Over Water Worries

I was chatting with EAA founder Paul Poberezny last week. What an amazing guy. Through a very unusual set of circumstances during his military career during World War II and then as an officer in the Wisconsin National Guard he was able to fly an enormous variety of airplanes.
Most military pilots stay with fighters, or bombers or transports, and fly only a relatively few types in their category. But Paul flew everything from trainers to transports to fighters to tankers. He was showing me his military logbooks that often had him flying a single seat fighter and a large transport in the same day.
Paul’s career spanned the transition from pistons to jets and he regularly flew both at the same time after a pair of jet engines was added to the KC-97 tanker to give its four radial piston engines a boost. “Four churning and two burning is what we used to say about that one,” Paul said.
I planned to fly back home from Oshkosh to the Muskegon airport in Michigan on the other side the lake that afternoon. Paul asked me “do you just keep climbing until you get to 10,000 feet or higher so that you can make it across the lake?”
With two engines on my Baron I really don’t think much about engine failure over the water. The odds of losing both engines on one flight—if you have fuel onboard—is very remote. And holding altitude isn’t much of a question because over the water 100 feet will do it. The only obstacle is the big sand dune that hugs the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and is about 200 feet high near the Muskegon airport.
Paul was unimpressed by my logic. “What about an airframe failure?” he asked. “What if a propeller blade breaks off, or some system fails and you want to get on the ground right away?”
I had not really considered that possibility. I guess it’s the luxury of having been a pilot for only 40 years or so compared to Paul’s 75 years of experience. I haven’t flown through the really hairy days of aviation as he did.
It’s easy from the distance of years to glamorize the “golden age” of piston engine flying in large and powerful airplanes. Those piston engines pumping out thousands of horsepower were stressed to the limits—and maybe beyond the limits we would accept today. It’s hard to imagine the stress on a propeller being pounded by the pulse of 28 or more piston strokes generating 2,000, 3,000, or even a little more horsepower. Major failures had to be expected, and they did occur.
Lake Michigan itself also looms large for pilots in the middle of the country because unlike the four other Great Lakes, it must be considered on many trips. It’s pretty easy to skirt the southern shore of the other Great Lakes, but Lake Michigan is a 330 mile long north-to-south water hazard waiting to drown any pilot unlucky enough to end up splashing into its icy water. Paul grew up and learned to fly in Milwaukee, and spent most of his military career flying out of Wisconsin, so the big lake was always a consideration for him. I grew up and learned to fly on the south shore of Lake Erie which is much smaller, and unless you want to be in Canada, is not much of a factor on most flights.
I thought about Paul and his generation as I sat over Lake Michigan later that day. I had two and a half hours of fuel onboard for the 37 minute flight. My Continentals can only make 300 hp at sea level so the stress on the props, engine mounts and so on was coming from maybe 230 hp at cruise flight. And I was 1,000 pounds below maximum takeoff weight. Life for my airplane was easy. But Paul and his generation of aviators are reminders that flying wasn’t always so.

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31 Responses to Over Water Worries

  1. Robert Bailey says:

    After reading your story several times I got the impression that you feel that multiple engine failures, in a twin engine airplane, are a thing of the past. Having had both engines fail in a Piper Navajo, with plenty of fuel aboard, gives me a different impression. I still believe that it is something to consider while flying over water beyond gliding range, especially cold at this time of year. Perhaps the thoughts of the old time pilots should not be disregarded yet.

  2. Lee Ringel says:

    I live in Michigan and have to cross Lake Michigan every time I go to Oshkosh. I have been flying since 1977, so that makes about 60 crossings (There and back). Not to worry, because the airplane doesn’t know it is over water. My flight instructor told
    me to land next to the nicest yacht I can find in case of emergency. I have searched
    for those yachts on various crossing. I have yet to find even a grubby yacht. He also
    told me how to make an emergency landing at night. He said I should use the landing
    light to pick a soft spot to land. And if I didn’t like what I saw…..turn it off!

  3. George Lazik says:

    OK…following that same logic as Paul, what about having a failure of your horizontal stabilizer right over an airport. Doesn’t help much to be over the airport, does it? In other words, one can always come up with a scenario that is high risk. I vote for Mac; flying a twin over Lake Michigan presents a very acceptable and manageable risk.

  4. Dana Alan says:

    Still…. Wouldn’t the prudent flight profile given the proper procedure, Be… climb out from departure to the worst case land fall distance, then descend from there ?

