Why Airplanes are Sprayed with Water

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There comes a time when an airline company or a new airplane enters commercial service, and airports celebrate these milestones with a water salute. This has become a meaningful tradition in the world of aviation. However, did you know that airplanes and airlines receive water salutes not only when they enter service for the first time at an airport, but also when they depart from the airport for the last time? In addition to this, there are also water cannon salutes to honor retiring pilots or air traffic controllers.

What is a “Water Salute”?

Spraying an airplane with water, often referred to as a “water salute,” is a symbolic tradition that holds significant value. This tradition is observed at airports to honor military veterans, dignitaries, new airlines, and airline services. The salute typically involves two firefighting vehicles that create arcs of water over an arriving or departing flight. It symbolizes respect, gratitude, and honor. This water salute usually lasts for about two minutes and can use up to 3000 gallons of water. The process involves positioning a pair of Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) vehicles, equipped with powerful water hoses, on each side of the aircraft’s path. This creates a high arch of water, and it can also be achieved by three vehicles forming a triangle, with water streams converging at the center.

water salute
Water Salute

The Purpose of Water Salutes for Celebratory Occasions

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Water salutes are performed for celebratory purposes, such as when an aircraft passes beneath water columns, often produced by one or more firefighting vehicles. At the airport, a number of vehicles are usually lined up perpendicular to the runway. The water columns form a series of symbolic arches, resembling a wedding procession passing under a water arch at a military wedding. Water salutes have been used to celebrate the retirement of senior pilots, air traffic control units, inaugural flights of new airlines to an airport, the first flight of a new aircraft type, and other significant events. In essence, this tradition is for celebratory purposes.

Examples of Water Salutes

When the Concorde made its final flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport, white and red water columns were used. U.S. President Donald Trump also received a water salute upon his departure from LaGuardia Airport after winning the 2016 presidential election. Water salutes are also used for ships and other vessels, where water is delivered by fireboats. This often happens for a ship’s first or last visit, retirement of a senior captain, inaugural or final sea voyage, or other celebratory occasions.

Key Reasons for Water Salutes

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Here are the main reasons for water salutes:

  1. They are used for a new airline launching its first flight from the airport.
  2. They are used for a new airplane entering commercial service for the first time.
  3. They are used when a retired pilot stops flying.
  4. They are used when an airline ceases operations and operates its final flight from that specific airport.

The exact origins of the water salute tradition in airports are not precisely known, but it is recognized that it harks back to the days of ocean liners. It was common for firefighting boats to spray water when ships left or entered ports. As a result, water salutes are not exclusive to airplanes alone; they are also given to ships. The concept emerged from maritime practices, and water salutes started becoming more common in the 1990s when Salt Lake City International Airport began welcoming retired Delta Air Lines pilots with an arch of water for their passing aircraft.

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