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Letter from Phillip Olsen to Tom Horne
Tom Horne's Response

This is a copy of a letter to Tom Horne and AOPA Editor Tom Haines from Phillip Olsen that was sent via email on August 26, 1999. Tom Horne's response follows.


I am an old pilot and no longer a bold one, but I've got to boldly ask you to retract a whole bunch of stuff you wrote in the July 1999 AOPA ditching article which is just plain wrong. Not only that, it is potentially deadly wrong and harmful to the cause of safety of flight over water.

I have copied Doug Ritter herein because I read his response to your article in his Equipped newsletter. Doug is right. You are not only of the wrong opinion on several well established facts concerning ditching techniques, but you are guilty of using a highly regarded publication, AOPA PILOT, to disseminate several harmful misstatements of facts.

I write as a military trained aviator who ditched a light aircraft in the Pacific Ocean, and who has done everything possible to share good data and information to help Hawaii based pilots avoid the need to ditch, but to do so successfully if it becomes impossible to avoid. I have addressed dozens of pilot gatherings in Hawaii, attempting to share my experience and those of many others who have ditched successfully.

I have used in my briefings the same photographs you have published, those showing Toby Alves successfully ditching a Cessna in the lee of a Matson Navigation Company freighter. Only my conclusions, based on nearly 30 years of statistical evidence gleaned from National Transportation Safety Board reports, is just the opposite of your wrongful opinions. Ditching is not the desirable conclusion of a light, but it need not be, and usually is not, fatal.

To say as you do in your first paragraph that "ditching is rarely mentioned in aviation texts or classroom sessions," is misleading and, where I fly, untrue. Your assumption, apparently based upon the incomplete view of a flatlander pilot who rarely ventures out of sight of dry land, simply is not useful or valid for pilots who fly over water on most flights.

As safety advisor for the University of North Dakota/University of Hawaii Aerospace Training Center at Honolulu International Airport, I assure you that we talk and write about ditching extensively. It is a basic responsibility of a flight instructor to provide accurate and useful safety information to flight students.

Much of the information in your article is neither accurate nor useful.

Crash axes have their uses, but getting out of a general aviation aircraft that has just entered the water is not one of them. If you find yourself in a light plane cockpit and cannot exit by a door or hatch, you should assure pilots that even a small person can muster enough strength to push out a Plexiglas window in most aircraft. I know this to be true because that is what I did.

You said, "if you aren't already wearing it, don your life vest."

I can't argue against trying to don a life vest, but you give the unsuspecting pilot who might think an AOPA editor can not be wrong the unfortunate impression that it is acceptable procedure to wait until you need it to don a life vest. This misconception undoubtedly has led to the untimely demise of more that one single engine pilot who attempted to do as you suggest. It is just plain imprudent and ignorant to try to don a life vest just as you are calling ATC for help, trying to get the engine restarted, setting up best glide, and looking at the sea's surface.

It is not the time to be donning a vest.

I have been very vocal and moderately successful in preaching the absolute need for single engine pilots to inspect, test, and don the life vest that might save one's life prior to take off, and to assure that every passenger does the same. It is irresponsible to do otherwise, and I implore you to use your high pulpit to make this need known.

I invite you and your family to join me in a demonstration on the ramp at Honolulu next time you visit Hawaii. I will place you in a cockpit with your loved ones, checklist in your hand, life vests stored in the seat pockets or where ever they normally are stored. With doors latched, but without starting the engine, I will announce that you are 2,500 feet, half way to Molokai, and your engine has just stopped. Using a stop watch, I will time you as you attempt to cover the emergency check list for re-starting, set up best glide, contact ATC on a radio, transmit your condition, position, and intentions, replying to queries about souls on board, fuel remaining, and winding you watch in the time left over.

Then, I hope you will agree that life vests must be worn by all aboard single engine over water flights. [See "Aviation Life Vest Review" for more information. - Ed.]

I have crossed the Atlantic wearing a driest type survival outfit a few times too many. That's why I would not consider wearing such a suit again. They are dreadfully cumbersome, uncomfortable, and marginally effective. The new suits are soft, comfortable, neoprene or other materials which afford increased protection against the inhospitable northern waters

"You can't really determine the winds, waves, and swell systems until you're at a very low altitude," is a very wrongful statement. The sea might look "uniform and undisturbed" to a pilot from Kansas or any flatlander who hasn't made an effort to learn how to read the sea from aloft. Nonetheless, AOPA PILOT should set a higher standard for any reader who flies over water.

