Survival of the Smartest

Preparedness is key to staying alive in an emergency.


Its happened. What you knew in the abstract was possible but never thought would happen…well, just did. You’re down, crashed or forced down miles from a runway and out of sight of civilization. You never expected to be in this situation-this only happens to other pilots, right? But there you are, alive, maybe injured-and in for a wait.

Until the search and rescue (SAR) folks swoop in to save you, survival depends on you. Bad time to start thinking about survival skills, emergency kits and the like. If you get out of this one, you promise yourself, you’ll never again fly unprepared. Youll be smarter.

Whats the Scenario?

You could be lost in weather that precludes searching; you could go down in a rough area near an urban center that presents challenges such as thick forest, remote sections of the plains or mountainous areas to the SAR team. Fortunately, we can point out some simple ideas and tools for surviving until the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) or other searchers lead rescuers to us. And we all possess the most important tool we need-our brains. If, as Thomas Edison opined after inventing the light bulb, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” this article is meant to serve as the 1% required to move you to exert the other 99% needed to prevent individualized extinction.

For what its worth, my credentials in this area are a little above average, but not at all expert. Over the years, Ive earned the highest first aid card of the American Red Cross, trained and carried equipment for some long, over-water flying, trained for and participated in arctic flights, and, in the past five years, taken annual courses on basic survival skills for pilots, which included use of automatic electronic defibrillators, water ditching, use of smoke hoods and a simulation of evacuating from a smoke-filled cabin. This article is a compendium of those training and flight experiences, reinforced with information from a variety of other sources and individuals.

Remember Steve Fossett?

Fossetts successful record-setting exploits are memorable: solo in a balloon around the world, around the world without refueling (solo) in the Virgin Global Flyer, record times set and record altitudes attempted in sailplanes and more. Fossett was trained in and familiar with survival preparations, but on September 3, 2007, Labor Day weekend, he launched on a recreational flight and never returned. He filed no flight plan; he told friends that he just planned to get out and enjoy a morning of flying in a borrowed Citabria. Flying out of the private Flying M strip south of Reno, Nevada, Fossett faced fairly hostile terrain in pretty much every direction-with little population in three of four quadrants. Like most of us, he did not fly that last flight prepared to survive for days after a forced landing in the wilderness. His was merely a pleasure outing intended to end at the same runway where it started. Only when someone noticed he had been gone longer than expected-beyond the fuel duration of his plane-did a search begin. And, months after going missing, he was finally declared deceased.

Few of us would give much thought to our need to survive in the wilds on a “local flight.” Ive seen little consideration given to the what-ifs before people jump in their machines and blast off for some cruising in the immediate area-an hour or so out and back again. The lesson here: File a flight plan, make sure someone knows you’re flying and in which direction. A little advance prep can put you in a position to stay alive until rescue.

Talking About the Odds

In 2006, according to the 2007 Joseph T. Nall Report, produced annually by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, general aviation hit a historic low in accidents, at 1319. Of those accidents, only 273 produced fatalities-488 of them. So right off, at least for the 90% of general aviation aircraft weighing no more than 12,500 pounds, you’re an odds-on favorite to survive a crash.

Aircraft accidents disproportionately occur near an airport or a host city or town. But a significant number of accidents end well away from the airport and out of sight of observers. Thanks to the CAP, law enforcement and other searchers, people who survive such events are usually found alive, if not perfectly healthy, and taken to medical treatment in time to make a recovery. Nonetheless, we know what can happen when things go wrong.

First Steps to Surviving

Knowing now that most people in most crashes survive most of the time may not be news to you, but thinking about what youd do in such an event may be. Experts consulted for this story offered the obvious: If you know you’re going down, a radio call should be at the top of your list, right along with trying to pick a survivable touchdown spot.

If you’re talking to ATC, inform them of your location as precisely as possible. If you’re not talking to anyone and know the frequency for Flight Service, try that. Otherwise, when time is critical, 121.5 MHz is the way to go. And in these post 9-11 days, 121.5 is monitored more than ever.

Next, assume that your exact whereabouts are not known, and undertake the immediate tasks that will help you survive:

Control any bleeding and stabilize your passengers injuries and your own.

Determine whether your ELT is working and, if not, try to get it functioning. If you have something more than an ELT-such as a 406 MHz personal locator beacon-activate it as well.

From here, the next best steps depend on the circumstances.

