|Photo by Laura Bombier|
Few topics in aviation are as popular as that of survival after a forced landing. Since the tragic September 2007 disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett, the topic has been the subject of countless hangar flying sessions and pilot’s lounge discussions.
As aviators, we share a unique experience in that we operate over moderately long distances and fly over a wide variety of landforms. Even those of us who routinely fly out of well-populated areas sometimes traverse relatively remote expanses. Still, few pilots adequately plan for sudden exposure to Mother Nature, and a true survival situation could be as close as your next flight.
We spoke with two experts on the subject of survival. Tim Smith is the founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft & Guide Service in Wolfeboro, N.H. He’s a survival instructor, licensed guide, trapper and hunter with experience in Canada, Alaska, Florida and the upper Northeast. Tim is also a survival consultant for the Man vs. Wild television show.
Les Stroud is the star and survival expert on the Discovery Channel’s popular Survivorman television series. He has more than 20 years experience as a naturalist, outdoor adventurer and instructor in survival, white-water rafting, sea kayaking, hiking, dog sledding and winter travel. His documentary film, Snowshoes and Solitude, about the year he and his wife spent living in the remote Boreal Forest of Northern Ontario, has won numerous independent awards.
The Reality Of Being Found
The FAA keeps statistics on how long it takes search-and-rescue (SAR) teams to find a downed aircraft. These figures are a good indication of how long a person would need to survive before help arrives. The important thing to remember is that these statistics are only averages. Many pilots have had to wait far longer than the times listed. The data also reflects certain flight characteristics, such as ATC knowing your last-known position with accuracy and the presence of a working ELT in your plane.
Current FAA statistics for length of time from last-known position (LKP) to rescue are: 13 hours for an IFR flight, 37 hours for a VFR flight with a filed flight plan and 42 hours for a flight with no flight plan. The Fossett disappearance shows that even 42 hours could be optimistic given difficult or obscured terrain and lack of a signaling device.
Surviving the forced landing is, of course, the first hurdle. The velocities and altitudes involved in flying an aircraft are such that you may survive, but be at least moderately injured with broken bones, lacerations and/or burns. According to survival experts, your ability to survive with serious injuries starts to diminish after the first 24 hours. Thus, the clock is ticking.
|A signal mirror with a sighting hole is a key item for signaling searchers.|
Physiology & Survival
The needs of the human body are surprising. According to survival instructor Smith, food is a low priority. “The average human can go 40 days without eating without ill effect,” Smith says. “In a situation where two people of identical build are put in a survival situation where one completely fasts and the other eats sporadically, the one who fasts will exhibit better performance and live longer than the one who eats little bits.”
Survivorman Stroud agrees and adds that, “Of course, after day four or five, your energy will take a dive.” Stroud comments on the fact that the face of hunger changes as your body gets used to a lack of food. “Because you’re in a panic stage, you won’t be hungry. If you don’t focus on or think about the lack of food, your mind will go into an almost Zen-like state. It’s different from normal hunger.”
|Experts also recommend that you carry three methods of fire starting: butane lighter, strike-anywhere matches and a magnesium flint stick.|
Smith further explains that, “You don’t really need to eat anything because the ratio of carbohydrates to calories burned changes when your body enters a fasting state.” If you can eat, then fat and protein are key. “Fat allows your body to generate warmth, and protein gives you strength,” says Stroud. “Meat is the best source for both. You have to be careful, though, because rabbits have no fat and it’s possible to actually starve your body by only eating rabbits.”
Both instructors point to water as your body’s critical need. “You won’t survive more than maybe three or four days without water,” says Stroud, “and by day three, your mind starts going.” Smith adds, “As you dehydrate, your brain and thinking change. Because our bodies are basically bags of salt water, lack of water causes serious effects long before you actually die.”
|A good knife is the most valuable tool in your survival kit. Above, it’s used with a magnesium flint stick to light kindling for a fire.|
In the immediate aftermath of a forced landing, there are priorities that must be set. Survival experts agree that establishing a “survival” state of mind is one of the most crucial elements of staying alive.
Stroud says that calming down is the first thing he advises once a person is free of the aircraft. “The first priority is to calm yourself down and then deal with first aid. Too many people panic and it kills them,” he says. “You have to establish a mind-set that you’ll get out of this and stay rational.”
Roger Storey is a survival instructor with the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute. Storey agrees that attitude is key: “One thing is for certain—without a will to survive, there can be no survival. If you don’t have a desire to survive, there’s no equipment made that will help you survive.”
