Planning for the worst – Whats your emergency plan

gyrocopter crash survival

For most pilots the odds are good that survival is the last thing on their mind when they’re preflighting their aircraft for a cross-country flight. But if your intended flight path is over wilderness, you may want to consider such precautions.

Staying alive after a forced landing is possible if you have some basic knowledge, a few skills, and a small collection of items to help tip the scales in your favor.

With a few survival basics, you can acquire the skills and assemble the items you’ll need to face nearly any situation should the worst happen. In this article we’ll look at the basic survival and personal skills needed.

The Will to Survive

Aircraft crash survival skills

Positive mental attitude, body management, and resource management are the three basic elements to survival in any environment. Attitude is by far the most powerful of the three.

Therefore, the first thing you must do when the worst happens is adopt the positive attitude that death is not an option: You will be rescued, and you will live long enough to be a problem for your kids.

Not only that, but you will do your best to support anyone flying with you. You’ll also foster teamwork among those who are with you. No one will be left behind; everyone will get out together. What are the traits of successful survivors? First, they are highly adaptable; second, they have a strong reason to live.

Adaptability brings along the concept of “comfort zones.” Your comfort zone is simply the circumstances or situations to which you can easily adapt. Individuals with narrow comfort zones tend to be more dependent on others for their everyday necessities of life.

When the power goes out in a storm, they’re the first to declare a crisis, jump in the car, and head to the nearest hotel. Individuals with a broad comfort zone adapt to the inconvenience, firing up their emergency generator, lighting candles or a lantern, and cooking on the wood stove.

These individuals will be the more successful survivors. The good thing about comfort zones is that they can be expanded with relative ease. Taking a survival course that puts you in the field under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor is the ultimate way, but there are less extreme avenues.

Camping is a good start, even if it’s in your backyard. Make your own shelter instead of taking a tent. Make a fire using the materials you have in your survival kit. Learn to evaluate your surroundings for resources that could help you.

Even going to a foreign food restaurant and ordering a completely unfamiliar dish can get you on the right path. The second trait is a strong reason to live. This could be as simple as surviving long enough to strangle the person who sold you your engine or to build a better airplane.

It could be a spouse, children, a religious belief, or a personal goal. Whatever your reason, it must be strong enough to motivate you to make the decisions necessary to stay alive, one more day, one more hour, or one more minute.

I suggest you find, create, or recognize that reason now before you need it. Keep it secret. It will be more powerful.

Barriers to Survival

survival tips for the pilot

There are three barriers to survival: fear, boredom, and loneliness. Fear is the natural product of the unknown.

It is, perhaps, one of the prime reasons that our species has survived to rule the planet. But, when controlled, fear is not bad. When we’re afraid, adrenaline is released; we get stronger, faster, and our senses get sharper. We ignore pain and discomfort.

Survival step one is to expect to be afraid and deal with it; left uncontrolled, fear will quickly evolve into panic. If you panic, you are no longer rational and your chances of survival drop to near zero. Fear can be controlled in a number of ways.

The best way is to eliminate as much of the unknown as possible. Expanding your comfort zone will go a long way toward reducing fear. Reading books on survival will help to some extent, but hands-on experience is the best.

Get yourself into the outdoors to practice your skills. Take a first-aid course and get certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Use this experience to develop a mental plan of action long before it’s needed.

Believe it or not, boredom and loneliness are the most difficult barriers to survival. Some people hate being alone, even for short periods. Others need constant entertainment. These people will find a few days away from civilization quite daunting. The secret here is to stay active.

Stick to your plan of action. Keep re-evaluating your situation and determine what you can do to make your situation better. Put your problem-solving abilities to work and make something better every day. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Some General Rules

After an off-field landing in a remote area, the first step you must make is to adopt your survival attitude immediately and begin assessing your situation, your personal condition, and the conditions of your passengers.

