Survival Instincts

It's good to be prepared

October 1, 2005

My first instructor always hammered it into my thick skull to constantly scan the ground in case I had to set the airplane down. We'd be out flying somewhere over the wilds of Kansas, and he'd just reach over and pull off the power and say, "You've just lost your engine." Great. In the populous areas I guess I'd usually nearly crash into a row of trees on the business end of the runway — at first — but the more open the wilderness we were over, the more likely I'd set down the Cessna undamaged. Of course, it was the wide-open prairie, which got me thinking: What if I did have to make a real emergency landing, but the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) didn't work, or I didn't have time to radio my position to air traffic control, and I didn't file a flight plan, or, let's see...what else...oh, my transponder had died or gave an erroneous reading, and I was around 1,000 miles off course like in the movie Cast Away or the television program Lost, and I had to spend more than an hour out here without a convenience store nearby?

Turns out, it's not so far-fetched after all. Take two accidents that happened in the late 1990s. In one the copilot of a Cessna 402C took off VFR from Reno, Nevada, headed for Columbia, California, and crashed into the mountains 11 miles south of Walker, California, about 30 minutes later. He awoke upside down; the nose was torn off the airplane and the pilot was killed when he was thrown out. The copilot had a compound fracture of his right femur and had broken both his ankles. To get out of the wind he crawled around to the side of the Cessna, kicked in a cabin window (remember, this guy had broken ankles), and crawled inside. With his handheld radio he called Mayday on 121.5 and contacted a Cessna 414, which relayed his call to a National Guard Lockheed C-130. The Guard called in a Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight and a Bell UH-1 Huey, which dropped two parachute jumpers. Fewer than five hours after the crash the copilot was being transported to a hospital. As for the ELT, well, it failed to transmit.

The second accident didn't end up quite that successfully. A Cessna 182 also crashed in the mountains. This one was being flown VFR by a Civil Air Patrol survival instructor from Auburn, Washington, to Boise, Idaho. He managed to survive the crash with only a few minor injuries, yet died of hypothermia. He had no handheld and tried to use the 182's radios but ran down the battery. He probably survived for two days, and there were several candy wrappers found around the wreckage. Oh, yes, his ELT didn't work either. And they found his survival pack back at the airport, in the trunk of his car.

If you were in a similar situation, what would you do?

"With very rare exceptions it is almost always better to stay with the aircraft, even if not much is left of it," says Doug Ritter, executive director of the Equipped to Survive Foundation in Gilbert, Arizona. "It's a whole lot easier to see than you are, and that's where rescuers are going to go to start their search. In almost every circumstance you're found quicker, you have shelter, and generally speaking, the aircraft provides materials. Why leave your greatest resource?"

OK, so let's assume that you're in the same position (not in the winter; we'll get to that), and you've made it down in one piece, with a mostly intact airplane — and that's all you have. Who takes along a week's supply of food and water?

You can go weeks without food (look at Gandhi) but only around seven days without water. If you didn't bring any, and you're nowhere near any, the U.S. Army Survival Manual, a paperback found in nearly any bookstore for around $10, offers an easy way to get some: Build a still. You're going to need to find some sort of container — a spinner, perhaps, or maybe that empty Styrofoam coffee cup that you put in the seat-back pocket — and a good-size sheet of plastic, such as upholstery or the cabin's headliner. Once you have the ingredients, dig a pit in an area reached by the sun and place said container in the center of the pit. Now place anything containing moisture around the container — nontoxic plants, for example. Cover the pit with the sheet of plastic, pile dirt on the perimeter, and place a weight, such as a rock, in the center to form an inverted cone. The enclosed space will heat in the sun, and moisture will rise and collect on the plastic sheet and dribble down into the container. It may not be cold or taste that great, but it will be enough to keep you hydrated. (To make it more palatable, pour it through a filter made from a bag, bamboo, a hollow log, or a pants leg filled with alternating layers of rock and sand.) If your only source of moisture is polluted water, the manual recommends digging a small trench 10 inches deep and 3 inches wide about a foot away from the perimeter and pouring the water into the trench. The soil will filter the bad water. "This process works extremely well when your only water source is saltwater," the manual advises.

You can use the same still to collect morning dew — provided the upper surface is slick, and the weight in the middle is clean. (Upholstery has other uses, too. You can wrap yourself in it to keep warm, and you also can make it into a roof for a lean-to, something to keep rain from pouring on you. You can even use it to collect that rain.)

Running water is typically your best water source. It isn't safe to drink water from lakes, ponds, or swamps, though; you could develop dysentery, cholera, or typhoid, or swallow flukes or leeches. None of those things are pleasant. You can purify it with water-purification tablets, or around 10 drops of iodine per canteen-full, or boil the water for 10 minutes. Of course you probably don't carry water-purification tablets or tincture of iodine. If you've given up smoking you probably won't have a lighter or matches, either. So you're going to need to make some fire.

It's harder than it looks. Think of the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away, rubbing one stick against the other until his palms bled. If you have a sunny day, fuel, a magnifying glass, and patience you can focus a beam of light on that fuel and it will eventually burst into flame. Eyeglasses can be substituted for the magnifying glass, since most pilots don't carry one of those around except on their Swiss Army knife.