    • AT its narrowest which is from Ludington to Manitowoc, Lake Michigan is 50 miles wide. So, figure your best glide and rate of descent at that best glide and you can figure out how many miles you can fly/glide. Unless you are in a very slippery airplane you can not glide from the middle to the shore even with a hefty tail wind.
      If we figure a 9:1 typical glide ratio for fixed gear, and it’s 25 miles from center to shore So, 25/9=2.77miles *5280 and you need to be at an altitude of 14,666 feet just to make the shoreline. Less than that, or any head wind and you are going to get your feet wet. OTOH a retract with an 18:1 glide ratio with the wheels up, In Statute miles: 25/18=1.38X5280=7,333 feet which is easily accomplished. Cross at 10,000 feet and you roughly have 36 miles you can glide. Actually calculates out to 34.09 miles(no wind) when the shoreline is only 25 miles at most. Of course the center of the lake (as far as the airplane is concerned)moves considerably depending on the wind, so you not only need to know your turn-around-point, but how much altitude you lose in a turn.

  5. Jack Voss says:

    Intentionally flying over a large body of water needlessly is “bold”. If you’re fleeing an advancing enemy, that’s a different story. Last summer, a guy from NY pranged his Cessna 172 into Lake Huron. He somehow stayed up 18 hours and was eventually hauled out of the water by a boater. Several boats had already bypassed him.

    He had no EPIRB or PLB, no life jacket, no raft, and darned little sense. But a LOT of stamina and luck. I’ll fly around big water, thank you very much.

  6. My first impression is “Oh for Heaven’s sake”… I’ve flown over Lake Michigan countless times in single engine IFR and VFR. In flight airframe failure? I doubt it’s going to make much difference in high performance aircraft whether over water or land unless you are very, very lucky.

    I’m not trivializing flight over water as there are additional precautions. BTW Last time I flew the back course (forget the runway) to Muskegon there was nothing between over the lake and the runway that stuck up very far.

    There is the Lake Crossing flight plan for those flying VFR and of course when IFR you are always talking to some one. Probably most never heard of the lake crossing VFR flight plan but it’s very much like flying IFR with reporting points.

    Being born here and having flown over the lakes so many times I realize the dangers. I take them into account and go anyway with little worry, and before some one asks, yes, I’ve had engine failures. *Three* of them and all on take off. Haven’t broken an airplane yet and am unlikely to do so in the future as I had a heart attack back in early August.

  7. Hew says:

    Overwater crossing are a bit like snake bite or crocodile attack, the probability much worse in our imaginations than in fact. Sensible precautions like life rafts, life jackets & an EPIRB are easy to take. On the other hand, flying over mountains covered in tall trees is much more hazardous. A good pilot might make a very good landing into the top of a tall tree however, getting down is usually quite difficult. Even the most skilled pilot has little or no control of his ultimate landing. So, hands up all those who carry a long rope for their over forest flights?

    • Jack Voss says:

      A long rope – I hadn’t thought of that one. Thanks. I consider my EPIRB as the most important piece of emergency gear that I carry. I also carry stuff to start a fire, produce and cook food, and to boil water (aluminum foil for cooking and boiling). A long rope, you say.

  8. Mike Willey says:

    There is no right or wrong here, but you better be comfortable with your decision and have planned for the chance that something will happen. Blindly flying over 60 miles of water like it was the corn fields of Iowa will likely get you at some point. If it has not happened to you then you think it never will. There are plenty of wrecks in Lake Michigan, the Rockies and even in the woods of Northern Maine where I live to prove the point.

    • Mac says:

      I have flown across Lake Michigan many times with only one engine. When I was based at Muskegon in the 1980s I had a Bonanza. When the weather was bad and I was bouncing along in bumpy clouds over the water wondering if a thunderstorm was dead ahead, or worrying about icing, I didn’t think about how far away the shore was. But now with all the moving maps I am constantly aware no matter how thick the cloud I’m in or on top of where the shoreline is. I don’ know if that is an improvement.

      Mac Mc

      • I *always* knew how far it was to shore with RNAV and DME. RNAV as in KNS80 and off sets. <:-)) Even with airspeed and time I instinctively knew within a couple of miles.