Deal with life-threatening medical problems first. Once these are under control, take inventory of what resources you have and what the local environment can offer. Look for topographical features that might offer shelter, food, or water.

  • Are there trees for building materials?

  • Is there dry deadfall that might be a source of firewood?

  • What can you get from the airplane that will help you?

  • Can you use a wing or other control surface as the roof of a shelter or windbreak?

  • Do you still have fuel in the tanks?

  • Oil?

  • Are there rubber tires you can cut up for a smoky signal fire?

  • Can you convert the seat covers into ground pads for sitting and sleeping?

A word of warning about the airplane. In a cold environment, never use the airplane as a permanent shelter. Aircraft, like automobiles, are poorly insulated, if at all, and will be impossible to heat.

Use your aircraft only as a shelter of expedience while building a permanent shelter nearby. Do not leave the crash site except to take advantage of a better topographical situation and the resources it has to offer.

Never try to walk out of an isolated area or desert fellow survivors to go for help. Individuals who attempt that are rarely recovered alive. The only time this is safe is when you can physically see a road or home or other source of help. In any other situation, let the rescuers come to you.

Doing Your Part

Your primary duty is to stay alive and to do everything possible to assist the rescue people in finding you. In the lower 48 states, most survivors are recovered within 24 hours of a forced landing. Rarely will it take more than 72 hours. Therefore, for the purposes of our planning, we’ll use three days as our survival objective.

If you’re planning a flight over hostile territory, file a FAA flight plan and close it when you reach your destination. If they don’t hear from you, they’re going to assume you’ve gone down and will spin up the search and rescue assets in your area.

If you’re flying an ultralight or simply don’t want to file a flight plan for a local flight, tell someone you trust where you’re going and how you intend to get there. Hand them a chart with your intended flight path and destination marked on it. This will give the search and rescue people an idea of where to start looking for you.

Give a friend a deadline to receive a call from you confirming that you arrived safely. Call before you begin your return flight and establish another deadline. If he or she hears nothing, rescue agencies are called.

Many ultralight clubs have a designated individual or safety officer who acts on behalf of its members in the event they don’t turn up at their planned destination. Again, don’t forget to make the call to confirm your arrival at your destination.

Stayin’ Alive

survival essentials

There are three necessities for sustaining life: water, shelter, and food. To stay alive, we first need to know how we could die and what our priorities should be. Remember, our survival objective is three days.

If asked to prioritize those three necessities, most people will slap a big red “1” on food. In reality, it takes several weeks for the average person to die of starvation. Some of us would take quite a bit longer.

What about water?

Without fluid intake, it will take several days to die of dehydration, depending upon how well hydrated you were to begin with, your activity level, and the environment you’re in.


In cold regions, without shelter, survival can be measured in minutes. Even in more temperate areas, survival can be measured in hours depending upon wind and precipitation.

Death by hypothermia, or exposure as it more widely known, becomes a threat anytime the outside temperature, including wind chill, drops below about 68°F. That’s not very cold! Wind and wet conditions are your biggest enemies. We now have our priorities. Shelter is number one, followed by water and, finally, food.

In reality, however, there is a fourth necessity that comes in just after water, and that’s rest. Without rest we will gradually tire to the point where we begin making bad decisions, and our problem-solving ability erodes to nothing.

It is vitally important then that we ration our personal energy and seek enough comfort through an appropriate shelter to allow us to rest at every opportunity. Having said that, let’s look at the other related necessities with an eye on how we can be better prepared to obtain them.

Staying Warm

Metabolic processes and muscle action create body heat. As stated earlier, hypothermia can be a serious threat to survival. The first indicator that you are losing heat too rapidly is shivering. This is your body’s attempt to generate heat by muscle action.

If you do nothing, the shivering will eventually stop. You will get progressively more lethargic, lose the ability to make good decisions, and eventually lapse into a coma and die. The easiest way to stop this downward spiral is to get active.

