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January 16, 2009

More on Ditching Planes and the A320's Water-Friendly Design

Barbara S. Peterson underwent flight attendant training while reporting for her 2004 book on JetBlue, Blue Streak. Here, Barbara recounts one memorable lesson: Learning to ditch in a Florida pool. 

Most flight crews get at least one day of training in a pool in swimsuits for that rarest of airline disasters, a ditching. If you think that sounds fun, you're wrong. Among other things, you have to demonstrate that you're a strong swimmer and that you're capable of climbing into and out of one of those inflatable evacuation chutes, which become life rafts in the water.  That's a lot harder than it sounds--the rafts are huge and slippery--and also consider that the conditions in a real ditching would be far more challenging than those in a pool in Florida's breezy 80-degree weather.

The A320 rafts I'm familiar with are designed to seat 44, but can accommodate 55 in extreme situations. Try to imagine the claustrophobia and panic you might experience wedged in one of these things.

Each raft has an anchor, locator lights, survival kits, and a canopy (that last bit is essential if you are out there in the ocean with the sun beating down on you). Survival kits contain flashlights, whistles, water purification tables, and an inflation pump and bailing bucket.

Then there's the major task of preparing people aboard for exit. If you don't have much time, like the US Airways crew this week, then the plan of action is to outfit passengers with life vests once the plane comes to a stop. Assess the conditions outside; the critical benchmark is the water level, which should ideally be close to door sill height so the raft will inflate on the water while attached to the door. Interestingly, the A320 aircraft is specifically designed to rest in the water because of the evenly distributed weight of its engines. That is supposed to ensure all floor level exits can be used for a decent amount of time before the plane begins to sink. 

Further reading:
* What Flight Training Says About Ditching
* New York Times updates from the plane rescue, including a slide show of reader-submitted photographs
* On the Fly: The airline industry


according to an initial pilot interview, there is a "ditch switch" to help CLOSE certain openings and help keep water from "flooding" the aircraft to some extent; this switch was not enabled, in the rush of activity in this clue if it made/makes a difference in this particular situation.

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