Life After the Wreck

by Joe Shelton

We practice for emergencies all the time, but rarely do we put much thought into surviving the long wait for help. As Dirty Harry Calahan once said, “You’ve got to ask your- self one question: Do I feel lucky?” That’s a line you should take to heart every time you fly.

Consider the search for Steve Fossett.  Not only did all of the massive amount of resources brought to bare not find him, but they actually located six downed aircraft that had not been found in previous searches. The simple fact is that, depending upon whether you file IFR, VFR, or no flight plan, it takes an average of 12, 18 or 65 hours respectively to be located after a crash. And it can take many additional hours for help to physically arrive due to terrain or weather.

Short-term survival is completely the crash victim’s responsibility. The survival equipment you carry in the airplane plus the survival skills and know-how of the passengers may be all the resources you have for at least a day or two. It is the pilot’s responsibility to make sure that survival equipment is available.

Every pilot understands the payload trade-off: Each pound of emergency equipment is one less pound of fuel, passengers or bags. But it is better to think of it this way: If you are ever in a survival situation, you’d give up a lot of your other payload for more survival supplies.

Your Emergency Bag

There are five things that, if covered, meet the basic physiological and psychological survival needs: water, food, shelter, fire, and signaling capability. Since your off airport arrival is likely to be physically dangerous, first aid should be on the mandatory list as well.

If you always fly alone, then things are simpler. But the minute you have passengers, you need to decide what additional supplies are needed. Water and food are easy, but you probably won’t need four times the first-aid supplies. The two basic tactics here are creating a single kit with enough supplies for all passengers or individual kits that are carried depending upon the passenger load. Personally, I carry two bags containing everything I need for all passengers. The only variable is that I add additional survival water packets when I carry more passengers.

You can buy a complete survival kit from several companies. Many camping or sport- ing-goods store have a good selection. A good online source for all sorts of safety equipment is Quake Kare ( ). Aviation-specific safety and survival gear can be had from Best Glide ( or from Sporty’s Pilot Shop (www.

Buying a prepared kit, like this one from Sporty’s, gets you something quickly, but you’ll still want to get in there and make sure you know how to use the contents.  Some items expire, and others can get worn out with time and sunlight.  You should review its contents on a regular basis.  We’d recommend doing it at each annual.

Survival Bargain Hunting

The other alternative is to roll your own, so to speak. That was my choice because it allowed me to customize what I carry. Starting with a large, red backpack—red to make it more visible—and a book on survival, I purchased a variety of supplies that meet the requirements of flying in the Western states.

My kit now consists of two bags, the red backpack weighing 25 pounds and a red stuff sack at 10 pounds. Most everything was purchased at sportsman/camping stores. Rather than go through all of the contents of my kit, I’ll share some comments on specific items.

Survival Stuff

Water is the number one item in terms of survival. Make sure you carry enough such that each passenger has a minimum of one quart per day—more in desert or hot climates. Rather than carrying large containers that, if they leak, will lose all their contents, consider purchasing individual water packets. For food, just think survival rations. Avoid simple sugars, caffeine, and alcohol. You can purchase individual rations or “bricks” of survival rations. Pack extra food for cold weather. Watch the expiration dates on these supplies and replace when necessary.

When it comes to staying warm, sheltered, and comfortable, space blankets pack a lot of protection for both the buck and weight. The reflective metallic surface can help searchers find you, too. I carry one for each passenger. You should consider including a small, lightweight, emergency tent. To do double duty, look for orange, foam sheets to use as ground pads to sleep on because, when laid out, they are highly visible from the air. Rounding out the shelter supplies are thin rope, duct tape, a knife, a multipurpose tool (e.g., Leatherman), wire saw and/or axe, and a full-brim hat.

Since any kind of convenient fire starter or fuel is, by definition, flammable, be cautious regarding what you carry. Minimally, you’ll want lots of waterproof matches. Look for the waterproof match containers that include a compass. Include other types of fire-starting supplies as you see fit.

The signal mirror is arguably the Rodney Dangerfield of survival gear, not getting the respect it deserves.  Diagrams like these from the U.S. Air Force Survival Handbook give you some idea how to use one.

Consider purchasing a personal locator/tracker to help searchers find you.   And bring a handheld comm make sure it is charged. Your cell phone may work, so make sure it is also fully charged. Don’t forget the old-standby signaling mirror (I carry two). Mirrors don’t have batteries that run out and they can be seen for miles. Do read the instructions for using them and practice a bit before you need it in the real world.

Bring flashlights and batteries. Remember that LED flashlights can be very bright and use less power so your batteries will last longer. I carry an emergency whistle to help others to find me. As noted above, space blankets and brightly colored ground pads laid in the open can be used to increase your visibility.

It’s difficult to know what kind of first-aid material to carry. I carry three different kits in the hope that, between the three, I’ll have what is needed and enough first-aid supplies for everyone on board.

My survival kit also includes three books on survival (including the U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76) and the “Surviving the First 24 Hours” checklist from Checkmate Aviation. While the books provide invaluable details and procedures, the checklist is a good, basic reference to get started not only in planning what to carry, but what to do if and when the unexpected actually happens. If nothing else, book paper can be used to help start a fire.

Don’t Count Too Much On The Kit In The Back

At a recent safety seminar I attended, the point was made that the only real survival equipment you can count on is what is on your body. This puts a new twist on things, as you really can’t carry everything you might want on you, but you might consider putting some critical items on your person.

Few GA pilots wear a vest populated with survival equipment. But depending upon where you are flying, consider carrying key survival material on your person. After the crash, a post-crash fire could render everything in the airplane unusable or, if you had to ditch the contents may sink too far beneath the surface to reach, even in relatively shallow water.

Since you can’t guarantee that once the aircraft has landed off airport that you or your passengers will be able to recover the coats and other emergency supplies that have been so carefully stowed in the luggage compartment, consider dressing appropriately to the weather conditions and the landscape along your route. Of course, there’s a balance here, as two big guys wearing parkas just don’t fit in the front of almost any GA single. “Well, you see we couldn’t open the chart with our arctic-weight mittens on so we ended off course and out of fuel. So it’s a good thing we had our mittens on or we might have gotten frostbite before you found us …”

A final thought is having fireproof gloves or a smoke hood at the ready. Ex-military pilots often are so used to flying with gloves on they often just continue to do so in GA flying. You might consider just having them handy. It would be a shame to survive the wreck but be unable to open the door because flames were making the handle too hot to hold.

Only you can decide the right balance for your routes and mission. But it’s easy to forget when you travel from metropolitan airport to metropolitan airport that it’s an awfully empty country in-between.

Use Your Head

If you ever have to put these resources to use, the most important thing is to remain calm, conserve energy, and work together with whomever was lucky enough to crash with someone as prepared as you. Search-and-rescue teams will be looking, so your goals are to stay alive and help them find you.

Unless you absolutely know the direction and the distance to nearby help, stay with the airplane. An airplane is much easier to spot than people alone in the wilderness. Make sure the aircraft’s and your personal ELT have been turned on. Use all of the resources available. That includes the emergency supplies you’ve packed, you and your passengers’ skills and knowledge, and the remains of the airplane. The battery and fuel can be used to start a fire both for warmth and to signal rescuers. VFR charts show lo- cal topography and can also be used to start a fire or even as a sun shade. Parts of the fuselage can be shelter.

With the right emergency kit and supplies you should be ready to wait until help arrives. And you can look Dirty Harry in the face and answer, “Yes, I feel lucky, because I have what I need to survive.”

Used with the permission of Belvoir Aviation Group –  © 2009

Leave a Reply