by Nate "Buster" Jaros
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, and it’s a beautiful day to fly. You enjoy a simple and thorough preflight of your airplane as the dew burns off the wings in the calm and cool morning air. As you prepare your steely beast to go, you feel ready and prepared for the short flight you are about to undertake. You have full tanks of fuel, water to sip, and your trusty kneeboard with some regularly used checklists and maps all at the ready. It should be a simple VFR flight to your favorite morning breakfast destination. Aside from all your preparation, there is one thing you haven’t thought of. Something most pilots don’t put much planning into. What is your emergency response plan for an aircraft accident?
I admit, it’s not something we all like to think of too much. Right? Who wants to think about that horrible situation and some of the harsh realities of what could happen to you, or your loved ones in the event of an aircraft accident? If you’re like most pilots, you don’t think about it much at all. “Going there” mentally, picturing all the possible and ugly outcomes is just too difficult, and messy. Flying is supposed to be fun!
Why is it that as pilots we spend countless hours and dollars perfecting our patterns and landings, studying books and increasing our pilot knowledge, as well as taking the time to plan out a flight from checking NOTAMS and TFRs to mapping out the route and looking at weather and even alternate airport options? Why all this preparation?
Pilots are habitual planners and thinkers, yet most omit a critical planning step in every flight…the aircraft accident plan. Today, we are going to talk about one important method for building your emergency response plan for a accident by discussing survival packs. When I ask pilots the question “Do you carry a survival pack with you when you fly?” almost every pilot responds in the negative. Yet in the USAF, survival packs and survival gear are not only mandatory, but their contents are trained with regularly.
Let’s have a look at some GA survival pack ideas.
Survival Packs: Essential Pilot Gear
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to build a survival pack, which I believe is the number one thing you can to do to build an emergency response plan for an aircraft accident.
First, I need you put all morbidity aside. Get over any hangups that you might have, maybe even reduce that pilot ego that we all have a little. It can happen to you, and you should be prepared.
Early in my USAF pilot career I was sent to Fairchild AFB, Washington for SERE school. SERE stands for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape. SERE school teaches essential concepts and training for today’s combat pilots and crews. Of note, the survival portion of the four week school was about two to two-and-a-half weeks. It’s pretty intensive, and it’s a major chunk of the training time at SERE.
Secondly, I’m not pretending to be a survival expert, by any measure. I like watching Bear Grylls and I enjoy some hiking and short wilderness adventures, as long as there’s a comfy bed and a cabin or hotel nearby. Nor am I going to be able to train you on everything you need to know about survival with one short (well, it’s kinda lengthy) article. The purpose here is to provide you with some basics, some theories of survival, and allow you to decide on your own what items you want for your pack.
Short of actual survival training in the field (which I also recommend you get) the most important thing you can do to increase your survival odds after an off airport landing…is to have a survival kit. Again, we plan for so many airborne contingencies, take a minute to plan for one possible airborne contingency, that is the one that finds you battered and bruised, walking away from a successful off-airport landing. It’s the least you can do.
Okay, here we go.
My Survival Gear: Kit Basics
There are two ways to develop your ideal survival pack. The first is to grab a bag and fill it with gear. Hmmm, okay. The second method, is to find the gear you believe is important to you, and then locate a suitable container that can nicely hold all that gear.
I think option two is the preferred method. Get your gear first, then find the container second. Additional considerations are also just how large of a survival pack do you really want? When you start talking about life rafts and Himalayan overflights, you’re going to need a pretty big pack. If you’re into just local flights, and “lunch-n-backs” to the nearest fly-in restaurant then a smaller and more manageable survival pack might be the right thing for you. It would be nice to be the ultimate Boy Scout and have everything conceivable in your pack, but that just isn’t cost effective, realistic, nor sound for a pilot watching his load and CG as well.
You also need to know what kind of basic gear you need. What terrain are you typically overflying? Survival packs for desert flight operations will and should look drastically different from the pilot who flies over arctic tundra, or mountainous terrain, or over the ocean.
Additionally, we will plan for a speedy recovery once SAR (Search And Rescue) is initiated, but we need to also plan for the worst case situation. It might actually take SAR some significant time to locate you. In this article, we will focus on a survival pack basics that allow for minor injuries, and a goal of 24 to 48 hours survival before recovery. You can adjust your pack as you see fit.
