By Kristian Ljundkvist
You’re two hours into a cross-country trip, flying peacefully over a forested wilderness about an hour out from your destination. You’re enjoying the silence on the radio when you suddenly notice the oil pressure gauge – out of the corner of your eye – dropping to zero. Shortly thereafter: Silence.
Your training kicks in and you make a successful emergency landing in a small clearing. Your airplane is totalled, but you are mostly alright. After a few moments of adrenaline-soaked disbelief, it starts to dawn on you that all that silence on the radio means there’s no one around. You might be stuck here for a while.
There are five main priorities in a survival situation: Fire, shelter, signaling, food and water and medical attention.
The order of these priorities will change with the circumstances. Given the remote areas backcountry pilots fly over, and the likelihood that an emergency will take place far from civilization, signaling is a high priority for pilots.
We’re very lucky to live in a time when 406 Mhz beacons are available. If you are successful in deploying a 406 ELT or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), you have most likely shortened the amount of time you’ll have to survive before rescue to within 24 hours or less.
A study of NTSB accident reports uncovers examples of crash sites located very quickly with the aid of 406 MHz technology, as well as other examples of people without this technology who were stranded for days or longer, sometimes with tragic outcomes.
Keep in mind that even if you are located quickly, there’s no guarantee Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel will be able to reach you right away, depending on your location or the weather. It’s wise to mentally prepare for a 24-48 hour ordeal.
You probably have more means of signaling at your disposal than you think:
- Aircraft ELT;
- Aircraft VHF Radios (try 121.5 as well as any local frequencies);
- PLB/Spot/Delorme InReach.
- Aircraft beacon (highly visible at night);
- Landing light reflector could make a great signaling mirror during daytime;
- Polished brake disk could also be used as a signaling mirror;
- Brightly colored or polished debris from your aircraft can be arranged in an ‘X’ shape to attract attention from above.
- Firearm (Three shots fired in succession).
At its most fundamental, survival is about keeping your body core temperature as close to 98.6° Fahrenheit as possible.
To achieve this you’ll most likely need some form of shelter. The job of your shelter is to augment the clothes on your body to keep as much of your body heat as possible from escaping into either the ground or the atmosphere.
No need to get overly fancy here. Use natural features such as tree branches, rock outcroppings, etc., and augment with whatever materials you can find.
In most cases you’ll want to stay close to your aircraft, since that’s where your ELT (hopefully) is transmitting from, and it’s most likely more visible from the air than any other shelter you’ll construct.
Your aircraft also contains many resources for your survival:
- Upholstery can be made into insulating wraps for your feet or insulation around your body;
- Fuel can be used to make a fire;
- Polished/shiny metal can be used for signaling;
- Cables and wires make good cordage, etc.
Unfortunately, you are likely to suffer some injuries in any aircraft crash. Your goal is to keep yourself and your passengers alive until help arrives, not to be able to address every possible medical condition.
Be prepared to keep airways open, provide CPR, stop excessive bleeding from open wounds, deal with shock, etc.
On the other hand, you probably won’t need to worry about creating splints for broken bones or constructing stretchers as long as you don’t leave the crash site.
There are several great books on wilderness medicine. I recommend Paul Aurbach’s “Medicine for the Outdoors,” as well as any book on the subject by Buck Tilton.
While fire may not always be necessary to stay alive, it definitely is a morale booster, a signaling aid, a way to purify water, dry clothes, and provide warmth.
You should always carry three methods of lighting a fire, and practice often in varying conditions. More about that later.
Water is critical in any prolonged survival scenario. You’ll think more clearly and your body will operate better if you’re hydrated. Just by breathing you’re losing water.
If you have water available, drink some of it right away. You may need to ration water later, but don’t deny yourself water during the critical initial phase after the accident.
Some iodine or other water purification tablets take virtually no space in your survival kit, but if you have no means of filtering or purifying water, you should still strongly consider drinking any clear, clean water that’s available. While Giardia is no joke, it won’t set in for weeks in most cases, and you’ll have access to medical attention at that point.
Food is unlikely to play a major role in your survival scenario. While it’s uncomfortable to be hungry, humans can go weeks, if not months, with very little food as long as you keep your exertion level low.
Again, by staying close to the crash site you’ll save calories you’d otherwise expend in traveling.
Basic Survival Gear
Pilots often ask what sort of survival gear they should carry. While having the right gear can make your survival much easier, it’s knowing how to make the best use of what you have that really matters. Put more energy into practicing and learning how use your tools than into shopping for “magical” gear.
One of the best ways to prepare for a survival scenario and improve your kit is to simply go out into the woods carrying only your survival gear. (Bring your regular camping gear as well, but pretend you don’t have access to it.)
This exercise will condition you to relying on only those items you’ll have available post-crash, and will quickly alert you to things you should add to your kit.
Using only the items in your survival vest, try to build a simple shelter, figure out how you’d find and treat water and build a fire. Also figure out all your options for signaling for help.
