On March 6, a group of highly experienced ocean-going mariners and corporate pilots met for a unique event, the “Joint Oceanic Search and Rescue Conference.” The goal was to stimulate discussion about how flight crews that experience an over-ocean emergency could work together with nearby ships to maximize the chances of survival.
The conference was hosted by FlightSafety International’s Teterboro, New Jersey learning center and put on by Aeronautical Data Systems (ADS), which has developed new tools to help pilots locate ships that might be in a position to help during an emergency, as well as manage fuel and oxygen supplies during extended-range flight emergencies.
The conference included a panel of master mariners, professors from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and leaders from the city of New York Fire Department’s marine operations. Corporate flight department directors and safety and operations managers, as well as a vice chairman from an airline’s ALPA Master Executive Council, filled the aviation seats at the event.
“We’ve been working on this a long time,” said James Stabile Sr., an airline pilot and founder of ADS. The company’s first products were developed to help dispatchers and pilots calculate emergency options based on fuel and oxygen supplies and depletion rates. But about nine months ago, Stabile, whose airline flying includes over-ocean routes, realized that there is an additional, untapped resource: all the ships that ply the world’s oceans. The ADS team added a new feature to its Ergo 360 iPad app: information about ships, depicted on a map of the flight-planned route.
Ergo 360 users can now download ship information before takeoff and, if equipped with airborne connectivity, update the information during the flight. Knowing the ships’ position, velocity, and name can help pilots during an emergency requiring an immediate landing or ditching. And pilots can even communicate with ships using a low-cost marine handheld radio, something that ADS recommends that over-ocean pilots carry in their kitbags. The ship information is derived from the Automatic Identification System that tracks approximately 230,000 vessels worldwide. A lower-cost version of the software—Ergo 180—is also available, and includes the vessel information.
Putting pilots and ship captains in the same room was designed to stimulate a discussion of over-ocean emergencies and help the two groups communicate about their different needs during an emergency situation. The ship captains outlined information about their operations, for example, the difficulty in maneuvering and stopping a large ship, but also how a ship could help provide a calm ditching area in the lee of heavy winds. The pilots discussed emergency procedures, as well as communications options and the scarcity of useful ditching information, given the few examples of survivable aircraft ditchings that have occurred.
The conference ended with a fascinating recounting of a ditching survival by Dr. Phillip Zeeck, who was flying across the Atlantic in a converted World War II-vintage B-26 hauling oil field equipment to France many years ago, before the development of loran or GPS. The aircraft didn’t even have a VOR receiver, and on the leg from Greenland to Iceland, the two pilots were unable to receive the NDB station in Iceland on their ADF receiver. Running out of fuel and options, they were finally able to contact an overflying aircraft, which helped them radio a station-keeping ship, Ocean Station Alpha. The ship was able to provide a direction-finding steer to the B-26 pilots, and they were able to find their way to the ship, where they successfully ditched at night, in 25-knot winds and 3.5-meter waves. The rescue boat from the ship picked up the two pilots within minutes.
Zeeck concluded by listing the equipment he now carries for flights he makes to the Caribbean with his wife in their Twin Commander: this includes three GPSs, an InReach emergency satellite communications transceiver, a handheld marine radio, strobe lights and a personal emergency locator transmitter for each occupant, and a four-person self-righting raft.
At the end of the conference, ADS promised to form an oceanic rescue and survival board to continue the discussions between flight crew and mariners and push for global standards for response methods for aviation over-ocean emergencies. “Our common objective here is to save human lives,” concluded James Stabile Jr., ADS vice president of strategic initiatives. “The primary focus of this board will be to close the gap in understanding that exists between aviation and maritime actors, as well as all the actors that would be required in supporting and maintaining a comprehensive solution.”