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Did your Instructor ever teach you what to do in an emergency situation? I’m sure they covered engine out procedures, emergency descents, systems malfunctions, etc., but I’m sure every one of those practice scenarios ended with your problem miraculously being cured once you demonstrated that you would be able to put the plane on the ground in a survivable manner. 

But did your Instructor ever tell you what to expect after you exited the aircraft that you just landed in some farmer’s field, or worse, in the middle of a dry lakebed in a remote area miles from civilization?

Not the view you would like to see when your engine stops running.

In real life, the emergency does not end when you land. You may have survived the engine failure, but now you will need to survive the environment around you until help arrives. If you filed a flight plan, then Flight Service will initiate search procedures 30 minutes after your planned ETA if you fail to close your flight plan. That is IF you filed a flight plan. With technology these days, it is easier than ever to file a flight plan online, or with an app, so there really is no excuse not to take this minimum effort to protect yourself. But if you are 30 minutes into a two hour trip when you find yourself landing in the wild, that means you could be sitting in place for at least another two hours before someone calls the phone number you filed on your flight plan. 

If you don’t answer your phone when they call, it isn’t like the next call will be to sound the alarms and have every available SAR resource start looking for you. Calls will be made to your destination airport, or any alternate airports you listed so they can have people check the ramp to see if your plane is parked there. Any ATC facilities that may have handled your aircraft will get a phone call to see if they may have any information on where you were last heard from, or seen. This is why Flight Following is always a good service to take advantage of as well. If you had a unique squawk code, a controller will be able to remember your blip on their radar a lot easier than all the other 1200 VFR blips that come and go. There will be calls made to your departure airport to see if you even took off, or possibly turned back around and came back for some reason. Calls will also be made to any feasible airports you may have landed at along your planned route. So you see, the first hour or more of a search mission are handled on the phone. This means you will be sitting next to your plane for several more hours before anyone actually comes to look for you.

Is this how your instructor explained emergency procedures to you? If so, you had a great instructor with a wide understanding of how emergency operations work. If all your instructor ever told you was that a search would be initiated 30 minutes after your ETA, then chances are that is all their instructor ever told them, and all their instructor’s instructor ever told them. While they were not wrong, your initial thought after they told you that was probably that you would only ever have to spend 30 minutes on the ground before someone was flying overhead guiding a ground team to your location. 

The best place to spend the night when your plane breaks down is on a ramp at an airport in the middle of nowhere. Much better than a random patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere.

The hard truth is, if you ever have to land off airport, in any type of remote location, be ready to be there for at least one night if not two. The ACS for Private pilots list in the risk management section of Task D under Emergency Operations “The applicant demonstrates the ability to identify, assess and mitigate risks, encompassing:

Failure to plan for basic needs (water, clothing, shelter) for 48 to 72 hours.”

Think about the area you regularly fly, and think about the weather conditions for the time of year it is and ask yourself, “With the stuff in my plane, and my flight bag, could I keep myself, and any passengers with me alive for at least 72 hours?” I’d venture to say many of the pilots that I know who haven’t been through any type of formal SAR, or survival training probably don’t give much thought to having an unexpected two day camping trip. 

In the sake of not trying to turn this article into a multi-chaptered survival guide, I will throw out a few tips that you should take into consideration at a minimum the next time you fly.

First Tip: Don’t forget your Jacket. 

A warm, thick jacket is probably one of the easiest things to bring with you. Even in the desert, days that are in the 90s can become nights that are in the 40s during certain times of the year. It may be nice when you depart, and might still be nice when you land, but if you are outdoors overnight, this will definitely be a great step in keeping you alive.

Second Tip: Bring water.

Water is heavy, so bringing gallons of water in a light single engine airplane might wreak havoc on your weight and balance limitations, but at a minimum, you should have several bottles of water available for everyone onboard. The bottles can also be used to collect and store water while you are waiting for the search and rescue team to arrive. Also, if you fly an airplane that requires ballast in certain loading configurations, don’t throw sand bags, or gym weights in your cargo compartment, use water jugs. A gallon of water weighs just about 10lbs, so if you need to but 40lbs of weight in the rear to keep from having a CG that is too far forward, put 4 gallon jugs of water, and a few small water bottles back there. You will be in CG, and you will have a much better prepared for an off airport landing since water is such an important key to survival.

Third Tip: Bring Survival Gear

What’s in your flight bag?

