League of Extraordinary Mariners, Aviators Discuss Ditching

 - March 9, 2018, 10:26 AM

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 inflight 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, and incorporate that into safety management systems. 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, graphical 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. 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 about 230,000 vessels worldwide. A lower-cost version of the software—Ergo 180—is also available, and includes the vessel information.

“Our focus is oxygen safety in aviation,” said James Stabile Jr., ADS vice president of strategic initiatives. “The reason we got to water landings is we've been for many years building a comprehensive globally standardizable oxygen safety management system. One of the aspects of that is fires, and a particularly nasty subset of that is uncontrolled fires over an ocean. In a situation of that nature there are instances on record where an aircraft is vaporized in under 20 minutes. So on a bad day this would mean that a flight crew is going to have to choose between burning to death and crashing into the ocean. And that's a pretty stark decision to have to make, so we set out to figure out how we can mitigate that risk.”

The prospect of a water landing raises many questions, few of which have been satisfactorily answered in the training materials provided to pilots. “What we're actually doing,” he explained, “is giving flight crews the ability to dynamically find a ship at sea and then crash their very heavy, fast, expensive aircraft in the middle of a billion square mile ocean using an iPad.”

The risk of a water landing doesn’t just happen to those on the aircraft, and even after a successful ditching, the rescuers face enormous risks of their own trying to save people on the aircraft. “In the interest of both good business ethics as well as creating the most effective solution,” he said, “we realized we needed to bring in folks from the maritime industry.”

Sharing 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, and come up with ways to work together in the future. Stabile Jr. welcomed the group of mariners, including Captain George Sandberg, president of the New York Metro Chapter of the Council of American Master Mariners and professor emeritus at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

“The response was overwhelming,” he said, adding that the character of the mariners who attended was reflected in the academy motto, “Acta non verba,” which means “deeds not words.” Stabile Jr. explained, “In the spirit of that motto, they began charging at the problem with us rather than running away from it.

“The reality is that the maritime folks lived in this environment long before the aviation industry was born,” he said. “Technology is allowing us to bring these ships to light, to identify where they're at in a manner that we can take this information now and assimilate it so we can use it in the event of an emergency.”

The Ergo 360 and 180 iPad apps show ship position in two ways. If the aircraft is not equipped for airborne connectivity, specifically Internet access, then the pilot can download the latest ship position information just before takeoff. Once in the air, the virtual ships in the app will move in the same direction and speed as the last-updated information. If Internet updates are available in the air, then the app shows the actual ship position and direction, helping pilots see where the ship is headed for optimum positioning for a water landing. The app doesn’t just download every one of the more than 200,000 ships in AIS, but just those bounded by the flight-planned route, thus saving memory space on the iPad.

Pilots have another onboard tool they can use to pinpoint ships shown on the Ergo iPad app—their weather radars—Stabile Sr. pointed out, and he has tested this during his flying. By tilting the radar antenna down toward the ocean, the pilot can see ships painted on the radar screen. This only works with radars that don’t automatically remove ground clutter or bodies of water, as some modern digital radars do.

Communication Challenges

Once a suitable ship is located, the biggest problem remains communication between the airplane and ship personnel. Stabile Sr. carries an inexpensive handheld marine radio with sufficient transmitting power (six watts) to reach about 40 miles. He has tested the radio by contacting ships on the universal maritime distress frequency channel 16, then once he has made contact, switching to another frequency to continue the conversation. ADS is also working on another method to facilitate airplane-to-ship communication, but hasn’t yet revealed details about this product.

For their part, the ship captains outlined information about maritime emergency 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. Other issues revolve around how little time people can survive in cold water, the challenge of launching rescue boats in heavy seas, and communications difficulties not just because of technology but because there are so many ships carrying crewmembers that don't speak English. Most ships also carry satellite telephones, and attendees agreed that there ought to be a way for ships and aircraft to share telephone number information.

Pilots need to make sure not only that they carry emergency equipment, but that it is properly equipped with survival gear. A raft should be equipped with a modern 406-MHz emergency locator transmitter (ELT), which sends position and identification information to rescue agencies via satellite. But carrying a marine emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) would also be a good idea.

A key point came up during the conference: it was suggested that a simple step that pilots could take during an over-ocean emergency would be to activate the ELT immediately to ensure a quicker emergency response. The pilots at the event noted that this step is not on their emergency checklists and they agreed that it should be.

An Actual Ditching

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 now 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, strobelights and 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 Stabile Jr. “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.”