Be Prepared to Spend the Night, or Longer

Would you be ready for what comes after a successful forced landing?

The recent episode of a Cessna 337 ditching in the North Atlantic captured the attention of a lot of pilots. The fortunate survival of the crew -- hopping from ice floe to ice floe for 18 hours until rescued by a fishing boat -- ought to be a conversation starter, even though most of us are not flying over long stretches of frigid ocean at night. The pilots of the Skymaster made a skillful night landing on an unseen patch of ice, but the airplane broke through and sank before they could offload their raft and other emergency equipment. Survival suits and a heaping measure of luck saved the day.

In our training, we spend lots of time and thought on how to make a forced landing, but less so on what to do after things quit banging and crashing. Especially this time of year, we would all do well to inventory what assets we have on board for staying warm and then finding our way back to civilization after coming down in the boonies. It starts with what we're wearing. Personally, I love flying comfortably in shirt sleeves and looking down on snow-covered terrain. But I heed the advice of veteran pilots who remind me to consider that I'm a burnt piston away from taking a hike across miles of that miserable terrain that looks so majestic from 8,000 feet up. I wear boots or sensible shoes; thermal underwear; and I keep my winter outerwear within easy reach.

Survival experts all have their lists of items to pack along. Most important could be a cell phone with healthy batteries. A handheld aviation transceiver could be even better -- assuming the radios in the panel are unusable. If you don't have a portable GPS backup to consult after the landing, make sure you have as precise an idea as possible of your location before you hit the ground so you can call in your rescuers. If your landing site is remote enough, you might be spending the night. Top of most survival lists are water, fire and shelter. My canopy cover would make a passable tent in a pinch, but in retrospect, I wish I had ordered one in Day-Glo orange.

Finally, one of my instructors in Massachusetts years ago told me that it was entirely possible that a forced landing from as close in as the landing pattern could still involve a hike of several miles -- and the trek might be made with a sprained ankle, or worse. So even if the mission for the day consists of a series of practice landings, you should still be prepared for the worst.