Unlike JFK Jr., most of us rarely if ever fly in private airplanes. Many people, though, fly often in commercial planes and are familiar with instructions on what to do in case of what is euphemistically called a “water landing.” Is there such a thing as a water landing, and what are your chances of surviving one?
If you define a water landing as a controlled, if unplanned, descent onto water, as opposed to a simple crash, this is what aviators call a “ditching.” And, yes, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, there is one ditching every day in United States waters. This includes helicopters and all fixed-wing aircraft–military, air carrier, corporate, and general aviation (a group that includes private planes like the one Kennedy was flying). But there has never been a single ditching by a U.S.-flag commercial airline. Several non-U.S. airlines have experienced ditchings, with mixed results: some passengers died and some survived.
The Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Ralph Nader group, says that in an attempted water landing, a wide body jet would “shatter like a raw egg dropped on pavement, killing most if not all passengers on impact, even in calm seas with well-trained pilots and good landing trajectories.” Possibly because ditchings are both virtually nonexistent and virtually nonsurvivable, the Federal Aviation Administration does not require commercial pilots to train for them. Instead, it has various rules about how close planes must be to an airfield on land.
Any benefit from the procedures and precautions associated with the phrase, “in the event of a water landing” are, at this point, purely theoretical.