Practical Survival Guide

How to improve your odds of surviving a remote landing

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Chris Gall

(March 2011) — PAYING HEED TO THE Scottish poet Robert Burns, who said: "The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew," I counsel those who come to me for flight training not to think in terms of "if," but rather "when," so that they are prepared for that moment when things go wrong. That preparation includes not only refining troubleshooting techniques and thinking through the actions one should take for a variety of potential problems should they occur, but also the possibility of having a forced landing in a remote area, and the skills and techniques one would need to survive in that situation.

Whether it is a diversion, a precautionary landing, or a worst-case scenario, a forced landing, we need to know what to do in order to achieve a safe and successful outcome.

If you are a pilot who was born under a lucky star, you might have the good fortune to have an airport within landing or gliding range when you most need it. However, the Murphy who wrote that infamous law will probably arrange things so that your emergency occurs far from any airports, and in a worst-case scenario, far from civilization. If that is the case, the most important issue now becomes survival, and unless you are a pilot who never ventures beyond gliding distance of your home airport, the possibility of having to face a survival situation becomes much more of a reality.

Even if your planned flight is a short hop across Long Island Sound from Connecticut to Long Island, or over the Arizona mountains from Flagstaff to Sedona for that legendary expensive burger, there is always the very real possibility that you might have a forced or, slightly improved, precautionary landing. Obviously, if no one knows that you are making the flight, no one is going to miss you, or at least know where to look for you, when you don’t show up. By filing a flight plan or getting “flight following,” or better yet, both, if there is an emergency, it won’t be long before someone is coming to your rescue.

If you are in a situation that will require an off-airport landing, the first step in your survival is picking a landing site. Obviously the terrain will dictate, in most situations, where you can land, but keep in mind a few thoughts. Regardless of where you choose to land, the most important element relative to surviving the crash is to be as slow as possible at touchdown. It’s the sudden stop that is going to cause injury, and the Gs that will be experienced increase exponentially with speed when we hit an object.

If you will be landing in hilly terrain, endeavor to land uphill. If you have to choose between landing in trees, or in a lake or river, choose the water, the closer to shore the better. Statistics show that survivability is about equal whether you choose trees or water; however, the injury rate goes up for those who choose trees. If you are forced to ditch in open water, land parallel with any swells, preferably on the top of the swell. If your choice is between corn and hay, the hay will be better. If you are considering landing on a road, remember that many small rural roads might very well have power lines that won’t be seen until it is too late.

If you fly a retractable gear airplane, the choice of gear up or gear down is not always an easy one. If ditching in the water or landing on a soft surface, gear up will increase survivability. For those of you flying fixed gear aircraft, this obviously is not an issue. The important thing to remember is that you want to do all that you can to keep the airplane right side up.

For many pilots, the training that they receive relative to soft-field landings is to use the technique of carrying a little power through the landing, approaching the landing site on the backside of the power curve. If you are a bush pilot in Alaska, that’s definitely the way to do it. But consider the following: When your engine has failed, you are not going to have that power! It is for this reason that I train and counsel my clients to practice their simulated engine-out landings as if they were landing not only on a soft surface, but on a short one as well, surrounded by tall obstacles. Thus, practicing steep approaches utilizing forward slips to a spot landing should be a part of your regular, recurrent training.

One other thing I need to mention. When we practice simulated engine-out procedures, the standard practice is to pull the throttle to the idle position to simulate the failed engine. Remember, though, that when the engine quits for real, the throttle most typically is in a cruise or even full-power position, and you never know when it will come back to life. For this reason I urge you to pull the throttle to idle once the chosen landing site is assured. At the same time, be sure to turn off the master switch, move the fuel selector to “off” to minimize the chance of fire and open the door to help prevent getting trapped in the airplane.

OK, so you have managed to get your airplane on the ground (or in the water). I am willing to bet that you would like to now live long enough to tell others about your experience (and write an I Learned About Flying From That article), but it’s quite possible that the most difficult part of your experience is about to begin. The most important keys to your survival will now be your ability to maintain a rational mentality, to stay as warm and dry as possible and to get found.

It is essential, above all else, that you do not panic. Start by sizing up the situation. What is your personal condition and that of your passengers, if any? Where are you, and how far from civilization? What weather conditions need to be considered? What can you do to aid searchers in finding you? Remember, “Haste makes waste.” Your best chances of being rescued are to stay with the aircraft, so stay put and formulate a plan of action. Do not allow fear or panic to lead you to do impulsive things that could make your situation worse.

Unfortunately, there are too many stories of pilots who did a great job of getting the airplane on the ground but then died before they could be rescued. Most often the cause of death was from exposure to the elements, and the inability to stay dry and warm. The need to avoid hypothermia is one of the most critical issues we face when having to survive after a forced landing in any remote or inaccessible area, including in a ditching.

