Surviving in the Cold: What to do After You're Down
February 1, 2018
Well, it's still winter in Minnesota. Last month we talked about cold injury and how to avoid it while pre-flighting and operating your aircraft in a Northern winter.
Now let's look at how to stay alive just in case you missed something in your preflight and had to make a forced landing. If you had to put her in a field in Southern Minnesota, it's probably no more than a half mile walk to the nearest farm house. If you're north of Hinckley or flying out west however, it is probably not going to be that simple. You'll be in the wilderness and may have to stay there for some time. What to do to insure you and your passengers come out of this OK?
First of all, you want to make sure somebody knows you had to make a forced landing. The surest way to insure that is to fly IFR. If you are not instrument rated, ask for flight following. If trouble strikes, remember the old saw..."Aviate, Navigate, Communicate."
Fly the plane with what functionality you have. Set up your aircraft for as favorable a touchdown spot as you can find, then let ATC know you've got problems. If you have the time and the avionics to generate a longitude and latitude fix to give them, so much the better. If things happen too quickly however, and you stop talking to ATC, they will notice. Remember to make sure your ELT is turned on.
We also carry a hand-held emergency beacon in the flight bag just as a backup. If you can't visually identify any signs of civilization after landing, stay with the aircraft. It is easier to locate an aircraft than one wandering pilot. ATC should know pretty much where you are. A modern functioning ELT should pinpoint you. If you've upgraded to ADS-B, they'll probably be able to retrieve a track log of your aircraft even if you didn't file. Also, check to see if you have cellphone service. Hey, it could happen!
Let's suppose though, that you were just going for a sightseeing trip and would be right back. You didn't bother to file or request flight following. You never got around to replacing the battery in your ELT. You thought the fuel gauges were more accurate than they proved to be. You suddenly heard a deafening silence as the last bit of avgas burned out. Being the stick n' rudder ace that you are, you landed it in a snowy clearing in the great piney woods. Now what? Let's hope somebody notices you are gone and alerts the FAA. You may, however, be waiting for some period of time before a bright shiny helicopter is reassuringly overhead. You are now in survival mode. Wilderness medicine experts tell us we should prioritize our activities based on the rule of threes.It means, you can live:
• 3 minutes without AIR.
• 3 hours without SHELTER.
• 3 days without WATER.
• 3 weeks without FOOD.
• 3 months without HOPE.
The air part is pretty obvious. If your head is below water or shoved into a snow bank, get it out. Your next priority is finding shelter. Assuming you have layered up as any good Minnesotan would, you should have the three hour limit. If the airplane is in some semblance of structural integrity, it's probably your best choice. Consider piling up some snow on the windward side to increase its insulating capabilities. If you have a tarp in the baggage compartment that can be pretty handy to construct additional shelter.
Water in winter should also be pretty easy. It's always a good idea to have some matches or butane lighter in the winter flight bag to start that fire to melt snow for water and generate some heat. Be careful to vent your fire, though. You don't need carbon monoxide poisoning to ruin your already bad day. And there is that thing about fire and avgas. Oh that's right. You used it all up! Believe it or not you can survive without food for three weeks. You won't be looking very good and you won't be feeling very good, but hey, you'll be alive! So depending on how likely you think it will be that you'll be stranded for more than a few hours, you might consider stocking away a few food items in the flight bag.
Obviously the best way to ensure your surviving a winter forced landing is to not make one. Careful pre-flight planning, a thorough walk-around and good maintenance of aircraft and pilot should greatly increase the odds of a safe and uneventful cold-weather flight.
Fly wisely. See you next month.
As always, comments, questions and suggestions are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org