Safety Equipment

Its not your fault; the engine just quit, but youre still on the ground in a remote area. Whats in your airplane to get you through an off-airport landing?


Its often a source of heated debate in hangar-flying sessions: What should you carry in the airplane to get you through an off-airport landing? How should you plan for such an event, and what will you need to get you through it? The scenarios raised in such discussions can range from making a quick 911 cellphone call to request assistance from a warm, sunny beach to a marathon wintertime “Donner Party” episode. Or worse.

Unless your flying is restricted to your home dromes practice area, its likely youll find yourself over some pretty remote territory from time to time. Even if all your en route trips are flown IFR, theres no guarantee the authorities whoever they are will know where you are after an unplanned, off-airport landing or be able to get to you quickly. Whats in your bag of tricks to get you and your passengers through such an “adventure?” And how will keeping all this stuff in the airplane affect its utility?

Phone home

In an off-airport situation, communicating with the outside world may be as easy as a stroll to a nearby farmhouse. If youre down in a remote area, however, chances are you wont be able to knock on someones door. Your cellphone may not be able to get a signal, either.

In this scenario, the obvious idea is to summon help. The same tools you used to navigate yourself to your off-airport landing might help get you home.

Chief among our choices for communications would be a handheld comm radio. We carry one as a backup in case the airplanes electrical system falls down on the job and it can come in very handy here, too. Choose one with an option to use AA batteries, instead of a proprietary rechargeable battery pack and carry enough batteries for at least one full replacement.

If IFR or receiving flight following, wed punch in the last ATC frequency we used and call in the blind for a nearby aircraft. If that didnt work, wed dial up 121.5 MHz and repeat the process.

Another piece of equipment aboard the airplane will come in handy here, also: the ELT. Even an older emergency locator transmitter lacking the now-required remote switching capability should be usable in an off-airport landing. Some ELTs also feature a voice capability; just plug in a handheld microphone and you can transmit and receive voice on 121.5 and/or 243.0 MHz. An even better solution, however, is to carry one of the newer 406 MHz ELTs or a GPS-based personal locator beacon (PLB). Neither the 406 ELT or the PLB are required for now even though the international organization responsible for coordinating ELT and PLB searches will end its satellite-based support of 121.5/243.0 MHz ELTs on February 1, 2009.

All of this presumes we carry a handheld and that its batteries are good, or that the ELT/PLB is aboard and functioning. If not, we need to consider Plan B, which might force us to use some low-tech tools.

Although they wont give us the range and bandwidth, signaling devices like a mirror, flares, flashlights, chemical light sticks and whistles are light and small enough to be cubbyholed in the airplane without too much trouble. And, if you carry one of the new-tech flashlights that generate energy from a squeeze handle, you wont even have to worry about batteries.


Another of the problems posed by an extended stay after an off-airport landing is how and where to find shelter. Ideally, the airplane is upright and undamaged after your landing, but you cant always count on using it to keep out of the elements. If the landing was less-than-ideal and the cabin isnt habitable for one reason or another, youll need to seek out an alternative while you wait for rescue. Obviously, a tent or similar portable shelter would come in very handy right now, along with a sleeping bag, perhaps, and some heavy clothing.

What to carry in the airplane to meet this off-airport challenge is a topic subject to some of the most-heated hangar flying debate. When it comes to tents, youll obviously want something designed to house all the airplanes passengers, along with being thats light in weight, easy to erect and simple to stow in the airplane. Perhaps without knowing it, vendors designing tents for the backpacker market probably have what you want.

The same thing is true for a sleeping bag and outerwear clothing. Unlike most light airplanes, the technology in this market segment has advanced a great deal in recent years. The only drawback is the good-quality stuff isnt cheap. That said, you can probably get by for a couple of days with a tent and other equipment that isnt state-of-the-art or top-of-the-line. If youre a hiker and backpacker, so much the better you can use it when youre not flying.

After choosing a tent or other shelter items, there are a few other things youll want to consider, including fire-starting materials and a tarp or two. The ubiquitous butane lighter is not only a good choice for starting fires, theyre cheap, light and easy to find at the checkout stands of most grocery and home supply stores. Grab a package of five next time youre out shopping and throw it into the airplane along with the batteries youll need to power your handheld comm radio or portable GPS. And dont forget one of the equally ubiquitous blue plastic tarps as a supplement to your tent.


While youre waiting to be rescued, youll likely get hungry and thirsty. The conventional wisdom is that a healthy human can survive for several weeks without food but must have a regular supply of water. One of the catches is that consuming food requires additional water to help digestion. Another catch is that, while bottled water is easy to find and store, it also exacts a weight penalty when carried aboard the typical light airplane.

Food items like energy bars and dried snacks are easy to store and carry in the plane, but they exact a higher water requirement than, say, sitting down to a home-cooked meal. The issue really becomes how much water is required and available.

A humans minimum daily water requirement in a survival situation varies with exertion, ambient temperature, altitude and other factors. In extreme cases of exertion and temperature, experts say water requirements can soar to as high as 30 liters of water per day, per person. Given that the average case of bottled water from the grocery store contains only 12 liters, you could easily need to fill your airplanes baggage compartment with water to ensure survival of six people for two days when flying over a desert in the summer.

All of which makes carrying an adequate amount of water aboard the typical light airplane problematic. Our compromise solution would be to carry at least a liter of water, per person, per day an amount allowing only relatively minimal activity in a moderate climate. If we fill a typical four-seat airplane and plan to be rescued after two days, we want to carry at least eight liters of water. Round that up and youre lugging around a case of 24 half-liter bottles, or 26.5 pounds of water.

If youre flying over, say, Minnesota or another area where fresh water is plentiful, one solution may be to carry water purification tablets. In any case, youll want to boil any water you may find. Regardless, adequate water supplies for all occupants is one of the major challenges faced while awaiting rescue after any off-airport landing.

Seasonal items

Depending on the time of the year and the terrain over which youll be flying, you may also want to pack other items aboard the airplane, just in case. We covered tents and sleeping bags, for example, earlier and theres no doubt theyd be useful in wintertime. Similarly, Alaskas requirements (see the sidebar opposite) include mosquito netting for the summertime and snowshoes in winter.

But the area in which you may be forced to land could have a climate harsher than the one you left or the one at which you expected to arrive. Well into the late spring, for example, many peaks of the Rocky Mountains remain snow-capped. And, freezing temperatures can be encountered at night in many areas of the U.S. well outside what we think of as the winter months.

The key in any of this is to think long and hard about the terrain over which youll be flying, not just the shirtsleeves environment of your airplanes cabin. Staying proficient, flying a well-maintained airplane and avoiding bad weather will keep you out of most off-airport situations. But stuff out of your control can happen, and you should think about what youll do next.


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