Stroud suggests four simple priorities: “First, assess your situation. Are you in immediate danger? Second, find out what you have with you, in your pockets and in the plane. Third, begin addressing your basic needs of water, shelter and fire. Finally, think about what you have available for signaling for help.”
Smith stresses basics: “There are three things it takes not to die: 1) Keep your body’s core temperature in the very narrow range needed to function properly; 2) Drink enough water; 3) Get enough sleep to remain rational. I can’t overstate the importance of maintaining core body temperature and getting enough rest.” Smith instructs pilots to use the fuselage of the airplane for shelter and to be inventive in their thinking: “Look at everything around you. Use everything there.”
Psychologically, all survival experts agree that fire is your best friend. “Fire is an unbelievable psychological boost in keeping you alive,” says Stroud. Fire is important enough that he suggests carrying three fire-making tools at all times. “It keeps the bogeyman away,” he laughs. Smith adds that, “Boredom can also be a problem, so performing regular tasks helps.”
Real Survival Gear
Pilots are especially vulnerable because they don’t plan for survival situations when planning a flying trip. They can go from sitting in a warm cockpit wearing a T-shirt to being in an open desert or frozen mountainside in minutes. What gear should pilots carry?
Expert opinions vary, but certain items top their lists. Smith recommends a basic approach: “The key item for pilots to carry is a top-quality, down sleeping bag. Two are even better. These answer the need for shelter and warmth and, if you include water and start a fire, you can survive for a long time with only that.”
Stroud doesn’t hesitate to start his list off with a quality belt knife. He says, “A good knife or multi-tool with a serrated back is worth its weight in gold.”
Both Stroud and Smith have strong opinions about survival kits. “Most survival kits on the market are designed to make a profit, not save your life,” says Stroud. Smith adds, “Most survival kits are garbage. Make your own.”
“My survival kit starts in my pocket,” explains Stroud. “If you survive the crash, then what you have in your pockets will stay with you.” Recommended kit items include a signaling mirror and whistle, compass, multiple fire-starting tools and, most importantly, a good first-aid kit. “First aid will be the first thing you attend to after the forced landing,” says Stroud.
“Those ‘space blankets’ are not blankets,” adds Stroud. Both men explain that these silvery Mylar sheets are useful for reflecting radiant energy or signaling by reflecting light. “But Mylar isn’t a blanket,” says Smith.
|Making Your Own Survival Kit|
Though our survival experts differ in their opinions of what to carry, they agree that certain items are essential. Based on their recommendations, we’ve listed some key starter items for a basic pilot’s survival kit:
• First-aid kit containing Steri-Strips, duct tape, water-purification tablets and bandages to handle lacerations and burns
Survivorman Les Stroud suggests putting your basic kit in an empty coffee tin that can later serve other purposes, including boiling water and cooking. He instructs pilots to use such things as the fuel in the plane’s tanks, the battery and, for older aircraft, the fabric used to cover airframe surfaces.
Stroud and Smith also recommend a personal locator beacon (EPIRB) or personal satellite messenger devices, such as the new SPOT, which is endorsed by several pilots.
Finally, all of our survival experts recommend that pilots prepare early by gaining knowledge before they’re forced down in an emergency.
Storey explains preparation steps, “The first is to admit to yourself that ‘it can happen to me.’ The next step is to prepare both mentally and physically. By improving your knowledge and physical capabilities, you’ll also increase your confidence. The more informed you are about your own capabilities, and about the climate and terrain over which you fly, the easier it will be to decide which equipment to take aboard your aircraft.”
Both Stroud and Smith suggest that pilots “stick to the basics.” Stroud concludes, “Survival isn’t about building fancy shelters and tying complicated knots. It’s about getting out alive.”
|Classic Survival Guides|
It’s beyond the scope of one magazine article to teach you all aspects of survival. Pilots are encouraged to reference survival manuals for more information. While there are thousands of survival books, our experts agree that certain classics are considered “bibles” of the survival world. We’ve listed some here. Note that some of these books may be out of print.
• Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills by John and Geri McPherson
|Les Stroud Online
Includes links to Les Stroud’s new survival book, to be published by HarperCollins.
|Jack Mountain Bushcraft & Guide Service (Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.)
Tim Smith offers practical wilderness survival courses, traditional bushcraft and guided trips.
|The Boulder Outdoor School of Survival (BOSS)
One of the nation’s oldest outdoor survival schools, BOSS offers varied survival and outdoor skills courses.