Short Term Survival

One of the things that terrifies me about learning to fly is ‘what happens if I have to emergency land in a remote location/crash?’ My morbid mind knows that if I don’t survive, then I won’t be around to care, and the fear is moot; however, my instructors keep reassuring me that if you take the correct actions, most small-airplane crashes are survivable. Yay.

But then what? In Alaska, if one goes down and survives, it will likely be in really remote brush and tundra. I know nothing about the wilderness. My job is to process satellite data in a cushy office building. I’ve never been fishing, I’ve only cooked deboned fish filets from the freezer section, never gone hunting, never gone camping away from a main road, never made an outdoor cooking fire, never taken a first aid course, have forgotten all my CPR training – you get the picture.

If one files a flight plan and doesn’t close it, local law enforcement starts looking for you at the landing airport at T+30 minutes after expected arrival. It’s likely that it will be about T+2 hours before any aircraft takes off to look for you. Best case scenario: the 406Mhz ELT can be location accurate to within ~2miles? (assuming it actually activates in the crash) Factor in travel time for the rescue planes to get to your general location and add in time for them to actually physically see you. A crash survivor needs the ability to stay alive for several hours to days for rescuers to get to them.

Alaskan winter: The ‘interior area (Fairbanks)’ is famous for its ability to get down past -40F. Brr.

Alaskan summer: watch out for bears, maternally protective/aggressive moose, swarms of mosquitoes.

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My flight school has a short course for creating a short-term survival pack – which I took this evening.

We started with many stories of crash impact survivors who subsequently died from lack of survival supplies.

  • Alaskan pilots who lacked proper winter clothing because they didn’t dress to survive the terrain they were flying over (those aircraft heaters are really toasty – it’s tempting to go flying without a parka).
  • Crashes where the pilots died on impact and passengers survived – but then passengers died from a lack of food&water because they didn’t know about the aircraft’s emergency radios and emergency supplies in their pilots’ vests. [Alabama case]
  • Float plane crashes where the plane’s emergency kit sinks with the plane. Uninjured survivors on shore with no supplies.
  • A duo who crashed into a 150ft tree and survived (only 1 person had a broken leg); they got down on the ground safely but forgot their survival gear in the plane. They couldn’t climb up the tree and died. Sad!

In a crash, you may just have to survive with just the clothes on your back. To increase your odds, you can wear a vest/fanny pack with survival gear.

The instructor showed us his personal vest. It was an inflatable life vest with pockets (inflatable vest because he exclusively flies float planes).

A lot of items were expected: knife/mini-saw (which every Alaskan seems to carry around in all occasions), strike-anywhere matches, waterproof matches in waterproof cylinders (include the special striking surface that comes with the original package! They usually won’t catch fire otherwise), swiss army knife (to dismantle plane parts), alcohol pads (prevent infection in the cuts a crash survivor is sure to have), bandaids, asprin, flashlights (batteries kept separate to prevent corrosion!), signaling mirror, compass, granola bars.

Then there were items I thought were truly brilliant: surveyor’s [flagging] tape (neon colored thin plastic you can mark your path with if you leave the crash site), rescue laser with a line filter (makes a red laser line instead of the normal dot), high powered Cyalume glow sticks, homemade altoids-mints-tin sized fishing kit (hooks, line, etc), 9V battery + steel wool (for starting fires), candles (importance described below), [wool] working gloves (stay warm and prevent blisters when building shelter), butane lighter, fresnel lens (for starting fires), Waterproof match case/film canister filled with cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly (use as tinder), polarized sunglasses (to prevent snow blindness), whistle, wire saw (although many people consider these useless), waterproof-paper notepads (leave notes if you leave the plane/keep a diary/stave off boredom), pencils and pens, mini survival book, prescription medication, mini backup ELT+instructions+extra battery.

These items should be enough for short term survival, a few days – one is expecting rescue in the near future. Personalize your kit by adding or removing items.

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Alaskan law (AS 02.35.110. Emergency Rations and Equipment) requires certain longer term survival equipment in small aircraft. It includes mosquito headnets, a week of food for each passenger, first aid kit, knife, axe, and more. Winter regulations include snowshoes, wool blankets, and a sleeping bag. In his larger (longer term) emergency kit, our instructor also includes 33 gallon trash bags (great for carrying water&berries, covering large wounds, acting as a raincoat/mosquito net, shelter, collecting condensation from a tree branch to drink, etc), large roll of duct tape, Dinty Moore instant meals (ex. pot roast, no water needed), water pouches (they won’t burst on impact like a gallon container might. I didn’t know they made these!).

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Random tidbits from the class:

The importance of candles: heating snow caves! When building a snow shelter, we were told that one should dig all the way down to the bare earth, beneath leaves and branches. Bare earth is approximately +14F (geothermal heat!), warmer than having a snow floor. Googling only show sites that say to have a snow floor. I’ve not tried a snow shelter so I still don’t know what is best. Candles can warm a snow cave a few degrees, which can make a bit of difference in sub zero temperatures.

Never fly with bear spray in the cockpit. Law enforcement pepper spray is 5% ‘pepper’. Bear sprays are typically ~20%. There are cases of bear spray accidentally going off, incapacitating the pilots, and causing fatal crashes.

Gun: anything smaller than a 45 probably won’t stop a bear.

When a brown bear charges, it may stop about 15 feet short of you since they don’t typically eat humans. Then again, they might kill and leave you. Black bears will eat you. Thanks instructor for that nightmare-inducing warning, humph 😉

Winter: don’t seek shelter in the plane. Build an insulated shelter. Pull padding from the seats for insulation.

Signal fire: use tires, plane oil, plane fuel to create thick, black smoke when you see search planes coming towards you/across your field of vision. (this is where the multitool is invaluable)

Not a cold weather secret: batteries die super fast. ELT batteries normally last for a day but one will be lucky to get 4 hours in the cold. Don’t rely on battery powered devices if possible!

After a crash, drink water! [if you have enough]. Adrenaline rush of the incident can dehydrate you and lead to brain impairment. Take a break and inventory all your supplies.

Steps to take are outlined here: http://wilderness-urban-survival.blogspot.com/2011/01/surviving-small-plane-crash.html

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I’ve always carried a few personal survival items on my previous flights: knife, granola bars, flashlights, extra Spot GPS batteries, lifestraw (large diameter straw with built in filter), a plastic bag, mylar thermal blanket, a sparkie firestarter (1 handed operation capable, works when wet), lip balm, chemical hand  warmers, and spare glasses. I am now going to invest in a fanny pack and strap essential items to my body.

Idea for me: I’m working on a solar powered purse for charging my phone. I should look into building something more powerful for general charging purposes.

**I am not experienced in wilderness activities. The information in this blog should be verified with a professional before its use in any real life situations.**

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I really look forward to getting back into flying next month. I haven’t piloted a plane since November – far too long.

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