Myth-Busting: Do Airplanes Really Float On Water?

Airplanes enable us to travel massive distances and cross the land and sea much faster than any boat or car. If you’re planning a trip that is taking you over any significant body of water, you will no doubt wonder if airplanes can float in the unlikely event of an emergency or crash landing.

Most airplanes can float on water for some time in the event of an emergency landing. Certain airplanes are designed to land and take off from water using specially designed skids known as seaplanes.

Read on to learn more about how airplanes float on water and what you can expect in the event of a water landing.

It must be noted at this point that occurrences necessitating water landing are extremely rare – airplanes are incredibly safe, relatively speaking. Consider this article to be theoretical in nature, for the most part.

Can Airplanes Float on Water?

The vast majority of airplanes are designed to use runways to facilitate their take-off and landing, but as mentioned in the introduction, there are seaplanes that are purposely built to make use of water bodies rather than tarmac for this function.

Airplanes designed to use tarmac runways can safely crashland and float on water under the right conditions, enabling their passengers to escape relatively unharmed. Safely landing on choppy waters and in windy conditions make this more dangerous and will rely almost entirely on the skill of the pilot.

One famous example of a water lander is US Airways flight 1549. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard. This feat has been immortalized in the 2016 film Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood. 

Would a Plane Sink in the Ocean?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the ocean, emergency landings get significantly more difficult. The ocean does not have a calm, smooth surface by any stretch of the imagination.

A plane can successfully execute an emergency landing on the ocean’s surface, but the chances of this are much less than on a calm body of water. Even if an emergency landing is successful, the plane will eventually sink.

The good news is that once you are at cruising altitude, the chances of a plane encountering an emergency are extremely low. The most dangerous parts of any flight are the take-off and landing, so you can rest easy once take-off has been cleared. 

Can You Survive a Plane Crash in Water?

In the hypothetical scenario that your plane ends up crashing into the water, you’ll no doubt wonder if you can survive such an event.

Surviving a plane crash in water depends on what has caused the crash, how much control the pilot has over the aircraft, and the condition of the water. It is possible to survive such a crash if the pilot can control the descent and glide the plane into the water (known as “ditching” the plane), but if the plane has a critical flight control failure that causes it to spiral or dive, your chances of surviving aren’t very good.

Surviving the initial crash isn’t where the end of your problems – if you do manage to get out of the aircraft safely, your continued survival depends on how far away you are from help.  Your main problem now is staying warm and hydrated, so the water temperature and access to drinkable water would be a determining factor at this point. 

If emergency services can react quickly and locate the crash site, then you have a good chance of making it home alive. If you aren’t so lucky, like the victims of Air France Flight 447, and it takes emergency services days to locate you, your chances of survival are significantly lower. In the case of the ill-fated flight 447, all 228 passengers and crew died in the five days it took for them to be found.

Take a look at this YouTube video that shows an aircraft successfully land on the Hudson River.

What Happens if a Plane Lands in the Sea? Do You Get Saved?

Landing in the sea is a scary prospect, even if it isn’t a likely or common occurrence on your average flight. Commercial aircraft are fitted with emergency equipment and must adhere to special requirements if they are operating near or over bodies of water.

All commercial aircraft are equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) device. These devices send out an emergency signal either when they are activated by the pilot, or they encounter an abnormally high G force that would not be encountered in normal operations. The frequencies at which they operate are constantly monitored by emergency services, who react quickly upon detecting an emergency beacon.

As described in the previous section, your chances of getting saved depend on your proximity to emergency services and the water conditions you find yourself in.

The activation of an ELT dramatically increases the chances that you will be found timeously. However, the challenges of searching for a plane wreck in open waters cannot be understated.

Searching for a crashed plane in the ocean is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. For example, the infamous Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 seemingly vanished without a trace in 2014, with 239 people on board.

In 2022, 8 years later, the investigation was still inconclusive because the aircraft’s ELTs did not activate to give authorities the head start they needed to save the lives of MH370’s passengers. This has prompted a redesign of the ELTs to broadcast when distress conditions are encountered rather than with the G force of an impact.

The Clock Starts Ticking

The aircraft may stay afloat for a while if it does not come apart during impact thanks to air trapped in the fuselage and wings, which may help emergency services locate the crash site, but it is not recommended for survivors to remain in or on a plane that has ditched in water.

Conclusion

In the unlikely event that a water landing is necessary, your chances of survival depend on various factors, including the circumstances that cause the crash and the condition of the water you are landing in.

To put it in perspective, the rate of fatal air crashes is slightly over 1 for every 100,000 hours of flight, compared to about 1/100 on average for cars. This means you are more likely to have an accident on the way to the airport than you are on a flight.