A Water Landing? You've Got to Be Kidding

Back in 2006, I blogged about a bunch of nonsense that they do on commercial airline flights, including the idiocy of schooling passengers on what to do in the “unlikely event of a water landing.”

My friend Peter Thompson‘s research found that there had been more than 150 million commercial flights since 1970 without a single water landing.

How rude of Chesley Sullenberger to make Peter Thompson start counting over from zero after saving 155 lives in a water landing yesterday. Doesn’t he know how long it takes to count to 150 million?


Bravo to the Pilot!

Suggestion: have training available for frequent flyers on what to do in emergencies. (Really doing it, rather than sit through a video)

it would be a good thing to have a cadre of passengers on the plane experienced with what to do next when the worst happens. (plus the training would give them an edge in survivability)


In regards to Nosybear's question: yes TV news footage captured passengers who still had the vests on as they were off loaded from the ferries to land. I recall seeing at least 3 people wearing them. Others might have taken them off before exiting the ferry. And note that at least one front cabin door of the plane was used for escape and some passengers jumped out that door directly into the water. Possibly those were the people I saw wearing the vests. They ALL looked wet and cold, but healthy for having survived such an event.


This does not make the probability of a water landing 1 in 150,000,000, just as before this occurred, the probability of a water landing was not 0 in 150,000,000.


I witness someone having trouble with their seat belt on almost every flight. So, yes, I do understand the need to repeat safety procedures to passengers. I never did understand why this bothers so many people. If it got eliminated, it's not like you would get to your destination any sooner.

Caliban Darklock

I flip a coin five times. The first four times, it comes up tails. The fifth time, it comes up heads. What are the chances of flipping a coin and having it come up heads?

Certainly not 1 in 5.

We don't know the odds yet. We have one data point. We need to flip until we get heads again, and then we'll have a closer estimate. We may get tails one more time, then a run of three heads, then tails again, then heads twice. At that point, we have an accurate estimate, but we may then go on to flip heads three more times - suggesting that heads come up 60% of the time.

At any single point in the process, the calculated odds are extremely likely to be wrong.

The water landing doesn't happen at the end of the series; it can happen anywhere in the series. We can, however, say that current data SUGGEST the chance of a water landing is LESS than 1 in 150 million... but we don't know until several more happen.

Personally, I prefer not knowing the odds. Although it is quite comforting to know the odds of surviving a water landing appear to be 1 in 1. ;)



With all due respect, Steven, you don't know what you're talking about, and neither does your friend Peter Thompson. The idea of a water "landing" -- like we saw yesterday -- is rare, but planes end up in the water all too frequently, and that's why it's so important to instruct passengers on the use of flotation devices. His argument that "he couldn't find anything resembling a water landing where any of those instructions might help you" and yours, that "perhaps 15 billion customer trips have heard that 10-15 second set of instructions without it ever being useful to anyone" is just ridiculous.

It's precisely the kind of sloppy reporting we expect you to rail against, not create yourself.

Remember the Air Florida crash in DC in 1982? Seventy people drowned in the Potomac, in large part because they didn't have flotation devices. Back in 1989, another USAir flight taking off from LaGuardia had to abort its takeoff and ended up in the East River. Most of the passengers were rescued, but the fuselage broke apart and sent them all into the water. A 1992 flight from LaGuardia couldn't gain altitude and crashed into Flushing Bay. About half of the passengers were pulled out of the water. A JapanAir flight landed in San Francisco Bay with all passengers surviving. I could go on, but your research missed these and other well documented cases.



"My friend Peter Thompson's research found that there had been more than 150 million commercial flights since 1970 without a single water landing."

I'm wondering what happens when you put General Aviation Aircraft statistics into account as well. I'd bet there have been many water landings by GA aircraft in the last 30 years or so.


1 out of 150 million....the rate seems to low since not all departures fly over water. Maybe he should count to 20 million instead.


I think the reason commercial flight has such a good safety record is precisely because they pay attention to events that are exceedingly unlikely. Checklists that ask what, to most, would seem to be stupid questions, prove to be useful more that we would like to admit.

It's not for nothing that medicine has been looking to aviation for guidance on reducing errors.


http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/NEJMsa0810119 )


There is a commercial service up here (Ottawa) that uses a seaplane to go from Ottawa to Montreal. You get a free water landing with every trip!

Leland Witter

I have no idea if anyone "plays" Microsoft Flight Simulator anymore (although I know there was a relatively recent new version), but I wonder if it is possible to attempt this Hudson River landing in that game.

If so, I want to see someone successfully complete it in an airliner and post a video of it on the youtube.


My big question about the water landing is: Why were they standing on the wings? What happened to the inflatable slides/rafts that are supposed to exist?


Let us not forget the hijacked Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 that landed/crushed into the Indian Ocean. While the 'Miracle on Hudson' is quite remarkable, it is not singular.

Sudha M

The Japan Air's water landing in the bay at SFO was in the late 60s, so obviously it won't be included in the post-1970 stats. That plane was used for another 30yrs after the incident which is quite something.
Also like Jep said, some people did have the safety vest on , clearly visible on TV. Some vests were even inflated like the instruction video teaches us to do after exiting the aircraft.


Hmm... The problem is that Peter has done all that couning for nuttin since he is dead wrong. Wikipedia lists a number of occasions with more or less sucessful water landings in recent years: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_landing


I'm wondering why you linked to the CNN story instead of the NYTimes story? Just curious.


If Levitt read his comments, he would have seen that way back in 2006, many commenters to this blog noted that water landings have occurred many times in the past.

Who's up for a boycott?

Avi Rappoport

The mandatory retirement age for pilots has been extended from 60 to 65. Captain Sullenberger is 58. I think he's demonstrated how very competently older pilots can handle emergencies.

Scott Supak

Average number of people on each of those 150 million flights, times 150 million, divided by 155.


sounds like those not-likely-to-be used lifeboats which therefore were actually removed from Titanic.