If we have to ditch our aircraft, be it in a lake or perhaps even the ocean, it is quite possible that swimming to shore will be out of the question. We're not going to be able to keep dry, but there are things we can do to keep warm and stave off the onset of hypothermia. The need to assume the "heat escape lessening posture" (HELP) is critical. This position is assumed by holding your arms tightly to the sides of your chest, crossing your forearms over your chest, and drawing up your legs and crossing them at the ankles. This position closes off most major heat-loss areas. If there are several people involved, huddling close, side to side in a circle, will also help preserve body heat. If you have a hat, put it on, because the head is a major heat-loss area.
If you will be flying beyond gliding distance to land, it is wise to have some kind of life jacket on board, or better yet on body. SOSpenders are a type of life jacket that can be worn while flying, without limiting any body movements. Be sure not to inflate any life jacket until you have evacuated the aircraft.

There are five ways that the body can lose heat: conduction, convection, radiation, respiration and perspiration. So if able, provide insulation between your body and the ground as you wait out your rescue, avoid wind chill, stay under cover even if all you have to shelter you is a portion of a wing, and remember that wearing a hat and scarf will ward off radiation cooling. Also, do not overexert, as you will lose body heat through both breathing heavily and getting wet from perspiration, which will evaporate, thus chilling you all the more.

There are five basic survival skills, and learning these, as well as practicing them, will go a long way in helping you to create a plan of action. These skills are:

1. Making Fire
The ability to stay warm and dry is paramount to survival. Even if you have become wet, if you can build a fire, you will be able to get dry and warm. Thus, you should include at least two, if not three, ways of starting a fire in an emergency kit. Between waterproof matches in a waterproof container, a butane lighter and a "FireSteel," you should be able to start a fire anywhere, any time, no matter how adverse the conditions. Fires will not only help dry wet clothes but also keep those wild critters at bay, and they can aid searchers in finding you, with the light and smoke they create.

2. Providing Shelter
Being able to protect ourselves from heat, cold, rain, snow, sun and wind, as well as from insects and other creatures that can do us harm, is compulsory. Clothing appropriate to the environment you might find yourself surviving in, rather than the environment of the FBO or hangar where you started your flight, needs to be available. There might very well be enough of the cockpit left to provide protection from the elements, but if not, a lightweight, reflective "space blanket" or tarp can add another level of sanctuary.

3. Acquiring Water and Food
The body can survive for quite some time without food; however, without water our survival time is drastically reduced. Certainly carrying water on board will help, but we might have to survive on water that we find. If that water is contaminated, we won't be able to use it until we purify it. If at all possible, boil it, killing any disease organisms that might be present in even the cleanest-looking water. Second best choice is to filter or chemically treat the water with purification tablets. As for foods, those that have a high calorie content from carbohydrates and fats are much better than those filled with sugar. If you don't have some in your emergency kit, it is hoped your ancestral hunter/gatherer roots will kick in.

4. Signaling
If you have not filed and opened a flight plan, getting found and rescued will depend entirely on your ability to signal rescuers. Replace your 121.5 MHz with a 406 MHz unit, and know how to activate it manually. Even if you haven't upgraded the emergency locator transmitter, carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) such as a SPOT or Spidertracks device could significantly hasten your rescue. Always carry some kind of signaling mirror. And an inexpensive GPS can prove invaluable, too. Other ways of signaling include whistles, flare guns and satellite phones.

5. Applying First Aid
Even if you have done a superb job on your forced landing, the possibility of injury is going to be present, so having a basic first-aid kit on board the aircraft makes a lot of sense. Also, if you or any of your passengers are taking any medications, it would be good to have several days' supply of those in the kit. Panic could very well be your number one enemy if you have had a forced landing in a remote area, and so first aid for your mind and psyche needs to be considered as well. Stop, sit, think, observe and plan your best course of action, as a mental "first aid" treatment at the very outset.

Just as we need frequent recurrent training to keep our flying skills at their very best, we should also consider spending some time with a periodic review of survival skills and techniques. Perhaps on a seasonal basis remove the basic survival kit that you should be keeping in your airplane, and replace any items that might have expired or spoiled or that need refreshing, or that aren't appropriate for the season. While you have the kit out, refresh your skills in using the emergency tools you keep in the kit. A signal mirror and fire-starting tools are of no value if you have forgotten how to use them.
Aviation has built-in risks, but by utilizing as many risk management tools as we can, even when the worst-case scenario occurs, if we have prepared ourselves through proper initial and recurrent training, our chances of surviving to fly again should be excellent.

Doug Stewart is chairman of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators. He is a Master CFI, DPE and the 2004 National Flight Instructor of the Year. He has provided more than 10,000 hours of dual instruction specializing in instrument and complex operations (dsflight.com).