It is possible to gauge winds, currents, waves (both primary and secondary even tertiary swells) from 5,000 feet or higher during daylight and moderate visibility.

I do not recommend night single engine flights over water, despite the inclusion of requirements to do so in Part 141 flight training standards. If it becomes necessary, I maintain that pilots should regard all night flights over water as IFR flights, regardless of meteorological conditions. Thus, there is no expectation of retaining VFR horizon, and reliance is appropriately on instrument references as soon as the aircraft departs the traffic pattern for over water flight. This is vitally important in inter-island flying with mountains on many of the islands, and occasion, unreported rain showers to dampen even a hint of a visual reference.

Before taking off on a night flight, winds, surface conditions and wave heights must be known, and are obtainable via the USCG and National Weather Service. In the unlikely event of a forced night or IFR ditching, the properly briefed pilot does not do as you suggest, depend upon his "good luck." Rather, he keeps his cool, announces his situation, position and intentions to ATC, handles his emergency procedures as if he were going to get the problem fixed, and if unable to avoid it, ditches WITH FULL EXPECTATION OF SURVIVAL.

You wrote, "Once the airplane hits, you will have no control over what it will do next." That statement, sir, is dead wrong. I ditched a Piper Cherokee 140 with fixed gear. I skipped only once, but I kept flying the airplane, just as if it made a difference in the outcome. And, it may have.

We have numerous statements from pilots who have ditched, indicating they experienced two or more skips following the first contact with the water. Keeping the nose up and wings level could spell the difference between a successful ditching and a catastrophe. The photographs accompanying your article show a successful ditching.

Contrary to your contention that "you have no control," the safe egress of a pilot and passengers from a ditched airplane is proof of the effectiveness of continued control by the pilot, even after the first contact.

Unlike your statement to the contrary, we do have "dumpster" practice available. If you wish to try it, I will be happy to put you in touch with a person who provides such training, here in Hawaii. When I was commander of the Aloha State Search and Rescue Squadron in the Hawaii Wing Civil Air Patrol we made certain no one flew over water in our single engine SAR aircraft until dunked in an aircraft seat, wearing an uninflated life vest and a one person dingy. These skills are valuable to any over water pilot, and it might benefit your point-of-view to undergo the training.

Most of all, sir, I deeply resent your uninformed conclusion: "Unfortunately, most ditching are unsuccessful." I possess nearly three decades of NTSB data on ditching which demonstrate the exact opposite. This data is available to you or anyone who chooses to take the trouble to study them. Nearly 90 percent of all ditchings in general aviation in the U.S. fleet are without fatalities.

That is not an opinion, Mr. Editor, that is a fact. To state otherwise is, at least, a mis-statement of fact.

There are a number of Hawaii based pilots and passengers who are alive and still flying, partly, I hope, because they heard me and others like me who told them what they needed to know about ditching. Using the mantel of your editorship of one of the finest aviation publications to preach otherwise is worse than heresy. It is bloody wrong minded and dangerous.

As Doug Ritter stated in his response to your ill advised opinion, discounting long range, over water ferry flights which skew the record of successful outcomes by virtue of fuel cell blocked egress and other uncommon hazards, most ditchings--almost 95 per cent--are successful.

So, Mr. Horne, you go right on being depressed and accepting of your fate if you should ever need to ditch. But, don't spread a self fulfilling prophesy of almost certain failure to those of us who choose to be prepared and know the facts about ditching.

Very truly yours,

Phillip Buck Olsen, CFII, ATP
CE500, BAe125, HS125, FA119

Tom Horne responds:

Dear Mr. Olsen,

Thanks for your Email.

My intention was to convey all the risks involved in a ditching, not to reassure everyone that it's a no-risk procedure.

Ritter and the people at Winslow life rafts have views similar to yours. They have been aired in the magazine.

My own look at the statistics indicate a 20 percent fatality rate for ocean ditchings--probably reflecting cold water situations. Not the 6 percent rate that Ritter uses.

You and Ritter do a great job in educating pilots. Keep up the good work.

I'd agree with you about the dry suits. I have a Bayley and it gets too hot and is too clumsy. Still, that type of suit has saved a few lives.

A portion of your letter may be published in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot.

Tom Horne

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