Lastly, the key concept that I go with, and learned about at SERE is this…simplicity.
Simple items fail less, and can make the difference when you need them the most.
Complicated battery operated devices and even cell phones are great technology and options, but will they fail you when needed? How long will they last? You’ll notice that I don't talk about or include GPS devices, radios, or other battery operated items in the discussion. There’s a reason for that as I prefer to go “old school” with options that wont fail me in the field, ever.
Breaking Survival Down: The Gear
At USAF survival training, it becomes blatantly obvious pretty fast, in order to survive you need air, then water, then food, then shelter. Take it one step further, and you can add signaling as well. That’s it! Now there is a whole lot of training and skill that goes well beyond that simple statement, but simply realizing these basics can help you easily identify what you need. Let’s have a quick look at each item as it relates to our survival gear in the GA cockpit.
Water. When faced with either a simple outdoor situation or the worst case aircraft accident, you will need water if you expect to survive more than a day or so. A few items that I picked up at SERE were that you’ll need a water collection device of some sort, as well as clean, safe water to drink. If I’m flying over the arid deserts of the Southwest (as I mostly do) I will try to bring a gallon or two of water and throw them in the back of the plane. It’s a simple solution, but it also assumes I can get to the water jugs after the landing. That’s a big “what if.”
Two important items in my pack for water collection and drinking are a simple stainless steel canteen cup, and a water filtering straw. The canteen cup is useful for hundreds of things in the field and can collect water or be used over flame to boil water or even dinner. I use the canteen cup in my pack as the bottom hard shell, placing it in the pack first and then filling it with other items. The filtering straw is lightweight and if I can find any appreciable water source, this will do the trick and keep me from getting sick. Remember, I’m planning on possibly a 24 hour recovery, hopefully no more.
You can also consider adding a small tin ofiodine tablets as well. These can be dissolved in your collected water for purification and last forever in a sealed container.
Food. Food is a difficult one, but there are hundreds of option once you know the tricks of the trade. Ideally in our 24 hour period, you can survive just fine without any food. Consider packing a few granola bars in your pack for extra energy, and replace them every so often.
While food may not be an immediate concern, it will be a long term issue if you find yourself stranded for any length of time. That being said, I put a few other critical items in my survival pack that can help me with a myriad of tasks, as well as later food gathering if needed. I have two different knives in my pack, as well as a small fishing kit. A few hooks, some line, weights and similar items cost you pretty much a zero weight penalty, but can be a key item in your pack if you’re really stranded. My fishing kit lives in a really small round Altoids-like tin. With practice, the knives can be used to help fashion snares, spikes, and spears for later hunting.
Shelter. For basic shelter over a 24 hour period, you don't need much. Consider that you may also have injuries and even could be in shock. With that I pack four mylar “space blankets.” They work well in the cold desert nights and also serve as great signaling devices and even rain catchers. Far easier to pack that blankets and sleeping bags, I recommend the mylar space blanket. You can even use them to make a small tent or lean-to if you’d like.
The knives can also help you construct some shelter if you really want to go full Bear Grylls out there. I’ve also added a 50 foot length of "550" paracord. There are hundreds of useful things you can do with paracord, and having some kind of basic string implement out there can help you with many tasks. I guarantee you’ll need some string to tie up something in your campsite, help with snares, or to make your shelter stronger and more secure.
Lastly, I include a metal “ring saw” which can be used to cut larger branches and trees if needed. It’s effective, and light weight.
Let’s talk a little about fire too. Fire is pretty important and having it can really improve your living conditions and morale. As the sun sets and rescue forces are nowhere near, being able to start a fire easily can be a big boost. I pack a small flint and steel. It’s that little orange aluminum stick, it weighs nothing and it really works.
Consider some kind of starter-tinder if you want as well. Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly are the best fire starter I know of. One spark from that flint and steel on a cotton ball with petroleum jelly will light off in a hurry, even if damp. Sparingly place them under your dry tinder when constructing your fire pyramid.
