Water Landing: Airlines Cut Life Vests

When is a plane a boat?

Well, most of us saw that first-hand last week. I, for one, sat mesmerized in front of my computer watching the live TV coverage -- intent on that large jet bobbing aimlessly in the Hudson River.

I almost couldn't believe my eyes, as I strained to hear the story of US Airways Flight 1549 -- and one thought kept going through my brain: How in the heck was that plane staying afloat?

Of course, much of the credit has to go to Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger for his remarkable skills -- as well as his inspiring grace under pressure. I mean, he landed his crippled aircraft almost gently on the Hudson. And it stayed afloat. Well, it floated long enough so that all of the 150-plus people on board were able to get to safety -- most of them with only wet feet to show for it.

And of course, let's not forget that his US Airways plane -- an Airbus A320 -- was equipped with a "ditch switch." This is an innocuous little device that is literally an on/off switch located on the aircraft's overhead panel (above the plane's windshield). A pilot can manually activate it to close the outflow valve and avionic ventilation ports -- in other words, the openings below the aircraft's float line that could let water in.

So that explains those incredible photos of passengers standing on the wings -- and how everyone was able to get out in plenty of time, right? Except, according to an Associated Press report based on interviews with federal aviation officials, neither Sullenberger nor his co-pilot had time to flip the ditch switch.

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Of course, a couple of other factors were in play, in regards to the plane's floatability: Fuel is lighter than water, which helped the aircraft stay buoyant. Plus, today's planes are well made, so that if a pilot can land one without breaking it up or causing other structural damage, it can float for a while -- as we have seen.

And a rare sight it is: Some have said this is the first successful water landing of a jet in modern aviation.

OK, so why don't other planes have a "ditch switch"?

After all, I saw one report that said this was unique to Airbus planes -- but it turns out, it's not exactly unique. Or at least, other airliners have procedures in place, a checklist to go through, to accomplish the same thing by shutting a variety of vents.

And that is what the FAA requires: that all U.S. planes have a plan to make an aircraft as buoyant as possible in the event of a water ditching in order to keep it afloat long enough to "allow the occupants to leave the airplane and enter the life rafts."

Of course, the really tricky part is -- landing the plane -- in one piece. Again, kudos to Capt. Sully, as his friends call him.

So, what else did I notice about this extraordinary event?

Well, I saw that some of those Flight 1549 passengers had life vests on -- or so it appeared -- but not all of them. The meaning of this? I'm not sure -- just as I'm not sure why some of the passengers thought to grab their laptops before they left the plane -- or so it looked from some of the photos.

Actually, I do understand why they did that ("that's my life on my laptop!"). But I would have thought everyone would have had a vest on.

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