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Engine Failure Over Water (SBFT)

Engine failure is not a good thing to experience, it is rare in General Aviation (GA), it does happen. Engine failure while flying over a large body of water such as, the ocean, Great Lakes or even between islands like the Bahamas or Hawaii. It does not sound very comforting and can be very stressful and scary, especially when it is over the ocean, at night. 


  • Cessna 172/182 or Piper Cherokee, Arrow.

  • Single engine land


  • Private Pilot with 400 hours total time

  • Not Instrument Rated


Scenario 1:

You and a friend had flown out to Catalina airport (KAVX) to enjoy one of those delicious 100-dollar buffalo burgers at the airport restaurant, one February evening. The airport is getting ready to close for the night and you are the last airplane to depart back to the mainland. As you deport, you begin to climb to 9,500 feet and contact SoCal approach to get clearance through Los Angeles class bravo back to Riverside airport (RAL).


  • Weather for the night – clear skies and 8SM visibility. Marine layer is moving in on the west side of Catalina Island.

  • Wind – 240 at 10kts.


You are climbing through 7,000 feet, the engine begins to run rough for a minute or two, shortly after it quiets.

What do you do, turn back to the airport, continue to the coastline, or ditch in the ocean?


Scenario 2:

As the PIC, you and your wife or girlfriend had flown out to Santa Barbara airport (KSBA) for a romantic evening dinner. The sun has already set and the stars are out as you head back to the airport to fly home. After you completed your before takeoff run-up and checklist, you call tower for takeoff. ATC comes back with, “Cessna N123RH, fly runway heading, maintain 1,300 feet, clear for take off runway 15R.”


  • Weather for the night - clear skies and 10SM visibility.

  • Wind – light and variable

  • NOTAMs – n/a


After leveling off at 1,300 feet MSL a few minutes later ATC comes back with, “Cessna N123RH, contact Santa Barbara depart good night.” By now, you have been flying over the ocean and its pitch dark. Santa Barbara departure has not given you clearance to climb and fly own navigation. You realize there is no moon light shining on the ocean to give me a bit of a horizon reference. At this point you really have to look at and rely on your instruments, to where you are almost flying IFR, but not. After flying along for what seemed to be an eternity, you know you are getting close to the Channel Islands. 

All of a sudden your engine quiets, you are halfway between the airport and the Channel Islands.

What do you do, turn back to the airport, continue to the Island, or ditch in the ocean?

Leave your comments below


A few tips:

  • A good thing to remember is communication, no matter if the over water flight is VFR or IFR, a very strong recommendation is to establish radio communication with ATC.

  • Carry water survival gear, especially in a single engine airplane.

  • If possible, attend a water survival course.


Couple of good articles to read:

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