As airline accidents go, the crash of National Airlines Flight 193 into Escambia Bay on May 8, 1978, comes close to being a "best possible case." It could have been a worst possible case.
The Federal Aviation Administration has safety regulations that supposedly govern flights over water. The regulations already are inadequate and wretchedly enforced.And the regulations stand to become even more inadequate if a proposed rule change now being considered by the FAA is adopted.
Flight 193 went down in mild weather and calm seas, just three nautical miles from the runway at Pensacola, Fla., where it was attempting a landing. It settled to rest in a mere 12 feet of water, virtually on the lap of a good-sized tugboat.
Yet even with help immediately at hand, rescue operations took more than half an hour, and three of the plane's 52 passengers drowned.
National Flight 193, from Miami to Pensacola, via Tampa, New Orleans, and Mobile, Ala., carried no life rafts.
The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require rafts on so-called over-water flights. Complete water survival gear is mandated only for "extended" over-water flights.
The present cut-off for "over-water flights" is 50 nautical miles, but for some time the FAA has been waiving its own regulations and permitting a number of airlines to make routine jaunts as far as 167 miles from shore with minimal and inadequate flotation equipment on board.
Soon the airlines may no longer need to ask for such waivers of the 50 -nautical-mile rule. The FAA is proposing to extend the limit to 400 nautical miles for multi-engined turbojet aircraft, such as the DC-10s. Multi-engined turboprop planes would be permitted a 150-nautical-mile limit. Smaller aircraft -- DC-4s and 6s and Convairs, among others -- would be allowed to go 100 nautical miles out carrying only life vests or other "approved flotation devices ," such as cushions.
If the FAA's proposed rules are adopted, they will make a bad situation worse.
In anything short of a "best possible" crash, not to mention one several hundred miles at sea, life rafts or slide rafts, which automatically inflate and float tree of a sinking craft, are needed for passenger survival.
In the effort to cut down on suburban noise pollution, airports are routing an increasing number of incoming and outgoing flights over lakes, rivers, or the ocean, and these increases are believed to add to the likelihood of airline accidents involving water.
Safety officials of the Air Line Pilots Association, a group that is urging the FAA to tighten, not loosen, its over-water safety regulations, estimate that at least 50 major US airports routinely route flights over water.
Air safety experts almost unanimously agree that a crash in water is inherently more survivable than one on land. Even a bellybuster of a landing at sea doesn't compare in impact to hitting a mountain head-on, or even miring up in a field.
Because airplanes usually float for a few minutes before sinking, people ordinarily have time to get out of the craft. But, once they enter the alien aquatic environment, proper equipment often will mean the difference between surviving and succumbing.
Yet the airlines -- and the FAA -- apparently assume that people involved in a ditching or an unplanned water impact will be able to extricate their vests from under their seats and from beneath carry-on luggage, get the bags unzipped, and figure out how to fasten them properly -- all in a matter of seconds. Unless the bags are properly secured, they're all but worthless: They will not keep a person's head above water.
At Pensacola, only two of the 60 people aboard, and this includes the six crew members, managed to get themselves harnessed properly into their life vests.
Life vests of the type now carried by most planes originally were designed to be put on before flight and worn during the entire overwater trip. they weren't made to be put on in a possibly dark cabin during the shock of a crash.
Even worse than the vests are the flotation cushions, which are the only water safety equipment carried by most commuters and by some of the larger planes. The US Coast Guard won't permit the cushions to be used as life preservers on boats, but the FAA has few qualms about allowing the airlines to use them as their sole water safety equipment.
Although life vests, if properly fitted and put on, are far better than cushions, they also shouldn't be the only safety equipment carried on planes during over-water flights.
In warm waters, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, survivors of a crash forced to rely solely on vests could be threatened by sharks. Colder waters present other hazards for the person spending any length of time in a life vest.
The average Coast Guard search and rescue time is two hours, and seven or more hours are not unusual. With rafts, crash survivors would have an excellent chance of remaining alive until the Coast Guard arrives.
With a curious blend of fatalism and myopic optimism, FAA officials defend the present rules and discuss the proposed changes.
* The FAA makes much of a distinction between a planned "ditching" at sea and an unplanned "water impact." Agency officials seem to assume that a water impact won't be survivable, with or without extra equipment. But at most, where passengers are concerned, the difference between the one type of crash and the other is a few minutes of preparation time.
* FAA officials observe that there never has been a planned ditching a regularly scheduled domestic aircraft, and they conclude from this that such an accident isn't likely to happen. They ignore the fact that in recent years there have been nine unintentional water impacts involving large jets in US offshore waters and many times that number worldwide. Many of these accidents were survivable, at least in part because the planes had rafts on board.
* The FAA cites increased engine reliability and gliding time as justification for its present over-water regulations and its new proposals. However, most airplane accidents aren't caused by engine failure. Accidents result from a myriad of unforeseeables, such as human error, bad weather, fuel pollution, or bird ingestion. Many of the airline companies are lobbying hard to get the rafts off their so- called "limited" over-water flights. The airlines argue that eliminating the rafts will save badly needed energy.
But the real reason the airlines are pressing for raft removal is one of economics, not energy. The heavy, bulky rafts cut down on passenger load.
Modern technology is available for the design of lightweight rafts, but the airlines haven't taken advantage of scientific know- how in that area, and aren't likely to do so unless the FAA insists.
Until the FAA stops going along with the airlines' "cost-benefit" approach to flight safety over water, millions of unsuspecting passengers will continue to be taken for a needlessly hazardous ride.