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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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By Rob Hunter

Spring is a great time of year to fly in the desert canyon country of the Southwest before it gets too hot. I like to frequent the backcountry airstrips of Southern Utah, which are indescribably beautiful but where, even in May, the temperature can sometimes reach the upper 90’s. Obviously a survival kit for that kind of trip needs to have lots of water. But what if I encounter a problem that necessitates a forced landing on the way there? Most of us have to fly over mountains to get to beautiful canyon country of the Southwest. The mountains I fly over have more than 100 inches of snow on the ground in May, and blizzards are not uncommon. The temperatures dip to the single digits at night, and it can feel even colder because of the nearly constant wind. Surviving in these alpine conditions obviously pose different challenges, and require different equipment, than those you would need to stay alive in the desert. While the ability to travel quickly between different places and climates is certainly a great benefit of aviation, it makes preparing for an emergency landing and the subsequent survival situation more difficult.

Weight and bulk are definitely considerations in an airplane. However, it is better to make an extra trip or extra fuel stop than risk the consequences of having the survival kit at home when you need it. Most of the equipment you would put in a survival kit is also used by backpackers, who are also very weight conscious, so by looking around you can often find very lightweight and compact equipment. Try to pick items that can be used for many purposes. For example, a roll of duct tape can be used to: hold dressings on a wound, attach a splint to a broken limb, fix an airplane, make a shelter, keep snow out of your boots, and repair clothing.

It’s been said that the only survival gear you can depend on is the stuff in your pockets; as you might not have time to grab anything else before your plane catches on fire, sinks under the water, etc. I think it makes sense to have a few basics like a knife and waterproof matches in your pocket, or maybe a small fanny pack of essentials strapped around your waist. You won’t be able to fit everything in your pockets though, so you will need another container for the rest of your survival supplies. Your kit won’t do any good if it’s so big that you decide to leave it in the hangar, so make sure that it will fit in the spot you have selected. That spot should be easy to reach for both passenger and pilot. Your kit must be secured in that location to keep it from becoming a missile in a crash, but should be easily released with one hand. It needs to be easy to carry in case you need to walk to find water or to get to a more sheltered location. I find that a Mountainsmith daypack is a good size for my kit, and is easy to carry with its hip belt and shoulder strap. It is also easy to secure with the attached fastex buckles. As it is not waterproof, I package most of the contents in zip-lock bags. Everything fits in the kit except for the sleeping bag and extra water. The kit with two quarts of water weighs 18 pounds, the sleeping bag 4 pounds, and extra water weighs 8 pounds per gallon.

You will probably need help of some sort if you make a forced landing. The quickest way to get help is to travel with another airplane that can call for help for you. I have witnessed one backcountry accident in which the pilot was seriously injured. There is little doubt in my mind that that pilot would have died if it weren’t for the other pilots who rendered first aid and, more importantly, were able to call for help. One of the pilots took off and climbed a few thousand feet to get above the canyon walls before he was able to reach someone on his radio who relayed GPS coordinates to a medical helicopter. It is not always practical to fly with another plane, so we need to have a backup plan. Unfortunately, ELTs have high failure rate. Too high for me to trust my life to one. In the backcountry flight plans aren’t ideal either. My backup plan is to carry handheld GPS and transceiver in my survival kit. While this does not guarantee a quick rescue, it will certainly speed up the process.

Make sure you have spare batteries for all your electronic items, preferably lithium batteries, which have a longer shelf life than alkalines. Avoid ni-cad batteries, since they are not likely to be charged when you need them most.

Of course, making sure that you and your passengers are wearing appropriate clothing and footwear to survive in whatever environment you are flying over is the first and most important part of your shelter. Almost equally important is a sleeping bag. Even though the crash I witnessed occurred in Southern Utah on a sunny spring day, a sleeping bag was the most useful piece of survival equipment we had. We had to cut off part of the pilot’s clothes to assess and treat his injuries, and we were not able to put clothes back on over the broken bones. The sleeping bag kept him warm until the medical helicopter arrived.

What you carry to deal with medical emergencies will depend on your first aid training and your confidence in improvising medical equipment. Definitely don’t carry anything you don’t know how to use. A good wilderness first aid course is more useful than any medical equipment.

Food and Water
Water is much more important than food. Unless you have water, don’t eat anything because metabolizing the food uses water. In the desert you will need to bring emergency water with you. I bring a sturdy container filled with five gallons of water in addition to the two quarts included in my survival kit. In the mountains, water is usually abundant but you need a way to collect and purify it. You should also bring some water in case you are injured and unable to travel to where the water is. In the winter, most water is frozen, so you will need a metal container and a fire or stove in order to melt it.

Fire making
In a survival situation you don’t want to try making a fire by rubbing sticks together. You may be injured on top of a cold, windy, wet mountain, and will want every fire starting aid you can get. I like the REI brand waterproof matches. They can actually be submerged in water and will keep burning. Lighters are convenient, but most must be dry and warm. The high-tech wind proof ones don’t work at altitude. The best tinder I have found is called Wet Fire™, and is available at many outdoor shops. It looks like a small white piece of chalk, but will burn while floating on water and can be lit with just a spark. AV gas can certainly help get a fire going, but put it on the wood ahead of time. A survival situation is not a good time to have 3rd degree burns all over your face.

You can put anything else in your kit that you are willing to carry. Anything that you or your spouse deems will make a survival situation more comfortable is fair game.

Using Survival Equipment to Avoid a Crash
Some of the most important things I carry in my plane are not actually survival supplies, but are more like survival avoidance supplies. I recognize that I am susceptible to get-home-itis. It is tempting to take some risks with less than ideal weather or a minor mechanical problem when the only alternative is a cold, dark, hungry miserable night with worried and upset family members waiting for me at home. On the other hand, if I can call home on a cell phone so family and FSS won’t worry, have plenty of warm clothes, and a self-heating meal, stopping for a few hours doesn’t seem so bad. If I also have a warm sleeping bag, equipment to make a fire, and a shelter, spending the night at a deserted airstrip doesn’t seem so bad either.

The non-profit group Equipped to Survive™ provides a great Internet site with lots of survival information specifically for aviators at

This article first appeared in Air Mail, the quarterly newsletter of the Utah Back Country Pilots. Rob Hunter is a paramedic on the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team and an avid back country pilot. He has taught survival skills to AirMed helicopter crews and to FEMA disaster teams. Utah Back Country Pilots is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting back country flying safety, preserving back country airstrips, and protecting the environment at these locations. To join Utah Back Country Pilots, help save these treasured airstrips and receive the newsletter send $30 to Utah Back Country Pilots, Skypark Airport, 1887 S. Redwood Rd. #16, Woods Cross, UT 84087. For more information, call (801) 585-0342 or visit .
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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