Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Pack your own life raft

By Maggie Ledford Lawsona former congressional legislative assistant, Maggie Ledford lawson is now a reporter who covers Capitol hill. / May 7, 1980

As airline accidents go, the crash of National Airlines Flight 193 into Escambia Bay on May 8, 1978, comes close to being a "best possible case." It could have been a worst possible case.

Skip to next paragraph

The Federal Aviation Administration has safety regulations that supposedly govern flights over water. The regulations already are inadequate and wretchedly enforced.And the regulations stand to become even more inadequate if a proposed rule change now being considered by the FAA is adopted.

Flight 193 went down in mild weather and calm seas, just three nautical miles from the runway at Pensacola, Fla., where it was attempting a landing. It settled to rest in a mere 12 feet of water, virtually on the lap of a good-sized tugboat.

Yet even with help immediately at hand, rescue operations took more than half an hour, and three of the plane's 52 passengers drowned.

National Flight 193, from Miami to Pensacola, via Tampa, New Orleans, and Mobile, Ala., carried no life rafts.

The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require rafts on so-called over-water flights. Complete water survival gear is mandated only for "extended" over-water flights.

The present cut-off for "over-water flights" is 50 nautical miles, but for some time the FAA has been waiving its own regulations and permitting a number of airlines to make routine jaunts as far as 167 miles from shore with minimal and inadequate flotation equipment on board.

Soon the airlines may no longer need to ask for such waivers of the 50 -nautical-mile rule. The FAA is proposing to extend the limit to 400 nautical miles for multi-engined turbojet aircraft, such as the DC-10s. Multi-engined turboprop planes would be permitted a 150-nautical-mile limit. Smaller aircraft -- DC-4s and 6s and Convairs, among others -- would be allowed to go 100 nautical miles out carrying only life vests or other "approved flotation devices ," such as cushions.

If the FAA's proposed rules are adopted, they will make a bad situation worse.

In anything short of a "best possible" crash, not to mention one several hundred miles at sea, life rafts or slide rafts, which automatically inflate and float tree of a sinking craft, are needed for passenger survival.

In the effort to cut down on suburban noise pollution, airports are routing an increasing number of incoming and outgoing flights over lakes, rivers, or the ocean, and these increases are believed to add to the likelihood of airline accidents involving water.

Safety officials of the Air Line Pilots Association, a group that is urging the FAA to tighten, not loosen, its over-water safety regulations, estimate that at least 50 major US airports routinely route flights over water.

Air safety experts almost unanimously agree that a crash in water is inherently more survivable than one on land. Even a bellybuster of a landing at sea doesn't compare in impact to hitting a mountain head-on, or even miring up in a field.

Because airplanes usually float for a few minutes before sinking, people ordinarily have time to get out of the craft. But, once they enter the alien aquatic environment, proper equipment often will mean the difference between surviving and succumbing.

Yet the airlines -- and the FAA -- apparently assume that people involved in a ditching or an unplanned water impact will be able to extricate their vests from under their seats and from beneath carry-on luggage, get the bags unzipped, and figure out how to fasten them properly -- all in a matter of seconds. Unless the bags are properly secured, they're all but worthless: They will not keep a person's head above water.