You don’t have to pack like you are going on a two day camping trip, but I do keep several things in my flight bag that will help increase my chances of survival if I do find myself off airport unexpectedly. I keep three reflective survival ponchos in my flight bag. One for me, and since my plane is a light single I will probably only ever have two more people onboard with me. And if I am solo, the extra ponchos can be used for shelter or signalling. I also have an orange signalling panel, and metal mirror that can be used to get the attention of others if needed. Fire starting equipment is a must. At a minimum, bring some matches or a lighter. Don’t bet on being able to rub two sticks together to start a fire, unless it is something that you have practiced, and perfected. Practice fire safety too. Starting a forest, or brush fire will get the attention of emergency services, but it could also make things worse for you. A small fire for warmth and cooking is all you should need. I also pack a basic first aid kit with bandages, and gauze. I have a Gerber multi-tool, and a wire saw to help with any cutting needs I may have. Also, bring any medications you may need in the next 72hrs. I bring a travel size bottle of ibuprofen, OTC allergy medication, as well as some antacid tablets, because the last thing I want when I’m trying to fight the elements is a headache, a runny nose, and an upset stomach. Lip balm, or petroleum jelly are a must too, especially in dry climates. If you find yourself outside in the summer, chapped lips are only going to make you more miserable. Also, petroleum jelly can be used to help start a fire. A whistle can be heard a lot better than your voice in the wild, so bring one of those with you as well.

These are just a handful of the things you can bring to help you survive. And while it may look like a lot, all of that, and more fits in my rather small flight bag that I bring with me on every flight. Do a search for “tiny survival kit”, or just walk through the camping aisle at your local big box store, or outdoor gear store, and you will find a lot of things that are small enough to pack in a pocket of your flight bag. 

Fourth Tip: Turn on your ELT. 121.5 is your friend.

The phone jack is for the remote switch in the instrument panel, not so you can use the ELT to call 911.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but if the landing you made in the middle of nowhere was good enough for you to walk away from, it might not have been hard enough to automatically activate your ELT. I have heard of several instances where people landed off airport, and they probably sat there longer than they needed to because their ELT never activated. As a post landing check before you exit the airplane, make sure the ELT is activated, and keep it activated until someone from the search and rescue team is there to turn it off for you. If you have a remote activation switch on your instrument panel, turn it on. If not, then find your ELT, and make sure to put the switch in the on position. An ELT will get the attention of emergency services long before they start looking for someone who may have just forgotten to close their flight plan when they landed. 

Also, if you have never held an ELT in your hand you may not know this, but most ELTs that I have dealt with have a microphone jack built into them. That means you can take the handheld microphone out of your plane, and plug it into your ELT to transmit voice signals as well. Some newer ELTs have the ability to send out a data burst with GPS coordinates to make it easier to spot your location, but an old 121.5mhz ELT that many people still have in their aircraft today only send out an audible tone that has to be triangulated by radio frequency direction finding (RFDF) equipment. Making a MAYDAY call, and verbal announcement of your GPS location on a regular basis using your hand mic may improve the SAR teams’ ability to get to you sooner. Granted, there is only a microphone jack, so you will not be able to hear if anyone is replying, but at least it is something. 

And if your plane is intact, and it is safe to do so, don’t be afraid to turn the master switch back on and tune up the aircraft radios on 121.5 in order to establish communications with someone flying overhead. This would be the only time I would suggest turning off your ELT since you would be essentially trying to talk while your ELT was still transmitting on the same frequency, but as soon as you are done making a broadcast on the aircraft radio, turn the ELT back on.

Fifth Tip: Bring entertainment.

This may seem weird, but once you have taken care of your survival needs, and come to terms with the fact that you will be out in the wild for a while, you need to do something to pass the time. I pack a deck of cards in my flight bag, because whether you are solo or have passengers, there are a lot of things you can do to keep yourself occupied with a deck of cards. Another suggestion I would add would be to bring a book to read. My emergency landing book club recommendation is an Army survival manual, for obvious reasons. 

I sincerely hope no one reading this right now ever has to spend a minute in survival mode due to an aircraft emergency, but there is a reason we train for it. It happens. And for you instructors out there reading this, make sure to prepare your students for this as well. I always enjoy giving my students a tour of my flight bag to show them the survival gear I carried with me, and to impress upon them that they should carry many of the same things with them as well. There is nothing worse than making a picture perfect emergency landing, but not being able to survive the night to brag about it later. Think of it as your goal to live to tell the tale about how you survived using nothing but the stuff you had in your flight bag. 

Post Author: Justin Winters