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Gone Swimming In The North Atlantic?

This article was previously published in FAA Aviation News by the Federal Aviation Administration and was authored by Stephen S. Rayner (the pilot in the story), who at the time was Accident Prevention Counselor, San Diego Flight Standards District Office

It all began on January 18,1992, as a flight from San Diego, California to Bologo, Italy. A 1988 BE-F33 had been purchased and needed to be ferried to Italy. The avionics were upgraded before leaving on the long overwater journey. The Beechcraft had 350 hours since manufacture, and so was relatively new. I and a flying companion started out from Palomar Airport for Bangor, Maine, where the aircraft was to be outfitted with long range fuel tanks for the Atlantic crossing.

We followed a strong snow storm eastward and finally arrived in Portland, Maine. I dropped off my friend, and then continued on to Bangor. After a 30 minute flight I arrived at Bangor Airport. I had chosen a company in Bangor to provide an experienced overwater pilot to accompany me crossing the Atlantic Ocean enroute to Italy. I hadn't experienced a long overwater flight before and felt it prudent to hire someone to help me with the crossing.

Finally, after two day's of preparation to the plane, and analyzing the weather, the other pilot and I made the decision to start the long journey to Italy.

It was a clear cold Friday morning when we left Bangor enroute to St. Johns, New Foundland. We arrive at St. Johns Friday afternoon and spent the evening planning to leave Saturday morning. Weather delayed our flight on Saturday. At the time we were unsure as to whether we would be able to continue the flight as planned. Later, weather briefings that we received indicated that we could travel northeast to Iceland that evening. Our journey to Italy began at 10 p.m. on Saturday, January 18,1992.

After 2 1/2 hours into our scheduled 7 1/2 hour flight, we were at 11,000 ft. MSL, over an overcast, with a full moon to light the darkness. We were due to make a position report on our high frequency radio to Gander, so I attempted unsuccessfully to contact to make contact with Gander Center on HF, but fate led us to make contact with an Alitalia 747, Flight 922, who relayed the information to Gander for us. I had never used an HF radio before and was relieved to make contact with the Alitalia 747.

I glanced down at the engine gauges and noticed that the oil pressure gauge appeared to be indicating extremely high. I had flown this plane for over 50 hours and felt secure with its performance, but I immediately brought this to the attention of the other pilot. Both of us thought initially that it might be a gauge malfunction when the gauge returned to normal within a matter of minutes. Then the gauge dropped to absolute low pressure. We decided to divert directly to Goose Bay Canada, declaring an Emergency through Alitalia Flight 922.

We were still uncertain if the gauge was faulty or if our engine was going to fail. A grim prospect at best. After about 2 minutes of low oil pressure we experienced a prop overspeed. My heart raced as I heard the valves clatter. I knew then that we were not going to make it to Goose Bay. I couldn't believe that this was happening to ME!

There was not much we could do except fly the airplane down through the clouds. We prepared ourselves for a water landing. The engine was continuously sounding worse. The cabin filled with smoke. Then there was a big bang!!!! That was the end of the engine. The engine had seized turning the Beechcraft into a heavy glider.

All the way down we were struggling to get into our immersion suits. We then strategically placed items that we would need where we could get to them. We updated our position through GPS by transmitting latitude and longitude to Alitalia. We were fortunate to have a radar altimeter. As we penetrated 2000 ft. the Captain of the said in a most sincere voice, "Have a good landing". Those were the last words we were to hear from the outside world, perhaps forever. It was very dark when we broke out of the clouds and opened the door in preparation for the anticipated water landing.

I vividly remember the smell, sound and feel of the frigid salty air as it rushed in. I called out altimeter readings from the radar altimeter, 2000, 1000, 500, 4-3-2-1 and then a moment of silence. We impacted, with a skip and the most solid impact that I have ever felt.

The plane came to rest on its belly. We reached for our equipment and suddenly the life raft inadvertently activated inside the cabin. Hoping to get the raft out of the cabin before it fully deployed, I rushed to get the raft out of the cabin door as fast as I could. The raft was out and it was pitching in the choppy seas. As we tried to exit the airplane, we both found that we were stuck on something inside the aircraft and not able to move. The icy waster was rushing into the cabin. The weight of the water forcing the nose of the aircraft down towards the deep dark ocean floor. Both of us were completely submerged under water, struggling to get free of the sinking aircraft. Finally, we were free and desperately searching for the life raft which was floating in 12-14 foot seas.

We made it to the raft which was pitching with each swell. I clambered into the gyrating raft, helping the hired pilot who was weak and needing assistance. I made a quick surveillance of the situation. The ELT had not survived the ditching and was not working. The raft was caught under the tail of the Beechcraft which was now vertical in the water. The aircraft was rapidly submerging dragging the raft with it. Try as I might I could not free the raft from the tail of the aircraft. Suddenly, miraculously, I was able to kick the raft free. Together, we watched the plane sank into the depths of the unforgiving sea.

Keeping a positive state of mind was very difficult as we grew colder and began to suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. After what seemed to be an eternity, we were located by a Hercules C-130 and then a P3 Orion.

They discovered a nearby fishing trawler that came to our rescue. We were in the water for 7 to 8 hours and lucky to be alive.

My advice to all overwater pilots is to prepare yourself thoroughly, even over large lakes or to nearby islands. Also, consider taking a water survival training course.

Learning survival techniques and having proper equipment may save your life. Once in the water waiting for rescue, you will wish you had prepared yourself better. I know, because we were nd tat is the only thing which saved our lives in the North Atlantic that cold January night in 1992.

Analysis by Douglas Ritter:

The pilot did everything right until he accidentally inflated the raft in the aircraft. Still, he had the presence of mind to shove it out quickly, before that became a potentially fatal disaster. In part he was lucky it was so cold, since a life raft inflates much slower in colder temperatures, which probably provided the small extra time margin he needed to get it out the door.

It is worth mentioning, again, that it is critical to make sure everyone on board knows how to not inflate the life raft. Take the time to brief this and have a plan that minimizes the chance of it occuring.

They were lucky to find the raft once it was free, the reason you need to remember to attach the raft to the aircraft before inflating it, if at all possible. The tether will break before the sinking plane can pull the raft down with it. If not attached to the plane, then attach it to your self.

The old-fashioned exposure suits these survivors used are very difficult to fly in and/or don in flight, as he discovered. they also make it harder to operate in the water and their bulk is probably part of the reason they had difficulty egressing. Newer designs are much better.

The lack of a canopy and insulated floor in their raft could have been fatal if they hadn't been lucky enough to be picked up quickly. For cold water overflights, the protection offered by a canopy and insulated floor are critical for long term survival.

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