Editor’s note: FLYING staff writer and CFI Meg Godlewski is an expert on survival techniques for pilots. She wrote the survival chapter of AOPA’s ground school for CFIs. In this two-part series, she instructs pilots on how to build a survival kit, as well as how you can survive if you’re forced to make an unscheduled, off-airport landing.
Part 1: Building Your Survival Kit
I vividly remember a story about a private pilot who disappeared while flying from Seattle to Spokane. The route took him over the Cascade Mountains. Although the calendar said January, it was one of those unseasonably warm days that felt more like May.
The weather was VFR. There was no record of the pilot filing a flight plan or obtaining the services of flight following. His wife said he had made the flight many times before.
When the pilot didn’t return by nightfall, she notified the authorities. The weather took a turn for the worse as sunny skies gave way to low clouds and fog and snow. It was several days before a search could be launched, and a few more days before the wreckage was located.
It was determined that the pilot survived the crash. He turned the wreckage into a shelter and, from the number of candy wrappers present, it was determined that he had plenty to eat. He had been dressed in khakis, loafers, a button-down shirt, and a sport coat. But it was not enough and he froze to death while trying to hike out.
Lesson learned. To this day, I tell learners “dress to survive not to arrive,” one of the first lessons I learned as a fledgling pilot training in the Pacific Northwest.
Building Your Kit
Shelter to keep you out of the rain, sun, and cold is a must. You may be able to use the aircraft wreckage for shelter or bring your own in the form of a large trash bag or a small tarp. In addition to shelter, the tarps can be very visible from the air, which also makes them an excellent signaling device, so choose a tarp that is in a color not normally found in nature.
Have a first aid kit containing bandages, gauze, safety pins, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and anti-diarrheal medication.
A space blanket—those mylar sheets—work wonderfully to retain body heat, and this is important because hyperthermia is deadly. This is also why you should wear a cap when flying or, if needed, fashion a head covering because much of your body heat escapes through the top of your head. Avoid sitting on bare metal or the ground because that will also leach away body heat. Instead, make a nest of leaves or tree boughs to avoid this. If you cannot get a fire going to stay warm (more on this later) and you are alone, fold your arms on your chest, cross your ankles and draw your knees up into the fetal position to retain body heat. If you have another person with you, huddle together.
Carry a multi-tool such as a Leatherman or one of the larger Swiss Army knives, and make sure you know how to use the tools on it.
An extra gallon-sized Ziploc bag is useful to make into a solar still if needed—be careful about using scented trash bags for this, because the chemicals that create the scent will contaminate the water.
A length of paracord, at least 10 feet long, is useful to make shelter, or you can unravel it to create fishing line or animal snares.
A flashlight with good batteries and extras, and/or a hand-crank flashlight is a good idea. Batteries and a piece of foil, such as from a gum wrapper, can also be used to start a fire—which brings us to having something to start a fire with.
Waterproof matches in a waterproof container, a Zippo lighter, or a commercially produced fire starter kit work well. Pro-tip on the Zippo: Soak cotton balls in rubbing alcohol, let them dry and then put them in the cap of the Zippo. When the time comes to make fire, pull the cotton balls apart and use them over kindling. Cotton lint from a pocket and human hair also work as a fire starter. Fire provides warmth, light, and smoke, which helps rescue teams spot you.
A notepad and pencil are handy for leaving notes. If the ELT has activated, that is what rescuers are using to find you. But if you have to leave the camp, perhaps to forage for food, leave a note as to what direction you headed. If you happen to be near a stream, send something downstream, like an origami boat made from part of a sectional or an empty oil bottle from the aircraft with a note inside. Searchers are taught to look for anything that looks out of place in the wilderness—something man-made found downstream encourages them to go upstream. Case in point, stranded hikers on Mt. Rainier in Washington were found when a television news crew spotted a plastic grocery sack in a creek and flew upstream to investigate.
A whistle—like a referee whistle—is an excellent signaling device because it carries farther than the human voice. Three short blasts, followed by three long blasts then three short blasts is SOS.
Carry a compass, just in case you do have to leave the aircraft, so you know which way you are headed and how to get back. Make sure you mark your trail well. Tying plants in knots, stacking rocks in threes, making triangles out of sticks on the path, carving an arrow in the dirt with a stick, rock or the heel of your shoe, make it obvious which way you went so you can find your way back and rescuers can find you.
Carry a signaling device. There are battery-powered personal locating devices, and you can go low tech, using a small mirror or even the hologram on your pilot certificate can work. By flexing the mirror or credit card, you can create a flash, hopefully getting the attention of an overflying aircraft.
Carry at least two energy bars in your kit. You can get them at grocery stores. Hunger makes you sleepy, and sleep can be dangerous, especially in the cold, because of hyperthermia. Most pilots make it a point to carry bottled water on board along with water purification tablets. If you don’t have water of your own or purification tablets, boil suspicious water for at least one minute to kill any bacteria.
If there is no water source nearby, make a solar still by digging a hole about six inches across and 10 inches down and placing a cup at the bottom. If need be, break off one of the ear cups of your headset and use that. Place a sheet of plastic over the hole and anchor it in place with rocks. In the center of the plastic place a rock to the underside of the plastic comes to a point over the cup. The idea is that condensation forms on the plastic and drips into the cup and you have drinking water.
Fishing line and hooks are a good idea if there is a nearby water source like a creek, stream, or lake that may have fish. Turn over rocks and logs to find grubs and worms to use as bait.
In addition to the items in the survival kit, it is also a good idea to empty your pockets and gear bags when it is clear that you will be making camp, to see if there is anything else you are carrying that could be of use in the situation.
Coming October 22, Part 2: How to Survive an unscheduled, off-airport landing.