Intro to aviation wilderness survival

Note: This is not intended to be an all-inclusive survival manual. The author is not a survival expert. Rather, it is intended to be a good starting-off point for your own survival and safety plan. This document doesn't include advanced techniques that require either equipment or specialized skills that most people don't possess. The intention here is to collect ideas that pretty much any pilot can incorporate into their flying plans, and that will improve your chances of being found alive should the worst occur.

Survival Priorities

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Traditionally, there are five main priorities in a survival situation: Fire, Shelter, Signaling, Food/Water and Medical Attention.

The order of these priorities change with the circumstances. The remote areas we fly over, and the likelihood that an emergency will take place far from civilization, makes signaling a high priority for pilots.

As long as you take care of the signaling aspect, it's unlikely that you'll end up in a prolonged survival situation. With cell phones, Personal Locator Beacons, Spot messengers, etc. your chances of being found within 24 hours have improved dramatically in the last decade. Signaling is clearly a top priority.

Signaling

The object of signaling is to help rescuers find you. The ultimate tool for this is some sort of 406Mhz beacon with GPS, either built-in or connected to the unit. If you are successful in deploying a 406 beacon, you have most likely shortened the amount of time that you'll have to survive to 24 hours or less. Much less in many cases. Is you study accident reports in the NTSB database you will find examples of crash sites located very quickly with the aid of 406 MHz technology. You will also unfortunately find many other examples where people without this technology were stranded for days or longer, sometimes with tragic outcomes.

You probably have more means of signaling at your disposal than you think:

Radio Signaling:

  • Aircraft ELT
  • Aircraft VHF Radios (Try 121.5 as well as any local frequencies)

Visual Signaling:

  • 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.
  • Fire (smoke during daytime, light at night)

Audio Signaling:

  • Whistle
  • Firearms (three shots in succession)

Shelter

The object of shelter is, put simply, to keep as much as possible of your body heat from escaping into either the ground or the atmosphere. Your object, at it's simplest, is to keep your body core temperature as close to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit as possible.

Provided that you've determined that it's safe, your aircraft fuselage could make a pretty good shelter, depending on the crash damage. If the fuselage is not an option, consider using the wings for shelter, or as some part of your shelter. 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 fire
  • mirrors or reflectors can be used for signaling
  • cables make good cordage, etc.

Medical Attention

Unfortunately, you are likely to suffer some injuries in any aircraft crash. Your goal is to keep yourself and your party 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.

A great book on wilderness medicine is Paul Aurbach's Medicine for the Outdoors

Any book by Buck Tilton is also going to be good.

Fire

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.

Food/Water

Water is critical for any prolonged survival scenario. You'll think clearer and your body will operate better if you're hydrated. Just by breathing you're losing water. If you have water onboard your plane, something that I highly recommend, it's not a bad idea to drink some of it right away.

Some iodine or other water purification tablets take virtually no space in your survival kit. If you have no means of filtering or purifying water, you should still strongly consider drinking any clear, clean water that's available. Giardia won't set in for weeks in most cases, and you'll have access to medical attention at that point if that occurs.

Food is unlikely to play a major role in your survival scenario. 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 can save calories you'd otherwise expend in traveling. Setting the snares and traps that you find in survival manuals may help stave off boredom, but is unlikely to net you a meal.

Basic Survival Gear

Pilots often ask what sort of survival gear they should bring along. 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.

This article will give you a list of basic, inexpensive gear that you can carry in your survival vest. Please consider this as a starting off point -- a place from which your own experience, flying environment, passenger needs etc. will dictate further development.

One of the best ways to work on how you'd handle a survival scenario is to simply go out into the woods carrying only your survival gear. (Well, you should bring your regular camping gear as well, but pretend you don't have access to it.) This exercise will familiarize you with relying on what you have on your person post-crash, and may 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 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 harrowing 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.

Survival Vest

A good, inexpensive option for a survival vest is a basic fly fishing vest from one of the larger sporting goods stores. 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.

For a much more in-depth discussion on survival vests, see this article by John Vandene.

Knife

A good knife is an 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 doesn't fold, but is rugged enough for "batoning" when cutting larger branches or for any reasonable use, easy to sharpen and cheap enough that you can afford to buy more than one. Here's a catalog of Mora knives.

A medium-sized Swiss Army knife or multi-tool with a blade isn't a bad option either, as long as the knife blade locks. While the knife won't be as good as a dedicated one, it would provide other tools (saw blades, scissors) as well.

Firemaking Supplies

If you're an expert at firemaking, you can make do with almost no resources at all. For the rest of us, some sort of reliable method of producing a spark and of carrying a flame are invaluable.

A firesteel or ferro rod is a fantastic tool, since it's almost unbreakable, can be 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 your survival vest will make fire starting an absolute cinch. They're almost free to make, easy to light and burn hot for 9 minutes. One cotton ball should be enough to light a fire in almost any conditions.

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.

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.

If you don't have any tinder with you

Shelter

Your most important shelter is the clothes you're wearing. 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 always a good idea, but in the case where you can't retrieve it from the plane post-crash a great option would be one of the bivy sacks from Adventure Medical Kits. These are reasonably inexpensive, pack down small and should 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. I'd much prefer the bivy though.

Signaling

Ideally, your survival vest should contain a 406MHz PLB. If not that, something like a SPOT messenger or a satellite phone should allow you to alert SAR fairly quickly.

For signaling at day time when searchers are looking for you, a good signaling mirror and a good loud whistle could be very helpful. Both of these are available cheaply and in sizes small enough to easily fit in your vest.

Water

You should have some water in your plane for emergencies, but in case you can't get to it post-crash carrying some means of purifying water that you find on-site is very helpful. Again, if you should find yourself dehydrated but without access to purified water, go ahead and drink any clear water you find. You do run the risk of contracting Giardia, but you'll be out of the woods by then.

A great, relatively good-tasting alternative here are the Katadyn Micropur tablets. A small pack of tablets is easy to pack in your vest.

Medical Supplies

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 NSAIDs would be a good start.

For a more in-depth discussion on medical supplies, see this article by John Vandene.

In Conclusion

This article is intended as a starting point for pilots who haven't yet built up their survival gear to get started in the right direction. There are a myriad options when it comes to gear, and as we all know the most important 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.

Finally, I'd like to reiterate the point about signaling. The main factor that determines the outcome of your ordeal is likely to be the time it takes for rescuers to find you. Please carry some sort of 406Mhz beacon on your person and/or a 406Mhz ELT on your aircraft. Make sure that everyone on board knows how to activate them in case you become incapacitated.

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Written by Kristian Ljungkvist, July 2013

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Disclaimer

While this knowledge base is a compilation of information from various sources, some official in nature, it is not a recognized or acredited source of aviation training information, and thus should be considered entertainment. Please consult a FAA-certificated flight instructor or mechanic prior to putting any information found here into practice.