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I recently read a story where a pilot of a light aircraft died having attempted to land on a beach. Would it be potentially safer to try an emergency landing on a beach, or go for shallow waters of 6-10feet depth, or deeper water? (In the absence of anything more suitable).

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Re-read that story, if it was the recent crash in Florida. The pilot didn't die, the person he struck on the beach while landing died (and the other person he hit was left in critical condition). –  casey Jul 28 at 19:50
    
6-10 feet is more than draft of even large aircraft before it takes on water and is therefore deep for all practical purposes. Including evacuation as it's more than shoulder height and you'd still have to swim. –  Jan Hudec Jul 28 at 20:02

3 Answers 3

Having done my primary training essentially over beaches I'm pretty well-versed in the theory (but thankfully not the practice) of landing on beaches.

Given the possible choices offered at your typical beach, the order of preference for landing areas is generally:

  1. Pavement
    People like to drive their cars to the beach. There's probably a road or parking lot nearby, and if it's empty enough that's where you want to land.

  2. Dirt (not sand)
    Some beaches have "sandy dirt" areas, usually with low grasses and the like on them. If the beach you're contemplating has such an area it's probably your second-best choice as it will be the firmest ground and closest to landing on a grass strip. (Beware of bumps and rocks!)

  3. Wet Sand
    The sand between the high-water mark and the low-water mark on the beach tends to be fairly compacted, so it can make a decent landing area. It will probably be softer than dirt/grass, but give it your best soft-field technique and you can probably set the plane down without damaging it.
    Properly executed you can put the plane down without doing any substantial damage, and if it's an actual emergency you're unlikely to get in any trouble.
    Infamous "Plane lands on NYC beach" photo

  4. Dry Sand
    Fluffy dry sand is a decidedly soft field situation - soft enough that in a nosewheel aircraft there's a very good chance that no matter how careful you are or how good your soft-field technique is you'll lose one or more of your landing gear - but at least you're on dry land.
    The recent incident in Florida is an example of this: the aircraft's nose gear was sheared off as you can see below, but the pilot and passenger walked away (sadly some bystanders on the ground were injured, and one was killed).
    Florida beach landing

  5. Water
    Unless your plane is on floats water is basically the landing of last resort - particularly for fixed-gear aircraft. The forces involved in putting your wheels into even 6-10 inches of water are pretty substantial, and there is a real chance of tearing off the gear or losing control of the aircraft in the last few seconds.
    Even if the actual landing is uneventful you will be left to contend with being in the water while evacuating the aircraft which adds complexity to an already difficult situation (and if you're far enough out that the depth of the water is measured in feet you're going to have to swim back to shore once everyone is out of the aircraft).

    "Ditching" an aircraft in the water is a subject worth looking into on its own. Smarter people than I have written and spoken volumes about it, but as Skip Miller pointed out we don't really have a lot of hard data.

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As a related aside, once the aircraft is on the ground and everyone is safe you should give some thought to securing the aircraft, both to protect the plane and to protect the environment. If on the beach pull the aircraft above the high-water mark so that the rising tide won't soak the landing gear/fuselage in salt water, and to prevent fuel/oil/etc. from being washed off into the water. Obviously this is a much lower priority than seeing to people/passengers' safety, but it bears remembering once the more important stuff is attended to. –  voretaq7 Jul 28 at 20:30
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if you are really good you can use the water to slow down and then actually stop on the sand –  ratchet freak Jul 29 at 14:26
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It may be worth pointing out that Copalis State Airport (S16, in Washington State), is a beach, and an official runway... the sand is hard packed enough to be a runway for both landing and taking off for most light airplanes. –  abelenky Jul 29 at 14:56
    
we don't really have a lot of hard data. Roger that. After a Columbian C-130 ditched the USAF updated the flight manual drawing of a ditched 130 along w/ some notes & minor procedural changes. So even after 25ish years of operation Lockheed & the AF didn't know what to expect. Fun Fact: One of the fatalities was the navigator, shot by the pilot as the plane glided, out of fuel. –  radarbob Jul 30 at 3:56
    
@ratchetfreak yeah! crazedpilot.com/big-rocks-long-props-volume-5-high-country –  Canuk Jul 31 at 18:57

No difference between "deep" or the 6' - 10' depths you propose.

As far as landing on the beach, there just are not enough incidents of this happening for anyone to give you a good statistical analysis of actual accidents from which to draw a conclusion. There are too many variables. One example: some beaches you can drive a car on, other beaches are so soft the wheels are likely to dig in and cause an abrupt stop or a flip.

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In a light plane, you definitely want to avoid water unless you are on a plane with floats. If the wheels are down the when you touchdown in the water there is a high probability of wheels digging in and the plane flipping over nose first. This type of accident is often not survivable, broken necks, etc. When I learned to fly amphibians one of the first things you were taught was to verbally repeat "land on land, gear down; land on water, gear up" before every landing.

Landing on smooth damp sand can be like landing on pavement. You land normally and just ensure you keep you momentum up until you get to your parking spot. This type of beach landing is pretty common in Mexico. The hardest part is usually the taxing because you leave the damp sand and end up going into soft dry sand which requires power which throws up sand that abrades the paint on your plane.

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Barry Schiff's piece on ditching seems to refute the fixed-gear-planes-will-nose-over rumors; they're addressed in several other places as well. While I certainly wouldn't make water my first choice, a properly-executed (nose-high) water landing in a tricycle fixed-gear aircraft shouldn't be ruled out just because "the plane might flip" -- indeed you might just as easily flip the plane if the nosewheel digs into soft sand. –  voretaq7 Jul 29 at 21:10
    
There is no guarantee the plane will nose over, but there is a higher probability. Having landing several times on wet sand I would select it every time over water in an engine out. Wet sand is pretty darn hard. My last plane weight around 6,000 pounds and we never had any trouble landing on wet sand. There are even some Youtube videos of pilots landing transports on the beach, youtube.com/watch?v=Vat0h18SeHs. Here is what happens if you forget to retract on an amphib, youtube.com/watch?v=56IoiW8n5mc. But the final decision is up to the PIC. –  JerryKur Jul 30 at 19:30
    
My issue isn't with your choice of procedure (I would make the same choice as you), it's with your "high probability" statement. To say that there is a "high probability" that ditching a fixed-gear aircraft (or a retract with the gear down) will result in a nose-over seems to run counter to the (limited) evidence/date I've turned up for GA ditchings. If you have actual quantitative data supporting that I'd be very interested in it - everything I've read acknowledges that it's a risk (same as landing on soft sand), but a vastly overstated risk. –  voretaq7 Jul 31 at 2:33

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