Debrief: Déja vu: The Importance of the Underwater-Egress Pre-Flight Briefing for Passengers

This article is a condensed version of The Importance of the Underwater-Egress Pre-Flight Briefing for Passengers, by Jackie Heiler of Pro Aviation Safety Training, and originally published in Aviation Safety Letter (ASL) 2/2009. We feel it is worth repeating the value of underwater egress training and proper pre-flight passenger briefings, as part of our continued efforts to promote floatplane safety. —Ed.

In recent years, Transport Canada and the specialized underwater-egress training industry have made considerable efforts in educating pilots and operators on the importance of underwater-egress procedures and training. Through pamphlets, newsletter articles, posters, videos and brochures, the aviation industry has received the bulk of the information and awareness materials. However, those education efforts have succeeded only partially; while our crews and operators are aware and ready, a very important segment of our industry—the passengers—has not benefited to the same extent from this awareness drive.

Most passengers will not seek specialized underwateregress training, and therein lies the challenge. It is therefore the commercial operators—and their flight crews—who are in the best position to transfer this knowledge to them. The most effective and traditional way of accomplishing this is to provide the best, most comprehensive pre-flight briefing possible—supported by a pre-flight video and reading material, such as a brochure or pamphlet.

For passengers, the most difficult part of surviving a ditching accident is the underwater egress. Accident reports indicate that many people survive the initial impact, but needlessly drown because they were unable to extricate themselves from the aircraft. A study by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) suggested that fatalities in seaplane accidents terminating in water are frequently the result of post-impact drowning. Most drownings occurred inside the cabin of the aircraft, and occupants who survived often found exiting the aircraft quite difficult. In fact, over two-thirds of the deaths occurred to occupants who were not incapacitated during the impact, but drowned trying to escape the aircraft.

Why do passengers encounter difficulties when trying to get out of an aircraft that has submerged? Panic, disorientation, unfamiliarity with escape hatches, and lack of proper training are some of the major factors that contribute to passenger drowning. During an emergency situation, rather than pausing to think, most will react on instinct and as a result of learned behaviours; if people never acquired a learned behaviour that is appropriate for this type of situation—such as the steps to follow in an underwater-egress scenario—then the odds of reacting appropriately are much smaller. For example, when getting out of a car, most of us release our seat belt before opening the door. We do this without even thinking: it is a learned behaviour. If we are strapped into an aircraft that is sinking, a common reaction is to release our seat belt first, then try to get out. We have reverted to the learned behaviour we have acquired every time we get out of a car.

Typical underwater-egress training exercise, professionally supervised and done with portable equipment in local pools.
Typical underwater-egress training exercise, professionally
supervised and done with portable equipment in local pools.

In many accidents, people have hastily and prematurely removed their seat belts and, as a result, have been moved around the inside of the aircraft due to the inrushing water. With the lack of gravitational reference, disorientation can rapidly overwhelm a person. The end result is panic and the inability to carry out a simple procedure to find a way out of the aircraft.

An unfamiliar task, to be executed submerged, quite possibly upside down, in the dark, and in very cold water: what could seem like a simple undertaking suddenly becomes monumental. To help prevent panic and disorientation, we recommend that you brief passengers thoroughly before each flight on the steps of underwater egress described in the brochure entitled Seaplane/ Floatplane: A Passenger’s Guide (TP12365), available on our new floatplane Web site at A thorough pre-flight briefing can make the difference between life and death for your passengers.

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