If its daylight, scout around for a source of water and gather some before dark. Gathering wood for a fire should also be part of the scouting trip. Resist the urge to try to hike out; experts ranging from the CAP to Coast Guard personnel recommend staying with the wreckage because it will be easier to spot than a lone individual-and the crash site is what the ELT beckons searchers to find.

A diverse first aid kit is a must. Options vary, but of those reviewed for this story, one offered by Dr. Brent Blue, a pilot and certified emergency room physician, offers a lot that is beneficial medically and to survival in general at his AeroMedix web site.

When You Must Improvise

Focusing again on medical needs, its likely that what you’re carrying or wearing, plus the surrounding environment, can provide materials and tools useful for treating a variety of injuries.

Bleeding. Assuming that you have little or no first-aid gear on board-aside from maybe a little box with bandage strips and some gauze pads-you can improvise. For example, direct pressure on a cloth compress over a wound will help stem blood flow.

For arterial bleeding (you’ll know this by the blood spurts) a tourniquet is in order. You can likely create both the cloth compress and the tourniquet from your clothing or other commonly carried items. For example, a belt can serve as a tourniquet; clean cotton socks, a T-shirt, shirt or blouse will work as a compress.

Apply the tourniquet between the heart and the wound, as close as possible to the wound. Be mindful that a tourniquet needs to be released every few minutes to allow blood to flow to tissue around the wound. Otherwise, you may starve a limb for blood and up the risk of further injury or amputation.

Broken bones. Broken limbs should be stabilized using a splint, which can often be improvised. For example, if a wrist is broken, a knee board can serve as the splint as can the cover of a hardback book, a piece of wood or even part of a short tow bar. Use your belt, straps off a flight bag or luggage, or in a pinch, shoe laces to secure it. Pad either the limb or the splint to better distribute pressure and prevent additional discomfort.

Respiratory distress. If one of your charges is not breathing, mouth-to-mouth is in order (worries about contracting a disease are small, because acids in the mouth kill a lot of bacteria). If a person is laboring to breathe, listen to the chest for any sounds of gurgling-or worse, fluid oozing from the mouth or nose; these could be signs of fluid in the lungs. Left unchecked, such a fluid build-up can drown a person.

The best you can do is to carefully turn the person so that his or her head is downslope from the rest of the body and the head is turned sideways. Fluid can drain that way and improve the victims breathing. If the ground is too flat for this, use whatever is available to raise the hips above the head, and use something else to elevate the legs above the hips.

Shock. This may be hard to recognize without some training, but left unchecked shock can do insidious damage. Check for cool, clammy skin, shallow breathing or sweats. If you find most of these, chances are the person is suffering from shock. Elevate the persons legs and wrap him or her for warmth.

What Now?

You’re alive and stable, hungry and really thirsty. The first thing you should understand is that you can live a long time without food, but not without water. In fact, with proper hydration, you can live days or even weeks longer than you will without it. Lack water or some form of hydration, and you’re a candidate to go non-functional in a couple of days and die in a couple more-faster if you’ve suffered blood loss or you’re in a particularly dry or cold environment.

Without advocating even more consumption of those pernicious plastic water bottles, a gallon of water per person can greatly extend your life expectancy in the wild. Of course, youd need that on board. If you don’t have it, finding water is imperative once the immediate first-aid needs are covered. An open stream, creek or river can be a source-but the untreated water may offer its own risks, so water purification tablets are a smart addition to a small survival kit.

For ditching at sea, the life raft you’re required to carry should have at least a container or tarp for collecting dew and rainfall. Better is a purification pump that desalinates sea water. Be aware that drinking untreated salt water accelerates dehydration, and too much of it will kill you. You’re better off to go thirsty than to drink salt water.

As for food, survival web sites and books are awash in information on edible plants and roots, but your best bet is a stash of calorie-rich nonperishable packaged food such as snack bars, energy bars, dried fruits or nuts. Ideally, your cache should be enough for at least two days for each person on board.

Think Where You’re Flying and Prepare Accordingly

Obviously, preparing survival equipment needs to be proportional to the risk. Carrying a life raft and a personal floatation device for each occupant may be required for flying to the Cayman Islands, but its excessive for a cross-country flight with no over-water segments longer than your gliding distance to dry land. The same goes for gearing up for arctic survival when you fly primarily in warm weather and over major developed areas.

Planning flights into remote mountain areas, across bodies of water wider than your glide distance or into other regions of extreme geographic features-deserts, jungles or remote areas in cold-weather climes-demands specialized preparation, and consulting some experts before making such trips is just smart.

