Live or die ? Rescue Crew Survival Tactics and Techniques
Myth number 3: rescue is inevitable
One of the biggest misconceptions is how quickly you will be rescued.
According to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) statistics, for an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan in the United States, the average time from last known position (LNK) to rescue is 31 hours. However, if you do not update flight itinerary corrections (in-flight) or file an accurate plan, it may differ significantly.
In crew survival, our easiest place to start is the flight plan, and it’s free!
Without an accurate flight plan, search and rescue (SAR) teams don’t know where to start looking for you. Your ability to survive becomes even more important. Remember that you are not a survivor until you are rescued.
On average, 68% of all crews are injured during a crash scenario, so statistically you won’t be mobile in the first place. This is compounded by the simple fact that SAR services are looking for your aircraft’s emergency locator transmitter (ELT), not you.
So part of “prevention” is to make sure your aircraft’s ELT is the 405 MHz / 121.5 MHz system (because ELT 121.5 monitoring was disabled in 2019). Ideally, you have the plane’s ELT and the best purchase you can make, a personal locator beacon (PLB). Individually recorded and accurate, allowing emergency services access to personal information such as who you are, equipment carried, next of kin/point of contact information, etc.
Reliance on electronic aids (such as EFB, GPS and smart phone apps), while very accurate, all have a point of failure: cost and battery. “Old fashioned” paper charts and an E3B flight “computer” (which is by no means a computer) are no longer used frequently, but when the systems fail, as aircrew, we have at least a rough idea of where we are. However, navigating in a non-combat/tactical survival situation should not be a concern, as the golden rule is to STAY WITH THE PLANE. Use the maps and charts to make a fire.
A concrete example
Black Wolf Helicopters prime crew member, and in my opinion one of the “top four” jungle survival instructors on the planet, even while suffering a broken wrist, rescued 28 people after mudslides in Peru (and giving a survivor their own seat on a plane).
Although he was a highly experienced Special Forces Jungle Survival Instructor familiar with the area, after a 10km walk he realized that as a crew member (SAR) he was “equipped to survive” – NOT to hike the surrounding environment. He spent six days at 11,600 feet (MSL) – and despite all his superior survival skills, he stayed with the plane in its last position. After six days, a military helicopter returned to the same location and was successfully reported by its heliograph mirror.
As aircrew, our goal is to mitigate the TIME between incident and RESCUE, while staying ALIVE. Period.
Myth number 2: Rescue is not necessary
Aircrew survival skills, the same as all ALSEs (Aviation Life Support Equipment), are basically simple – we never want to use them. This poses a cost problem for perishables and is often seen as an undesirable barrier.
The natural human instinct is “fight or flight” – after the accident, we naturally and instinctively want to get out (out) to safety… “If it’s not attached to you, you won’t will not” are all applicable. The purpose of phrases such as “Dress to Egress” (dressing appropriately for the environment we are flying over – not sitting) is to ensure that we physically have basic protection and the survival.
Yes, carry an extended survival/medical kit on the plane, and I highly recommend you do, but to put it into perspective – for those who have had underwater egress training before, given that 76 % of All Ditches Happen in Inland Waters Will you manage to get out and then try to swim in a sinking metal box looking for your kit? No, you’re not, simply because your body’s natural reactions will come to the surface.
Myth number 1: Survival “is easy”
In short, no, it is not. I have many very experienced crews who are confident they can get out (after the crash), kill a deer/monkey and survive.
No, you can’t, is the simple answer. For example, as an Aircrew Survival Instructor, I can literally destroy any preconceptions that survival is easy, even in your own backyard on a sunny day.
The two main misconceptions in a survival situation are navigation as discussed and making food a priority. Totally incorrect. In survival situations, proven over and over again, we must follow what is known as the “law of 3s”: whether we operate above water or only inland, these “laws/rule of 3” have an intrinsic effect on how we as a crew equip, train and prepare to survive.
From this set of laws, we arrive at our actual “survival priorities,” in this order:
- THE WATER
Don’t deviate or change because you or someone else thinks they “know better.” These priorities have stood the test of time for many years.
We need to protect ourselves from further injury/injury – get out of the plane at a safe distance, give first aid and erect shelter to protect ourselves from the elements. This takes a long time, because we are already on a downward curve in our body’s energy intake.
“Fifty thousand ways to start a fire and a PLB” – we need to start a fire, not a barbecue fire on the beach. Small enough to keep us warm, but also instantly ready for signaling purposes. Once we have our basic shelter and fire, we can sit back and relax. Lay out all your survival gear and take stock of your situation. Open your signal equipment, check that it still works, refresh on the instructions. The passing of a SAR helicopter overhead is not the time to realize that you no longer know how to operate your equipment. From there, it’s about improving what we’ve been doing. Remember this is about survival and we are not on a camping trip. If you’re bored, you don’t have enough firewood.
So how can we, as individuals or units/companies, practice these skills?
First, don’t just buy a ready-made survival kit. The same goes for survival manuals/books; many are generic and not specific to the region we operate in, so contain way too many skills and techniques. Survival kits should be tailored to the region and climate of operations and be of the highest quality your budget can afford. Have an intrinsic knowledge of your:
- “Localization assistance”
- Mayday calls, frequencies and how radios work
- 7700 Emergency Transponder
- Aircraft ELT
- Individual BLP
- rescue lasers
- Heliograph signaling mirrors, whistles, chemical lamps, strobes, traffic signs
- Fifty thousand ways to start a fire’
Fire applies to all survival priorities: protection, location, water, and food, so try as many methods as possible. Also discover the different types of fire:
- Butane lighter
- Ferrous bars
- Chemical reactions
- Creating a “Pyramid” signal (a way to instantly create a smoke signal from a small fire).
Then practice. Ideally, survival training should be done when you are cold, wet, tired, and hungry. In practice, this is often not feasible for organizations due to staffing levels. So try it outside in the parking lot. Walk 20 meters in a field, sit down and light a fire with anything you have on you or can reach without moving. It is the muscle memory systems that we need to develop. Know how to use your equipment, in the order of survival priorities, and in all weathers (day and night).
During our courses, we post, and I personally recommend developing your own “Aircrew Survival Checklist.” As with all Crew Resource Management (CRM) checklists, designed for high stress/cognitive overload situations, it allows you to sit back, temporarily relax, and formulate a plan. The key to all survival situations is the WILL TO SURVIVE.
It’s your life, prepare appropriately.
Master the basics and remember, knowledge weighs nothing.