Jump up and down, run in circles, cut wood, or whatever you are capable of doing. If you are inactive, you are relying on your heart action and your body’s natural metabolism to generate heat.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the rate at which we convert food to the energy (including heat) and products we need to sustain life. BMR is different for each of us depending upon a number of factors.

As a general trend, however, the older we get, the lower our BMR and the more difficult it is staying warm without activity. Maintaining physical fitness will go a long way toward combating this trend. Still, you should keep this in mind when constructing your shelter and insulating it.

Heat, once generated, is distributed throughout the body by blood according to need. It is interesting to note that the body has more vascular volume than actual blood. The body is constantly juggling where blood goes, and it will restrict or even shut off an extremity that is losing heat too fast.

However, the one extremity it will never restrict is the head, thus the reason for the large percentage of body heat lost from the head at low outside temperatures. If all your blood vessels were to open (that is, dilate) at once, your blood pressure would drop and you’d faint.

You should be aware that this natural juggling act can be defeated or interrupted by both mechanical and chemical means. Mechanical restriction is the reason why in extreme cold we avoid tight-fitting clothes.

cold weather survival for pilots

Blood flow can also be altered by the vasodilatation or vasoconstriction effects of certain chemicals. Alcohol, for instance, is a powerful vasodilator that will open blood vessels and increase blood flow to the surface of the skin.

This results in a ruddy complexion and increased heat loss as blood is shunted away from the body’s core.

The reason you feel warmer after consuming alcoholic beverages is that there are more temperature-sensitive nerves in the skin than in deeper tissue. Alcohol also requires large amounts of water to metabolize and will speed dehydration. The old saw about giving a survivor a shot of liquor to warm them up is false, and could be lethal.

On the other hand, vasoconstrictors cause blood vessels to contract, limiting blood flow to body tissue. If you smoke, you should be aware that nicotine is a powerful vasoconstrictor. That’s why a heavy smoker will find it more difficult than a non-smoker to keep extremities such as hands and feet warm.

Limited blood flow to the skin is why long-time smokers tend to be rather pale (smoker’s pallor). It also means a higher risk of frostbite, as the tissue is not well heated. Caffeine is another such substance, though less powerful.

Still, heavy consumption of caffeine-bearing drinks and foods can have a noticeable effect under very cold conditions. Commonly available over-the-counter medicines as well as prescription drugs can be either vasoconstrictors or vasodilators.

Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you take some form of medication on a regular basis to find out if it has any such side effects. By the way, if you do take regular medication, make sure that your survival kit contains enough to keep you comfortable for at least three days.


survival skills for pilots

The three cornerstones of survival are attitude, body management, and resource management. The three necessities for life are shelter, water, and food. Only you can control your attitude and apply your natural problem-solving abilities to the challenges of staying alive.

You now have the basic knowledge to put together a minimum number of items you’ll need to deal with your own situation, environment, and aircraft. So, go forth in safety, and if the worst happens, remember, you will survive.

Improving Your Chances and your skills

If you have Internet access, spin up your favorite search engine and see what you can find or just click here for a range of survival information and equipment on

AUTHOR BIO: Scott McCarthy is an electronics engineer for the United States Navy. In the mid ’80s he became associated with the Navy’s ICEX program.

He developed and implemented a specialized arctic survival and orientation course, as well as a polar bear defense course for ICEX participants. He has taught the principals of survival to more than 200 military and civilian personnel.

Scott is a graduate of the Navy Cold Weather Survival School, the USAF Cold Weather Survival School, and the Quest Survival School. He holds a private glider pilot rating and was active in soaring. Currently he is restoring both a Mitchell Wing and a Lazair ultralight.

Planning for the worst - Whats your emergency plan
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Planning for the worst - Whats your emergency plan
Every pilot must have an emergency plan - whether you are flying the circuit or going cross-country. Life preservation should be a pre-flight priority!

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