You can also add all sorts of miscellaneous items to your pack, depending on how much weight and space you have. I picked up a pre-made medical kit that wasn’t too overblown, yet had a good amount of key items, or items that I valued. Consider a quality medical kit, they come in all shapes and sizes. Be sure it will fit in your survival pack. Mine nestles perfectly into my canteen cup.
I also have a simple sewing kit in my pack too. We used these in SERE from everything from, well…sewing damaged gear and clothes obviously, to making fish hooks and so forth. I had one lying around so I threw it in. You might even need it for medical situations too.
I don’t have any chemical light sticks yet, but need to add a few. They will last forever in your pack and obviously can help you at night. More on them in a minute. A flashlight with fresh batteries would be a novelty too, but you have to be diligent about keeping the batteries fresh. Again, simple wins the day.
I think we spent maybe a full day in the field at SERE school learning about signaling, and various signaling options. After air, water, and food, and perhaps shelter…signaling is incredibly important. As SAR ground crews approach, or helicopters pass nearby, how are you going to help them find you, and zero in on your precise location? They say that survivors help themselves, and assisting SAR with locating you might be the difference between being picked up now and a much longer overnight visit in the great outdoors.
My absolute favorite signaling device for the day is a true and professional signal mirror. These things really work, and on a bright and sunny day, you can reliably flash someone and get their attention out to 40 or more miles! There's even one story from World War II that one troop was able to signal a passing ship at over 100 miles. Any flat metal or reflective surface (like a smart phone) will also work, but they can be hard to aim, and not as focused. Trust me I’ve tried it with airborne assets looking for me, and it is difficult. The signal mirror makes aiming a cinch and with it you can precisely hit any target. My recommended mirror is one from Coghlans. It’s harder to find, but is Mil-Spec and actual glass and metal (as opposed to the plastic ones). It has a hole for tying off a string loop as well and is substantially more focused and accurate than some of the plastic ones out there, though those work okay too.
After that, laying out shapes on the ground or using those mylar blankets can all help get an airborne SAR team’s attention. Additionally, if you have a fire going, throwing some wet or live branches and leaves on the fire will make a ton of smoke, also very effective. Think “obvious” and always use color and contrast to help your position stand out to SAR forces. A whistle is also a good item to have for calling in nearby ground recovery teams.
Night signaling is a little more tricky. A flashlight can help, but the batteries can fail. What I like to use is an item we trained with in the F-16 called the “buzzsaw.” The buzzsaw is simply a chemical light stick tied onto the end of a three or four foot length of paracord. Spin it over your head and trust me, you will be seen. Most SAR forces are also employing NVGs as well. A buzzsaw can be seen by NVGs nearly five miles away.
The Survival Bag
My survival bag is pretty sweet. Easily found online, there are hundreds of option to choose from. I chose a simple single-sling design that can be easily carried, and I’ve even worn it in the cockpit. Red is my preferred color as I want it to be very visible and easily findable. Some of today's camouflage gear is pretty sweet too, but you risk losing it, and being visible in the field is the true name of the game when it comes to survival.
I try to keep my kit within arms reach in the cockpit, assuming I’ll need to egress the aircraft quickly after an off airport landing. Following the ‘landing’ my plan is to secure the fuel selector and aircraft battery, then grab the survival bag and run!
There are a lot of options out there for a survival bag. Find what works for you and what can easily carry all your gear, and remember, you might have to walk many miles with all that gear. Think about that when searching for the right carrying sack and planning out and selecting your gear.
Developing some field survival skills are an important part of any pilot’s training. Lacking that, a simple survival kit that you build and maintain can be an asset worth it’s weight in gold should the day arise when you need it.
There are literally hundreds of volumes published on outdoor survival, with their associated techniques and ideas. Far more than we have time to discuss here. What I hope is that you will also consider in your pilot training and flight preparation repertoire is putting together a simple survival pack. It just might be the edge you need when the chips are down, and be the best part of your emergency response plan for an aircraft accident.
Nate "Buster" Jaros
What is Engine Out? Relevant aviation topics, key safety techniques, war stories, and pilot tips from Fightersweep writer and the author of Engine Out Survival Tactics, Fighter Pilot Tactics for GA Engine Loss Emergencies.
Non Pilot Stuff