This is an exercise that I try to perform at least annually with my wife and kids. There’s no need to make this a grueling experience — the idea is to spur the survival mindset and get everyone thinking creatively about your options.
A good time to practice this is when you’re out camping anyway. In a real situation you’ll need all the help you can get, so preparing your family will pay off in spades should the worst occur.
A basic fly fishing vest from one of the larger sporting goods stores makes a good, inexpensive option for a survival vest. You’ll probably want something light and ideally vented for summer time.
Fly fishing vests are short by design, which helps make them work in the cockpit, and are usually loaded with pockets. There are many fancier and more expensive options, but keep things simple to begin with. It’s the stuff you’re carrying that matters, not how cool your vest looks.
A good knife is the indispensable tool in any survival situation. There are many options for knives. Your main priorities are sharpness, ruggedness, and an edge that will hold. Ideally, you want a blade that’s relatively easy to sharpen in the field. A folding knife is easier to carry, but make sure it has a secure lock. The last thing you need in a survival scenario is another injury.
A well-regarded and inexpensive option is the Swedish Mora knife. It’s rugged enough for “batoning” when cutting larger branches or for any reasonable use, great for cutting wood shavings for tinder or kindling, easy to sharpen and cheap enough that you can afford to buy more than one.
I’ve spent years learning how to make fire with friction (bow drills and the like). I can tell you that, even with all that practice, it’s the last thing I’d want to rely on in a survival situation. Some sort of reliable method of producing a spark and of carrying a flame is absolutely invaluable.
Carrying three methods of starting a fire is easy and costs little. A Bic lighter, some storm matches, and a firesteel with some form of tinder is all the kit you need.
A firesteel or ferro rod is a fantastic tool, since it’s almost unbreakable, works even after being submerged in water, and gives an almost limitless number of fires. There are many brands on the market, but the best ferro rod for the money I’ve found is available from Firesteel.com.
Having some vaseline-soaked cotton balls in a ziploc bag in your survival vest will make starting a fire an absolute cinch. They’re almost free to make, easy to light and burn hot for nine minutes. One cotton ball should be enough to light a fire in almost any conditions. I’ve probably tried all the store-bought tinders on the market and cotton balls work better than any of them for me.
To make fire balls, just take a cotton ball and saturate the outside with vaseline. Pack your cotton balls in a film canister or a small zip lock. I use a small Alok Sak, which is essentially a higher quality ziploc. I squeeze all the air out of it so it takes up very little space in my vest.
To use your fire balls, just take one out, break it open to expose the dry cotton inside. Place the ball at the base of your fire lay and hit it with some sparks from your ferro rod.
Use your knife to make a good-sized pile of thin slivers of wood for your kindling. This will allow you to get a fire going even in damp or wet conditions. This is an area where practice pays off in a huge way.
Your most important shelter is the clothes you’re wearing. These days we live our lives in amazing comfort — our houses, offices and even cars rarely stray from the 65°-70° range.
Consider that a flight even in the middle of summer might take you over snow-capped mountains, or areas that easily dip below freezing at night. Dress for the worst conditions you’ll fly over, and you’ll be much better off in an emergency.
Having some supplies that help you stay dry and protected is invaluable. A lightweight tarp would be great, but can be expensive unless you’re into ultralight backpacking and already own one. Carrying camping gear in your plane is, of course, always a good idea, but in the case of a post-crash fire the contents of the plane would be lost.
Carrying a bivy sack from Adventure Medical Kits in your vest is a great backup. They’re a reasonably inexpensive, pack down small and should help keep you both warm and dry in many environments.
I have tried sleeping in a contractor’s garbage bag, which is also doable. If you look around, you can find them in bright orange, which is helpful for signaling as well. There’s no question that a bivy would be more comfortable.
There are many pre-packaged medical kits on the market. Most of them are too large to fit into your survival vest, but should be in your plane.
Again, if you are unable to get to the plane post-crash, carrying some basics in your vest is crucial. A couple of wound dressings, a means of flushing out wounds with water, a small roll of duct tape and some small packets of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, would be a good start.
This is not intended to be an all-inclusive survival manual. Rather, it is intended to be a good starting-off point for your own survival and safety plan. The intention is to collect ideas that any pilot can incorporate into their flying plans, and that will improve your chances of being found alive should the worst occur.
While survival gear is important, we all know that the most important survival gear is what’s between your ears.
Just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. Whatever gear or techniques you chose to use, make sure you practice with them before you have to trust them with your life.
“Dress for the crash” is great advice in motorcycling, and also applies to flying. Don’t fly over cold country in a T-shirt and flip flops with the heater cranked. Dress for the climate you’re overflying.
Finally, the main factor that determines the outcome of your ordeal is likely to be the time it takes for rescuers to find you. Carry some sort of 406 Mhz beacon on your person and/or a 406 Mhz ELT on your aircraft. Make sure that everyone on board knows how to activate them in case you become incapacitated.
For more detailed articles and videos and survival gear and technique, go to BackcountryPilot.org/Survival.