Survival in the event of an off-airport landing or other unplanned aviation emergency is something pilots don’t like to consider. Many of us remember the harrowing tale of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the frigid Andes Mountains in 1972 and survived for 72 days through cannibalism and sheer courage. Their Fairchild FH-227’s fuselage provided shelter from the relentless avalanches and storms, and though they tried to get the radio working, it proved futile.
French aviation author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously wrote of his tragic crash in the Sahara Desert in 1935, and how he and his mechanic-navigator, André Prévot, went for days without food, water or shelter and nearly died of thirst before being rescued by a bedouin on a camel. Recent discoveries by TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) include compelling evidence that Amelia Earhart may have landed on a tiny island called Nikumaroro and survived there for some time before succumbing to disease and exposure. There are countless more examples.
Today, we live in a world where technology has made it much more likely that we’ll be found if we have to make an emergency landing in some remote place, or if we have to ditch our aircraft and bob in the open water for a time. Twenty years ago, the technology we have now that fits in our pocket was a fantasy. Today, we’re almost never out of touch completely, in even the most desolate spots on the planet.
Pilots in Alaska have been carrying survival gear for years because it literally means the difference between life and death. But those of us in the Lower 48 rarely consider that we may have to spend a night or two or five in the wilderness, fighting for survival. I often see pilots set off for long flights in shorts and sandals and can hear my old instructor’s voice admonishing, “Fly in what clothes you’d wear if you had to spend the night in the terrain you’re flying over.” Today, few heed that advice.
There are some basics every pilot should carry with them. Especially in the mountains of the West, a survival situation could happen with even a short hop. Remember when adventurer Steve Fossett disappeared in the mountains around Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a well-travelled and popular area? Even after a month of searches by every agency in the state, it took over another year to find the wreckage and Fossett’s remains. We should never be lulled into thinking, “It can’t happen to me.”
Get your wish and birthday lists out, and get ready to invest in your own survival. Here, we present some survival and safety essentials that every pilot should carry in his or her airplane.
ICOM; ACR ResQLink+; DeLorme inReach
Personal Locator Beacons (PLB)
PLBs are the greatest invention since GPS, maybe even better. A PLB is a small device that, when activated, sends a signal to an orbiting satellite, alerting search crews that you’re in trouble. It pinpoints your position to within a few feet, and it works wherever there’s a clear view of the sky. Imagine the countless airmen who have ditched their aircraft and had to endure days, weeks or—like “Unbroken” hero Louis Zamperini—more than a month at sea.
The PLB world is divided between “pure” PLBs that are meant for life-saving only, and “tracker-PLBs” whose primary function is leaving a track that can be used in social media or mapping apps. When activated, true PLBs send a signal to theCospas-Sarsat satellite system in either low Earth or geosynchronous orbit. Those signals are relayed to Earth stations known as Local User Terminals (LUT). Information is then collated and sent to a mission control center, then on to search-and-rescue units in the area.
ACR ResQLink+. Small but powerful, the ResQLink+ is a buoyant, GPS-enabled rescue beacon designed for pilots and back-country sportsmen. At 5.4 ounces and topping just 4.5 inches, the ResQLink+ is the smallest buoyant Personal Locator Beacon available today. Small enough to easily be carried in a pocket, clipped to a backpack or stored inside an inflatable life jacket. Includes GPS positioning, a 406 MHz signal and 121.5 MHz homing capability. Price: $349 MSRP. www.acrartex.com
Ocean Signal rescueME. This 406 MHz device transmits position data from its 66 channel GPS for a minimum of 24 hours while an integrated strobe light blinks simultaneously. Includes a snap-in mounting bracket, a floating storage pouch, rubber mounting strap and a detachable flotation lanyard. Seven-year warranty and seven-year battery life. Price: $270. www.oceansignal.com
SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger. More than just a PLB, this nifty device also offers tracking through Google Maps, custom messages and more. In an emergency, SPOT transmits an SOS with your location to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center. At only 3.2 ounces (with batteries), it packs easily for traveling. You can choose the rate of tracking that suits your adventure (from two to 60 minutes). SPOT is geared more toward messaging and tracking, and uses a different satellite network than PLBs. Price: $149.95; requires an annual subscription starting at $149.95/year. www.findmespot.com
McMurdo Fast Find 220. A 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz transmitter and GPS transmits a unique ID and your current GPS coordinates via the Cospas-Sarsat global search-and-rescue satellite network. Includes a floating buoyancy pouch and an SOS Morse-code flashlight. Water-proof to 30 feet, six-year battery life. No subscription required. Price: $250. www.mcmurdomarine.com
McMurdo Fast Find 220; SPOT Gen3; Iridium Go!; Ocean Signal rescueME
Beyond simply sending your location to rescue crews, satellite communicators use satellites to bounce communication signals to and from Earth through mobile devices. That means users can make telephone calls in the middle of the Sahara Desert or Antarctica, where no cell phone towers exist. Satellite communicators (formerly “satellite phones”) allow two-way communications and provide additional features like GPS, 406 MHz transmitters, tracking and messaging. It’s the next step beyond PLBs.
