Signaling for Survival
July 1, 2022
Stuff happens. You never think it could happen to you, but sometimes it does.
Engines quit, sometimes even when you have avgas. Wings ice up and suddenly you're in a stall. Trees or powerlines get in the way of a takeoff or landing in a remote strip. There are all kinds of ways to be out in the middle of nowhere with a banged up airplane and increasingly limited chances of survival.
Obviously, filing a flight plan is a good way to increase your chances of being found when you don't show up where you should. The FAA quotes figures from the Air Force indicating that if you filed an IFR, the time required for rescue averages 13 hours, 6 minutes. A VFR flight plan recovery averages 37 hours, 18 minutes. If you have no filed flight plan you'll be in the wilderness 42 hours, 24 minutes on average.
Let's hope you're not too far off that average! Indeed, if you are injured, your life expectancy decreases by as much as 80% after the first 24 hours. If you are lucky enough to be uninjured, chances of survival decrease rapidly after 72 hours.
So aside from filing a flight plan, what can you do to beat the averages and increase the chances of your being recovered quickly and in one piece? The FAA has a very good publication on this topic: Office of Aerospace Medicine, Civil, Aerospace Medical Institute, Aeromedical Education Division, Basic Survival Skills for Aviation, https://www.faa.gov/pilots/training/airman_education/.
It points out that there are three general categories of signaling devices: pyro techniques, electronics, improvised. If you are flying way out over the boonies you might consider packing a flare gun or a hand-held smoke distress signal. Most pilots however rely on electronics including your radio, Electronic Locator Transmitter (ELT) or even a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB). Obviously your best bet, if you get into trouble and are still airborne, is to squawk 7700 or if IFR, to let ATC know your problem and position. Your flight manager/autopilot usually had a lat./long.
function. You should know how to access it quickly. If you do crash land, your ELT should automatically trigger. Be sure to double check that it has. As a backup to your ELT, it really is a good idea to have a PLB, especially if you are going to be flying over remote terrain. They can be
purchased from $250 to $400 and can be taken with you anywhere. I like to have one when we're sailing on Lake Superior.
Let's suppose, however that you have survived a crash far from civilization. Your electronics are trashed. You have to improvise. What are your options? You are limited only by your imagination and the available materials. A simple handheld mirror can be useful for signaling rescue aircraft assuming the day is sunny. If you can make yourself visible waving arms might do the job. An "S.O.S." marked out in a clearing with cloth, light rocks, fallen timber or what-have-you might help. Obviously these options are considerably less effective than an electronic distress signal, but if it's what ya got, it's what ya got. Bottom line, pre-flight carefully, check and augment your emergency signaling equipment, fly IFR or with flight–following if possible and odds are you'll come out just fine! Fly wisely. See you next month!