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While planning the Panama Canal flight an interesting subject came up regarding selection of altitude. We all know that the higher you go, the farther you can glide. This flight had one portion that followed a railroad track, including two stretches where your only viable engine-out option was landing in water next to the tracks. It was the only way rescuers could affect a quick retrieval. Power lines and thick jungle dictated the requirement.
So the question that some asked was “why fly high?” They had a good point. During the periods where an engine out was going to result in a water landing regardless of height, it didn’t matter as much. But it still was a tradeoff as the graphic shows. For three reasons: 1) at altitude, time spent within range of landing options was greater thus lowering exposure and 2) you would have time to find the best place for an approach, 3) more time may allow restarting the motor.
We had a height limit of 2500 feet imposed by the Canal Authority so that air traffic could continue overhead. They had been limited to a floor of probably 3000 feet so they wouldn’t conflict with our flight. During the overwater/jungle portion there were only two landing spots that would have been dry. They were spaced about 7 miles apart. There was no way to remain within gliding distance but height did increase the amount of time you spent within range of those spots. So I chose that option. As high as I could for the least amount of exposure.
Is one choice “better” than another? Not at all. Just like you could argue that choosing not to fly a paramotor is a better choice because it’s safer. Each of us makes our own trades. Phil and I, who went high, missed out on some sights and experiences that those who flew low got to enjoy. Of course we also got to mingle with the clouds by flying higher. Most of us (maybe everybody) had floatation so going in the water shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
My hope is, however, that pilots make informed choices on their risk. Check out the graphic at right and then understand the variables. If you’re over water without floatation, then choosing to fly low risks a lot more. About 1 in 10 pilots (approx) who go in the water, drown if they don’t have floatation.
Choose knowingly and have fun!