  9. Doug Johnson says:

    I have completed close to 50 Lake Michigan crossings in the last 12 years out of Kalamazoo in my 182RG. Like anything with risk management, preparation is the key. I completed the ditching class from Survival Systems in Groton, CT. Carry a
    Winslow life raft, EPIRB, life jacket and Gumby Suit. I was taught that around 90% of ditchings are successful it’s exposure and drowning that is the greatest threat. I also will not cross in the late fall-winter-early spring months as the Coast Guard
    Helios that are stationed in Muskegon and Waukegon in the summer months are returned to Traverse City.

    • Jack Voss says:

      Doug observes: ” I also will not cross in the late fall-winter-early spring months as the Coast Guard
      Helios that are stationed in Muskegon and Waukegon in the summer months are returned to Traverse City.”

      I wouldn’t worry much about having a chopper come in to pick me up at that time of year anyway. Hypothermia will beat the chopper. My family may want a body to bury, but that would be about the only advantage. You would have to fly wearing the Gumby suit for it to pay off. Don’t count on trying to crawl around in a plane to find it and put it on after crashing into the water, and inverting in a sinking plane.

      I’m going to guess that extra fuel to fly around may be about the same cost as necessary survival equipment (costs for purchase, inspections, maintenance, replacement, etc.) – but has a higher percentage of success. Just a thought.

      • Normally by mid winter the lake is frozen over although it would not be the ideal place to set down. This year I think it’s all open water. Our lows have been close to or even over our average highs most of the time. Of course even in the summer tourists wonder where the ice is. <:-)) At its warmest Lake Michigan is *COLD*, It'd be more akin to landing on a plowed field that's frozen rock hard rather than a skating rink. It would likely total the airplane. It'd also be a long walk home hence the need for survival gear and emergency radio if you survived the landing.

  10. Robert Jans says:

    at age 33 in 1978 I got my PPL when I lived on the island of Curaçao. For that PPL no X-country was required because there’s only one single airport on the island; every X-country would automatically a cross-water. Only a few hours after my very short Private Pilot training, I stepped in my Skyhawk and flew to Fort Lauderdale with one necessary stop-over in Haïti for fuel. That first distance is 428 nm over water with no land to deviate to. Also one is for nearly 2 hrs without any navigation or communication; no GPS yet at that time. Then non-stop 616 nm from Port-au-Prince to FTL. I didn’t blink an eye. I did it some 10 more times after that. At an altitude of 11500 to 12500 ft, one can barely see the ocean below due to the white spray and haze as a result of the ever present trade winds. For business I flew hundreds of times to Caracas, more ocean, although with a possible escape to land at 50 or 75 nm. I’d do it again today without any hesitation. During my stay on the island I saw/heard more twin-engined airplanes going into the drink than single engined ones: twin on one engine have to go down to nearly the deck (at the hi temps of the Caribbean) which means very long out of any radio or navigation contact and the only good engine would likely overheat or be running out of fuel close to shore due to the low speed combined with very high fuel consumption. Alright, not everybody needs to be as crazy as I was/am.

  11. Alex Kovnat says:

    Thank you Mac for bringing up the matter of crossing Lake Michigan. A few weeks ago I was having breakfast at a restaurant near Oakland-Pontiac Airport with a local flying club, and brought up the subject of flying over Lake M. when going to or from Airventure Oshkosh. One cannot ignore the warning of one Coast Guard officer who remarked, “If you’re going to fly over water be sure to wear bright orange. Its not so we can save you. Its so we can find you. It brings closure to families”. One old-timer mentioned that your engine will start sounding suspicious the moment you’re over water. It seems to me though, that if there was some inherent law of physics that causes an engine to run rough when over water it wouldn’t be possible to launch an F6F Hellcat from an aircraft carrier without the engine running rough as soon as the plane leaves the carrier deck. But U.S. Navy pilots carried out who knows how many thousands of sorties in single engine piston planes during WWII, Korea and, most recently, the Vietnam war.

    Given the cost of 100LL avgas ($5.72/gallon according to Avweb.com) , which will really soar if the EPA decides that even the least bit of lead is still too much, the incentive to fly over Lake M. isn’t going to go away entirely even with the small but frightening possibility of ending up like the sailors on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

    If avgas problems (i.e. $10/gallon for 100% lead-free 100 octane avgas, or having to settle for octane no higher than 93) result in more aircraft owner/pilots purchasing aircraft like the Piper Meridian, we can expect to see more flights over Lake Michigan because 1) turboprop aircraft use fuel at a greater rate, thus increasing the incentive to take a more direct route if flying between Michigan and Wisconsin and 2) turboprop and turbofan engines are less likely to fail than piston engines.

