The why doesn’t matter. It could be catastrophic engine failure, a mid-air, a broken fuel line or a severe downdraft, forcing you to the ground. The punchline is you’ve crashed, off-airport and in a rural location. If you followed all the advice in last month’s article, “The Art of Crashing,” the aircraft’s impact was at a low angle, at a low speed and you didn’t have too much downward g-loading, minimizing the chance of spinal compression injuries. What was once a capable flying machine now is spread across a nice long debris field, meaning you stretched out the crash and dissipated energy over a good distance.
Of course, you followed the pre-impact checklist and shut off the fuel and master switch, and cracked the door open to make it easier to get out of the crushed and mangled airframe. You also cinched down your seat belt and shoulder harness, which kept you from whipping into the dashboard like a rag-doll. Getting yourself and your passengers out of the plane is the next critical step, because post-impact fire occurs in roughly a quarter of general aviation accidents. A one-in-four chance of bursting into flames should be very good motivation to get away from what is left of the aircraft. If that’s not enough, the smell of dripping 100LL should get you moving, too.
A phrase found on some editions’ cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perhaps that best advice for pilots (and passengers) after a crash: Don’t panic. One of the biggest potential killers after a crash is how you respond in the first minute. Freaking out won’t help you; gaining situational awareness will. Be aware that the impact and shock of the crash may be disorienting, but you need to pull yourself together and quickly assess your situation and approach the situation with the right attitude.
Seconds before the crash, the seat belt was your best friend, after the crash it may now be your worst enemy. Panic renders otherwise-capable people unable to do something as simple as releasing a seatbelt. In the panic of the moment, people will forget how to operate the simple pull-release mechanisms and many crash victims are found still strapped into their seats.
While you know how to operate a seat belt, it may not be so easy to unbuckle after a crash. Its release mechanism might be pinched or inaccessible, your hand may be injured or awkwardly restrained due to the crushed cockpit. You may even need to cut the belt to release yourself. You do have a suitable knife with you, right?
Unfortunately, there also is very good chance you’re upside down. A substantial portion of aircraft crashes result in the aircraft coming to rest inverted. If you are upside down, your full weight may be held by the seat belt. You need to release yourself before you can get out, but before you do, assess your situation. If your aircraft is stuck in a tree 30 or 40 feet above the ground, you may want to make releasing the seat belt a choice rather than a reaction.
If there is going to be a post-impact fire, it will most likely start very soon, or is already underway. If the hot engine starts a grass fire and the fuel tanks are breached, it only takes a few seconds before the entire plane can be engulfed in flames capable of melting aluminum. After you finish unbelting yourself, you may need to be reaching for the fire extinguisher. You do have one, right? It’s within your reach, right?
What Else to Reach For?
The door. Assuming you aren’t precariously suspended from a tree, building or tower, you need to get yourself and your passengers out of and away from the plane. You may not have a great deal of time to do so.
Recounting his 2007 accident in a Huskey A-1B near Townsend, Mon., the late mountain-flying guru Sparky Imeson recalled, “After impact, we spent about 20-30 seconds breathing hard with moaning noises. I asked JC if he turned off the master and mags. He had already turned them off and shut off the fuel selector. JC said his right foot was hot and I yelled, ‘We’re on fire. Get out of here.’ …We scrambled about 20 feet from the plane in a duck walk—crawl—swim—sideward crab crawl—and other awkward motions. Turning back we saw the entire cockpit was engulfed in flames.”
The unfortunate part of Sparky’s story was this: To cool off prior to his instructional flight, he had removed his survival vest with a GPS-equipped 406 MHz personal ELT and other survival gear. Sparky’s lesson? “Whatever you carry on your body and in your pockets is your survival kit” (emphasis added). See the sidebar on this page for more.
Don’t Create More Victims
While we value the heroics of those who selflessly put others first, it is important to do so wisely. Assess the situation before taking action that might put yourself or others at greater risk. Do you reach for the fire extinguisher or run away? Do you go back to a smoldering airplane to gather survival gear? The more rescue, first-responder or first-aid training you have, the more useful you will be assessing the situation and making the right call in an emergency. If you don’t have much training, simply remember one of the cardinal rules of rescue: Don’t create another victim by putting yourself at undue risk.
After extricating yourself and passengers from the aircraft, stage yourself in a safe location. From a safe location you can render first aid to stabilize injuries as best as you can. Once you have injuries stabilized, you need to do your part to help with the ‘search’ portion of search and rescue.
Communications Can Be Key
The average time from last known position to rescue varies depending on how much pre-notification/planning was done before departure and how much post-crash notification you are able to render. If you are fortunate, you filed a flight plan, you told your network of pilot friends your destination, route of travel and expected arrival time. If you are really fortunate, you made a Mayday call to ATC with location information before going down and when you pull yourself from the wreckage, your cellphone has four bars, you can hear your ELT pinging away and someone on the other end of the radio is asking if you are okay.