You could also use a lens from binoculars, a camera, a telescope, or even a rifle sight. If you have a battery (something hefty, like a 6- or 12 volt) you can create a spark by touching wires attached to each terminal. Steel and a hard stone also can produce a spark. If you have none of those it's still possible to start a fire by rubbing sticks together.

Just be kinder to your palms and try the following method.

Fanning the flames

It's called "Bow and Drill" in official Army parlance. Build the bow — like the kind used in a bow and arrow — from a hardwood stick about an inch in diameter and 2 to 3 feet long. Tie a cord, a shoestring, or a control cable at both ends of the stick. Now you have your bow. Get another stick about a foot long or shorter to use as the drill. Wrap the cord around this stick so that it's perpendicular to the bow. Use another piece of wood for the drill cap (a flat rock or shell will also do) and a piece of firewood, the softer, the better, for the base. Dimple the base, cover it in tinder, and "vigorously spin the drill, maintaining pressure on the cap so that there is friction between the softwood and the drill," says the manual. "This friction produces the coals to start your fire." You begin with tinder (such as dry leaves, sawdust, bird down, cotton, lint, or straw), and, when it begins smoking, you pile on kindling (twigs, cardboard, or bark), then add dry logs. If your airplane has fuel, all you need to do is soak the latter two with a small amount of avgas. That'll get a fire going in no time.

Oh, yeah: Keeping the fire out of the wind makes this process a whole lot easier. You can dig a pit and build a fireplace from rocks or wood — anything to create a shelter. If your only option is to build it on frozen or wet ground, make a base from green logs. To make the fire last, once it's died down a bit cover it with large logs (dry, of course) to reignite add tinder and kindling.

Once you have that fire going, not only can you boil water, but also you can melt snow for even more water (don't eat snow — it lowers your body temperature) and build two more fires to signal the rescuers — three in a triangle is the international sign for help, as is three in a straight row set approximately 25 yards apart. Nature isn't too good at starting fires in patterns.

You also can cook.

Remember, food takes moisture to digest, and you can last longer without food than you can without water. In other words, if water's not plentiful, go without eating.

As for dining, the rule of thumb here is: If it walks you can cook it and eat it. Uh, plants...not so much. But the Army has developed what it calls the "Universal Edibility Test." It takes hours to perform thoroughly, but the gist of it is this: Rub the plant on your skin. If it burns, it's poisonous. Make sure to rub each part, too — leaves, stems, fruit. No grass is known to be poisonous, however, and chestnuts and acorns are edible. The former is better boiled though, and the latter are better roasted. So says the Manual.

You won't have to worry much about finding vegetation if you come down in the winter. In the middle of a snowy, frozen field. Or mountainside. You will, however, have to worry about frostbite. Exposed areas of flesh — the face, fingers, and feet — are wonderful candidates, and numbness is a good indication. So is a pale, whitish pallor. If you're with someone, check him or her periodically while they check you. If you're alone, warm your face with your hands. Dispelling one big myth about dealing with frostbite — never, ever, rub the area with snow. And if the frostbite goes deep, don't thaw it until you're near medical care. As for dealing with cold itself, remember most of all, don't imbibe. (I know, you're not supposed to drink and fly anyway.) A good stiff drink seems to warm you up, but it actually lowers your body temperature. Put on as many layers of clothing as possible, and keep your feet dry. If your socks get wet or damp you can drape them around the back of your neck and dry them out.

Calling the cavalry

Here's the most important part of survival: signaling the rescuers. Bring that handheld, with batteries fully charged. Carry a cell phone. But if you don't have either...build a big fire, right? Not so fast. Fires work at night, true, especially in the desert. In the woods, though, fires can be common, especially during the summer or after a thunderstorm. And fires take a lot of work and fuel to keep going.

But something that flashes — a mirror, a piece of glass or Plexiglas, a shiny bit of metal, or the glass lens from your flashlight — seldom if ever occurs in nature. It's also something that catches a search party's attention. Remember, though, nature seldom sets fire in a pattern, so it can work.

That's it in a nutshell. Really, you'll likely never need this information. But, hey, it's good to be prepared.


Phil Scott is a freelance writer and pilot living in New York City.


Required Surfing

Required Reading

Don't take our word for it. There's a whole library's worth of stuff out there on wilderness survival. Be sure to pack one of these books along with your waterproof matches:

  • U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76 (Dorset Press, 1994).
  • A Pilot's Survival Manual, Paul Nesbitt (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1978).
  • Wilderness Survival, Gregory Davenport (Stackpole Books, 1998).
  • Outdoor Survival Skills, Larry Dean Olsen (Pocket Books, 1976).
  • Camping & Wilderness Survival, Paul Tawrell (Falcon Distribution, 2001).

Don't Leave Home Without These

  • Swiss Army knife — the big kind, with a magnifying glass and wood saw.
  • Waterproof matches.
  • A metal cup or container.
  • Water-purification tablets.
  • A signaling mirror.
  • A few MREs (meals ready to eat).

Wrap it all up in a nice, large piece of orange nylon cloth (great for signaling and building a still) and tie it with a 3-foot-long cord. And toss in a few big, green garbage bags for shelter. Or a still. Your choice.