In the past, satellite phones were too expensive for the average user. Technology has brought subscription plan prices within reach of most pilots. Satellite communicators work with smartphones and other mobile devices to provide reliable, worldwide coverage anywhere on the planet.
DeLorme inReach Explorer. With a slew of awards and “best of” awards, DeLorme’s ingenious little device packs a lot of capability into a small space. The Explorer is a handheld device that can trigger an SOS from anywhere on the planet, send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates, track your trip, and interact with mobile devices to allow phone calls, Internet access and more. It even lets you create and save routes, and navigate through the device. Price: $379.95, plus annual subscription through varying plans. www.inreachdelorme.com
Iridium GO! Think of the Iridium unit as a satellite-powered hot spot for multiple devices. Powered by the vast Iridium satellite network, the compact, rugged and portable Iridium GO! extends the capabilities of your personal devices by creating a reliable WiFi connection anywhere on the planet. The GO! Unit is like having a portable cell phone tower that travels with you anywhere. The backbone of the unit is the free app you can download from the Apple or Google app store. It provides the interface for features like voice calling, SMS messaging, tracking, SOS signaling, Twitter posting and Internet call access. Small and compact (4.5×3.25×1.25 inches and 10 ounces), Iridium GO! will act as a hot spot for up to five devices at once. A new aviation package includes: Iridium GO!, Glass Mount Antenna, Wall Mount and External Antenna Adapter. Users can pick from a variety of subscription plans. Price: $800-$1,140, plus subscription and prepaid plans. www.iridium.com
SPOT Global Phone. SPOT has been a leader in user-friendly trackers for some time. The SPOT Global Phone allows you to communicate with family, friends, work and emergency services from virtually anywhere in the world on a lightweight, handheld cell phone-like device. In an emergency, users just dial 911, and the call is routed to GEOS International Emergency Response Center, who then notify the appropriate emergency responders. Global Phone includes voice mail, email and text messaging. Price: $499. www.findmespot.com
SPOT Global Phone; Yaesu FTA-550
Mustang HIT Inflatable PFD
Personal Flotation Devices
Any pilot who flies over even small bodies of water should carry a personal flotation device (PFD or “life vest”). Most people think they can tread water if they were forced to ditch an airplane, but the reality is far different. Even in California where ocean temperatures are 60°F in the summer, average swimmers would only stay afloat for an hour or two before the cold affects their muscles with cramping. Imagine waiting three hours treading water with cramping muscles. That’s when a PFD becomes a literal lifesaver. Today’s PFDs are a far cry from the old yellow life vests from movies and TV.
Revere Comfort Max Inflatable PFD. A USCG-Approved Type III vest that’s remarkably compact and comfortable. Near-instantaneous inflation comes via an integral CO2 cylinder that activates with a pull-tab. An exterior access flap allows the cylinder to be replaced easily without the need to unfold the entire vest. With 35 pounds of buoyancy, each vest features SOLAS-Grade reflective tape and a whistle to alert search-and-rescue crew. Vests comes in red and blue. Price: $120.
