that we’re doing this for fun, not providing a transportation service. There are other hazards to float flying that could result in a dunking and the consequences of cold water immersion in a remote area are serious.

The most consequential change I’ve made though is to my own self-evaluation before I fly (in any airplane). As a novice amphib pilot I was perhaps more prone to an error like the one I made, but I believe the root cause was my lousy mental state and what now appears to me to have been arrogance about my capabilities as pilot. Nearly 30,000 hours of safe flying over many years—and lots of responsibility as an airline captain, check airman, and instructor pilot dealing with some tough issues—lead me to a place where I made a poor judgement call on my own fitness to fly that day.

Self-evaluation of fitness to fly may perhaps be even tougher for professional pilots with deep experience—anyone in this group has certainly flown successfully when their own physical or mental state was less than optimal, and “knows they can do it.”

The incident (fortunately, my event was ruled as such by the NTSB) was perhaps a blessing in disguise, and I will forever be a bit more modest about my capabilities as a pilot. I am a member of the AOPA legal services plan, and the attorney with whom they connected me provided valuable advice on how to deal with the FAA in the aftermath. The advice was simple: be honest, but not voluble. My interactions with the FAA inspectors (who often represent the NTSB in small events) was straightforward and as satisfying as it could be given the circumstances.

As part of my debrief I spent a couple of hours with a group of 20 or so CFIs at a local college’s flight training program. I tried to impress upon this group of young pilots how easy it is to make a critical error when we don’t adequately conduct a self-assessment before flight, and then make decisions in line with the results of that assessment. This is standard stuff for new aviators these days, but sharing a personal story is always more impactful than behavioral advice that can seem disconnected from daily flying operations.

Emotionally, my airline captain ego had a bit of trouble swallowing this experience. The cold water splash has left me a better pilot though, and perhaps giving up an unblemished record for a valuable, but unpleasant learning experience was a good trade.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

10 Comments

  • Thanks for an excellent story explaining the insidious nature of an error. Flying technique is so tailored to each specific aircraft, it is such a divided attention affair and so prone to experiential bias, errors can and do happen even in the face of explicit warnings. You have great courage and generosity in sharing that story.

  • I totally agree with Ethan… thank you for sharing your story and for the valuable lesson for ALL of us. No matter how many certificates and ratings I’ve earned or hours I have in my logbook, nature does not relax its standards and is totally unimpressed and unbiased regarding my ability to pilot an aircraft.

    Great, great, reminder!

  • I’ve heard of float pilots carrying a waterproof grab bag for those times the plane flips. Dry clothes and fire making equipment come to mind (paddlers regularly do this). Of course your PLB is secured to your person.

    Once out of water, take your wet clothes off! Nothing brings on hypothermia like wet clothing in the breeze. You’re better off in bare skin which dries much faster than wet clothing.

  • Thank you for your honesty. I have been flying over 50 years and added my seaplane rating only a couple of years ago. It was a joyous and humbling experience. Your description of the factors that led to this incident really hit home. You may have saved someone’s life – including mine. A must read for anyone who is contemplating the pure joy of operating off water.

  • Thank you for your honesty and integrity for reporting this incident. A perfect example of “there but for the grace…”

  • Sadly the thing this brought to mind was that after this he just got together with buddies and kept on flying amphibious aircraft. He learned his lesson and the insurance paid off. But what about the rest of us low budget pilots who will never be able to experience the joy of water flying because we can’t affords Insurance, because of these accidents by well to do retired airline pilots. I glad you’re safe and hopefully will not repeat.

    • Unfortunately Larry there will always be someone with the bigger house, faster car and more glamorous career.

      Try this – Next time you are flying, look at the people along the airport fence or below you as you fly over. They all wish they were you.

      • An excellent article and an excellent reply Kevin. I’m a corporate jet pilot that can’t quite afford GA but would like to. Awhile back I’d gotten back into model planes and someone commented that “wow, I wish I could afford that kinda plane” (probably $500 bucks or so).
        The power of envy, covetousness, is what drives communism. They’d rather see everyone in the ditch than see someone else be successful.

  • Kevin thank you. It is a reminder to all of us Richard Collins teaching and book The Next Hour that is the only one that really counts.
    Having said that inside you should feel like a million dollars. No one injured and you swimmed away from a landing. Soon it will be a memory.

  • This is a bit different about transferring from one thing to another, but the thing about ‘keep your head in the game’ still applies. In the early 1970’s I had a courier contract (Monday thru Friday) to deliver about 20 parcels in Red Bluff and Redding in the morning, pick them up in the evening and fly them to Chico so some could get to a processing center and back out for another contract flight. Once, landing at Chico, I was about to make an early turn-off so a plane waiting patiently at that taxiway could take off. And my hand tried to find the turn signal……………

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