  12. Jack Voss says:

    Our host sez, ” But now with all the moving maps I am constantly aware no matter how thick the cloud I’m in or on top of where the shoreline is. I don’ know if that is an improvement.”

    I’d guess that the improved situational awareness lets us worry with more precision.

  13. Karl Schneider says:

    A very long time ago, when Paul still lived at Hales Corners, I flew several odd and unusual donated planes (from Tulsa and I would be accompanied by a friend in a “real” plane to give me a ride home) up to that little airport which didn’t even have a name that I can recall, it was right by his house and he and Audrey always had a cocktail waiting for us after the strange little arrival was secured. Point being, flying single-engine at night isn’t all that much different from overwater but we all did it without a second thought back when we were indestructible and immortal. :-)
    * Usually Hurley Boehler who sadly has departed from us, or Gene Chase who went on to be the director of the EAA museum up in OSH.

  14. Gary Lacher says:

    I’m based in MI too (Ottawa Exec), and go around in winter and with PX. Still, I have crossed the lake several times but I always don my life jacket with PLB and strobe attached and climb like crazy in my 177RG to cross as high as possible with flight following or IFR. My first flight across though was at 13,500 on a crystal clear night eastbound with a nice tail wind so I calculated no more than a couple of minutes of “exposure”. BUT let me tell you it is DARK out. Got current on instruments again right after!

  15. Ken Kokjer says:

    In 1999, the day after Kennedy went down off the east coast, I was flying my 182 from Madison, WI to Ely, MN. I elected the dogleg to Duluth. Directly over Duluth Int’l my engine quit. Why is a longer story. The no sweat, dead stick into a long runway directly below was a WHOLE lot different from the landing had I gone direct. I’ll bet I wouldn’t have had half the Coast Guard and Navy looking for me, either. This fall, flying up the east coast, I still found myself very uncomfortable over only several miles of open water.

  16. dpn says:

    No one has mentioned carb icing as an over water consideration. I once flew the coast of a large lake in MA. I was about 3000 feet when the engine started to run very rough. I pulled the carb heat and the engine stopped. Fortunately there was an airport right below me and I was able to land without further incident. Talk about pucker factor though! I called the FBO where I rent the airplane and explained what happened. The old timer asked where I was located. He said, “think about it, where do you find the most moisture? Over a lake of course. Go out and look at the ground and under the front of the airplane see if you see water. If you do you had serious carb ice”. Sure enough he was right.

  17. John Patson says:

    Back in those days, motors were hand built, even to the point of individual pistons and bearings being turned by the builder.
    Now, even assemblage of most new motors is done by robots, and they do a far better job than humans could ever do.
    It is this technological advance which has made the likelihood of an engine failure so much less than it used to be.

  18. ds says:

    my instructor alwas says its what you feel comfterbal with fly at your own risk as long as you aret breaking the laws

    • Karl Schneider says:

      Sadly, it is my duty to inform you that your instructor is an idiot.

      • ds says:

        karl its like flying in marginal weather if you dont feel comfterbal doing it dont fly in it. if you dont feel comfterbal flying acrost a large body of water dont do it all hes pretty much saying is if you dont feel safe doing it dont do it simple as that u as the pilot determin it its ur own risk if u feel safe with the weather and its legal to fly fly in you feel safe crosing a large body of water cross it but its up to you as the piilot with what you feel comfterbal with the flying and its legal to fly

  19. ds says:

    yes i do fly better then i can spell i can spell any thing and ya i just think htat how my instructor put it fly with what ur comfterable and feel safe with is the better way that way you wont put your self in a bad situation

  20. Great ideas that I have never thought of-thank you!

  21. Graham Horne says:

    Crossing the English Channel, 26 miles min, in a Skyfox at 60kts, and VFR is do-able if you circle climb to 1.5 miles altitude (glide ratio 9:1) till at the 13 mile midpoint then begin to breathe normally again. I remained in sight of water at all times, looking straight down, as the thick moist european air, brightly lit by sunlight, allowed no horizontal view. I can contribute because I have done a ‘controlled flight into water’ in a land plane. I later got a water rating, but have not balanced those ldgs numbers yet.

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