Need to Execute an Emergency Water Landing? Ditching Your Plane


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How to make a water landing; your only option when forced to land in such a terrain. Photo Credit: Peter Roome

Water may look smooth and calm from the sky, but when you’re in a plane, experiencing an all-engine failure,  and your only option is to make a water landing, that very stretch of smooth and calm water is the last place you want to land.

However, in certain cases, a well-planned (and well-executed) water landing is much safer than an attempt to land a plane on trees, or in a forest – unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim.

But even then, however, there is plenty of time to improvise after you ditch your plane in water.

After all, a good water landing results in the aircraft staying afloat for a considerable period of time after impact.

This is the aftermath of the famous water landing of a US Airways jet airliner on the Hudson River.

If you’re expecting to experience a water landing anytime soon, you might want to remember what this pilot did:

That is exactly what you want from a landing on water: your aircraft intact and afloat, and enough time for you and your passengers to get to safety.

How to Execute a Water Landing in a Cessna – 172

A Cessna – 172 flying low over water. Photo Credit: Jim Sher.

For a light aircraft, such as a Cessna – 172, making a successful water landing is a lot easier than for heavy jet airplanes, with their engines under the wing scooping-up water and disintegrating on first impact.

If you need to land on water in a light aircraft such as a Cessna – 172, you’ll follow a protocol similar to a normal runway landing. However, you should keep the following in your mind regarding water landings in such a plane.

  1. First, note the high wing position of the aircraft in this image. The cockpit of the plane is lower than the airplane wings because that’s the part that’ll go under water as the airplane comes to a stop. So, be ready to swim out, while planning your water landing.
  2. Remember to inform the Air Traffic Control and nearby traffic of your intentions, so that you don’t have to wait forever for help, especially if there’s no land nearby.
  3. To make sure that you and your passengers survive both the landing and the aftermath, you’ll need flotation devices – there may be nothing better available to you than the empty fuel tanks lodged within long wings of high aspect ratio, so plan ahead, and dump or use your extra fuel before you try to make a water landing.
  4. Try to choose an area that is as close to land as possible, so that you can swim to safety after you touch down.
  5. Don’t use full flaps – your flaps should not be more than 20 degrees.
  6. Keep your wings level on approach, and after the airplane touches water.
  7. Maintain a normal landing attitude, but be prepared for water to splash up onto your plane due to the propeller, long before the aircraft makes impact.
  8. If the plane is configured with a retractable landing gear, retract the wheels before impact.
  9. You must touch down at a minimal rate of descent and at an airspeed that is just above the stall speed of your plane in order to reduce damage to the aircraft. You should be flying at the slowest possible airspeed that’ll keep your plane in the air.
  10. If you suddenly face an obstacle, remember that the rudder will still function, and you can steer left or right, even when the aircraft is floating over water, provided you still have some forward speed.
  11. When the Cessna – 172 comes to a stop, it will start to sink, as the cockpit fills up. Exit the cockpit as swiftly as possible, and swim to land if possible, or hang on to the floating wings until someone comes to rescue you.

Surviving an Emergency Water Landing

It’s stressful, but certainly possible, to survive an emergency landing over water, if you just keep your wits about you. Have you experienced an emergency water landing? I’d love to hear your comments!

The above guidelines are general, and secondary to actions required by the more specific Pilot’s Operating Handbook for your aircraft.


Federal Aviation Administration. Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. (2008). Accessed June 28, 2012.

Federal Aviation Administration. Airplane Flying Handbook. (2004). Accessed June 28, 2012.

NASA. Wing Geometry Definitions. Accessed June 28, 2012.

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