However, experts stress that even those of us whose routine flying keeps us within sight of civilization can benefit from putting together standard survival equipment. With a basic kit of tools that you leave in your flight bag or aircraft, you will be better prepared to stay alive and contribute to your own rescue.

Everyday Gear for Everyday Flight

Hows your ELT? Have you checked it recently per the FARs? Really? Was it since you last annualed the airplane or replaced the ELT battery? If you answered yes to this question without hesitation, congratulations! Too many pilots neglect this basic survival tool between the required interim checks.

A functioning ELT, while far from a state-of-the-art tool, remains a viable beacon for the angels of SAR efforts. It wont necessarily draw searchers quickly (as much as a couple of hours can pass between the overflight of satellites that detect the 121.5 MHz signal of an ELT). And even after satellite detection, it takes time for searchers to launch and home in on the location of the chirp. There’s another type of ELT tool available-a wrist-watch-contained ELT made by European chronograph maker Breitling. Fossett owned one but was not wearing it when he flew off to become one of aviation historys newest mysteries. (Be forewarned: The 121.5 MHz tool loses its satellite ears come February 2009.)

A better tool is an Enhanced Personal Locator Beacon that uses the 406 MHz band; not only does the satellite detection work better, the better EPRBs, as they’re called, employ a GPS engine to provide latitude and longitude to the satellite. A small number of 406 MHz ELTs are available for installation in the aircraft. They’re expensive and require registration, but there’s no quicker or more accurate tool for leading searchers to you. The 406 MHz ELTs and EPRBs work more quickly and provide a more precise location for searchers to start their swings. Response time for a typical EPRB is a few minutes compared to the hour or two it takes a satellite to hear the old 121.5 MHz ELT.

Other items to consider for an everyday survival kit include:

A signal mirror; they’re light, durable, and have an aiming hole to help you put the beam on target. While a beacon of some form may beckon searchers close by, a signal mirror can make your location jump out to them. Another option is a small pack of pocket flares, though not all will be suitable for aviation.

A Mylar space blanket-one for each seat adds but a few ounces to your load.

A few Velcro straps for use securing splints or as a tourniquet; they’re available at outdoors stores, automotive departments or marine-supply shops.

A half-dozen each of small- to freezer-size plastic kitchen bags with a locking seal to use for gathering water, storing other items in the kit and for sealing up and disposing of waste materials. Speaking of water, a pocket water purification kit can be a lifesaver. The pills can prevent a host of ills; the pumps can remove debris as well.

A crash hammer is useful for breaking out the windows and cutting seat belts.

A good knife, folding or sheath, is useful for cutting cloth into strips, trimming wood for a fire or for cleaning game for food. A small sharpening kit will help keep the knife useful. Also, a knife with a saw blade on the back can be useful for cutting large pieces of wood, or cutting parts off of the plane to use for a makeshift shelter.

A fire-starting kit with a couple of Bic lighters. They take up little space, and having more than one adds redundancy to your fire-starting abilities. They will last more than long enough for your needs.

A flint-and-striker starter kit and some waterproof matches would be helpful, and learning how to use the kit in an environment where it doesn’t matter would also be wise. In addition to matches that can light and burn in the rain, some small tea light candles can be useful for adding warmth and heating water when firewood and kindling are scarce-or when you need a flame fast.

Other useful, light and compact items to consider:

A few fish hooks and small lead weights packed with 100 feet of 10-pound-test fishing line.

A coil of 50 feet of light rope or heavy twine for tying up Mylar blankets for makeshift tents. If you want to go really high-tech in terms of emergency shelter, AeroMedix offers a lightweight tent-inflatable with no rigid poles to add bulk or present packing problems.

Preparedness = Time = Survival

Time is the enemy, some say. The worse the conditions, the less time you have, and time is what you need for searchers to find you. This article may nudge you toward taking some basic steps and acquiring some gear to carry with you during your everyday flying. Maybe you’ll go further and assemble a more extensive kit because of the frequency with which you cross hostile, inhospitable terrain. But even a basic kit can help you get through those unexpected emergencies closer to home. Good luck, and safe flying!

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Dave Higdon
Dave travels far and wide as a long-time aviation journalist, so the subject of survival skills—what to pack, how to use it—was never far from his curiously sloping frontal lobes. Because we all tend to focus on the building and test-flying, knowing what to bring on that first long cross-country of the year gets lost like a Cleco in a chip storm.


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