This week marks the tenth anniversary of the ditching of USAir Flight 1549. As we look back on that event, it may also be a good time to remember another important ditching – the ditching of ALM Flight 980.
While the Flight 1549 ditching is universally well known, the ALM Flight 980 ditching in the Caribbean Sea is not as well known, though it should be. There is no question that Sully’s ditching in the Hudson was a miraculous event. No one died. But Sully had a lot going in his favor. He ditched in a docile river with rescue boats nearby. The plane remained afloat for an extended period of time. And he had the benefit of a number of safety features and procedures that aided in the final outcome.
Captain Balsey DeWitt, the captain of ALM Flight 980, was not so lucky. He ditched 35 miles from he nearest coast in stormy seas with swells as high as fifteen feet. The plane remained afloat for less than five minutes. Not everyone made it out. The passengers and crew who did make it out before the plane sank had only their life vests and a lone escape chute to keep them afloat. The weather conditions and the time of day prevented rescue from boats. The only viable option was rescue by helicopter. But there were dangers with this as well. There was difficulty in locating the crash scene. The helicopters had limited range and were in danger of running out of fuel. There were weight restrictions and capacity limitations. Adding to all of these problems was the dwindling daylight. ALM 980 ditched just before 4:00 pm. It would be dark in less than three hours.
As a result of ALM Flight 980 and the investigation that followed, there have been a number of safety improvements. The next time you get on a plane and buckle up, just know that your seatbelt was redesigned as a result of ALM Flight 980. And remember in the film Sully when Tom Hanks gets on the PA and makes the “Brace” announcement? That line item in the emergency checklist came as a result of ALM Flight 980.