Mustang HIT Inflatable PFD. This award-winning PFD features the exclusive USCG-approved Hydrostatic Inflator Technology, bright fluorescent yellow-green inflation cell, lightweight outer shell fabric used for body armors, zippered pocket and a neoprene Comfort Collar. It automatically inflates under water pressure, not in rain, spray or humidity. Each PFD has SOLAS reflective tape, safety whistle and strobe light attachment on inflation cell and provides 35 pounds of buoyancy when inflated. Price: $259. www.mustangsurvival.com
EAM P01074-101 Yellow XF-35 Twin-Cell Life Vest. The XF-35 is a lightweight twin-cell vest with manual inflation. Weighing in at only 1.13 pounds (513 grams), this vest offers protection for those on a budget or operators looking to save weight. It’s FAA TSO’d and offers a five-year frequency of inspection, with a 10-year frequency of inspection available. Made of urethane-coated flame-retardant nylon, it includes a CO2 inflator and an oral inflation tube in each buoyancy cell. The vest comes in yellow or orange and provides 35 pounds of buoyancy. Price: $70. www.eamworldwide.com/aviation-overview/aviation-overview
Revere Comfort Max Inflatable PFD; EAM P01074-101 Yellow XF-35 Twin-Cell Life Vest
Not just for survival, handheld radios can be used when your aircraft radio malfunctions, in emergencies and for coordinating flights or events from the ground. One of the most useful safety devices, handheld radios should be in every pilot’s flight bag.
Sporty‘s SP-400 Handheld NAV/COM. The SP-400 is the most powerful portable radio you can buy. Packed with every possible useful feature, it’s as easy to use as it is rugged and reliable. It includes an oversized, high-resolution screen with backlight, large, soft keypad (great in turbulence), one-handed operation, no confusing menus or bands—just type in a frequency and press the button. It’s powered by easy-to-find AA batteries. Price: $349. www.sportys.com
ICOM A24 Transceiver NAV/COM. ICOM’s A24 Transceiver offers users one-handed, flip-flop COM capabilities. In addition to 200 memory channels, backlit display and keypad, dedicated emergency frequency (121.5 MHz) button, and 10-channel flip-flop recall, the A24 comes with a host of VOR navigational functions and a full-featured NAV radio. It’s powered externally or with optional Ni-Cd and Li-Ion battery packs. Price: $325. www.icomamerica.com
Yaesu FTA-550 Handheld NAV/COM.The FTA-550 Airband Transceiver provides full communication on the Aircraft Communications Band and additionally provides VOR and ILS navigation features on the “NAV” band. It includes NOAA weather band monitoring (in the U.S.), 200 memory channels, a huge 1.7×1.7-inch dot-matrix LCD display with full backlight and dimmer, and a VOR navigation display. The FTA-550 is powered by six alkaline batteries or optional rechargeable batteries. Price: $330. www.yaesu.com
The basics of all survival situations are water, shelter, warmth and food. First aid is also a concern immediately following a forced landing. Today, we have various tools to help us deal with those basic survival needs. Whether it’s a fire to help our psychological state, or a method to help us find water, these tools are important to have in your survival gear bag.
LifeStraw Portable Personal Water Filter. Imagine finding a body of water that’s too contaminated to drink. The LifeStraw water filter lets you safely sip straight from the stream or lake without any pumping, squeezing or filling. Its hollow-fiber filter membrane offers a high flow rate; sip on the straw, and it filters the water while its on the way to your mouth. The 0.2 micron filter physically removes 99.9% of all bacteria, such as salmonella, cholera and E.coli. It removes 99.9% of all protozoa, such as giardia and cryptosporidium and effectively filters up to 264 gallons (1,000 liters). Price: $20
LifeStraw Portable Personal Water Filter
Ultimate Survival Technologies 10 Day LED Lantern. LED light technology has changed survival scenarios. While not critical to life, having light can provide hope and comfort in survival situations. With 250 lumens and two Nichia 1W Bulbs, it provides 10 days of reliable light. It includes three lighting modes: high, low and SOS flashing. Price: $30.
Adventure Medical SOL Thermal Bivvy. In Alaska, many pilots carry down sleeping bags. In the event of an overnight stay, the bag will keep them alive even in extreme conditions. Adventure Medical makes a lightweight, specialized bag for pilots. The SOL Thermal bivvy’s metalized non-woven fabric provides water-proof protection from the elements while reflecting 80% of your body’s heat back to you. Also, the extremely durable fabric resists rips and tears, making it ideal for carrying in aircraft of all types. Weighs just nine ounces. Price: $30. www.adventuremedicalkits.com
Adventure Medical SOL Thermal Bivvy