More likely, you have few of these things working on your side. The fewer you have, the longer you will wait. The average time to rescue a missing aircraft is 31 hours. If someone is in critical condition or you are not prepared for the conditions at hand, the wait time might be too long.
The first line of post-crash defense is the automated systems available to us all. Our search and rescue system was built around the flight plan and ELT combo. If you are unconscious, these are what will save you, but it will not necessarily be a swift rescue. The table above summarizes average rescue times from both the
FAA and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
According to the FAA, the average time to find a downed aircraft with a functioning ELT is 6.8 hours. Compare that time to 40.7 hours without one. You don’t have much control over whether a post-impact fire destroys your ELT, but you do have the ability to inspect and test it between flights. I recently changed the battery on my ELT. When I did, I discovered that the previous owner never connected the battery he installed. I didn’t have an ELT; I had a paperweight that looked like an ELT. When the new battery was installed, we tested it and confirmed that it produced a signal.
Modern 406 MHz ELTs and personal locator beacons (PLBs) should help reduce the time it takes before your distress call hits the system, but if you are conscious, a working cellphone will likely get you rescued faster than just about any other device, provided you can reach a cell tower (see the sidebar on the opposite page). Unlike with a standard PLB, you can relay details of your situation to rescuers via phone (provided you have adequate battery life). A PLB beats a cellphone when there is absolutely no cell service; it also sends a distress signal directly to search and rescue authorities. Several personal rescue communication systems offer the ability to send custom text messages via satellite. Satellite phones are also coming down in price, with several new systems on the market geared to the emergency rescue market. When your leg is broken, you really don’t think about the per-minute charge.
The basics: Signals, Shelter, Fire, Water, Food
Survival is mostly about being prepared to wait and trying to pass the time in as much comfort as you can muster. Air-rescue operations normally won’t start until daylight and your crash site may not be convenient for ground-based search-and-rescue assets (SAR) to reach by night. Even if your distress signal made it out, it may be a while before help arrives. Your next assignment is two-fold: Make it easy for SAR to find you and stay alive so they can log it as a rescue rather than a body recovery. Expect to wait a day or two.
– Depending on the time of day, weather conditions, your physical condition and other special circumstances, you will need to prioritize your survival choices. If it’s summer in the Midwest U.S., and planes are flying overhead, signaling may be the most important thing. If you’re on an exposed mountain top in a blizzard, protection from the elements and shelter may be more important. Survival boils down to the basics of trying to be comfortable.
– The basics consist of first-aid, clothing/shelter, physical condition, water and signaling. The most important item to help you survive after a crash is your training, situational awareness and decision-making skills. Having all the right gear won’t help if you don’t know how to use it, and no equipment list will provide you with the psychological will to survive.
– If you have no training whatsoever, just try to make yourself and others as comfortable and visible as possible. Choices you make in the hangar may pay off. For example, the microfiber towels I keep in my plane are bright yellow and orange, which makes them great for waving to catch the attention those looking for me.
After the immediate recovery from the crash, priorities for survival will vary depending on your location, season and specific circumstances. The order of importance you place on the priorities listed in the table on page 6 will be dictated by your specific situation. Recovering as much gear as you can from the aircraft is a good place to start.
The most important item to help you survive after a crash is your training and what you have on your person (see the sidebar on page 5). The next most important thing is the survival kit aboard the aircraft, which is hopefully accessible and intact. There are many places to find information about survival kits. What you keep on your person or in your survival kit should match your priorities and the type of flying you do. The table above presents a basic list of equipment suggested by the FAA for a personal survival kit. A survival kit must be readily and easily accessible in the event of an emergency evacuation from the aircraft.
Tend to your injuries, set up camp, make yourself visible from the air. Everything you can recover from the crash site may have a potential use. You need water more than food, so make it a priority, but you need both and some rest to keep a clear head. If you are nowhere near help, it is much smarter to let help come to you.
Don’t underestimate the value of rest and comfort.
Start a fire if it is safe to do so. When you suspect search and rescue is nearby, use your whistle, lights, signal flares and/or your portable radio to hail them. Adding green plant material and some engine oil to a small fire makes visible smoke. Arranging rocks into high-contrast SOS, spreading high-contrast materials on the ground to make a pattern visible from the air is a good use of time. For the first few days, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, stay near the crash site.
The probability of death from serious injury increases substantially after 24 hours. The best way to shorten this time is to file a flight plan, have an operational ELT, and good backup communication like a PLB, cellphone and/or handheld radio. Preparation and good communications is your best bet for a quick rescue. After that you just need patience and water.
After two weeks, the likelihood rescue efforts will continue begins to fall off, and you’re essentially on your own. Your survival skills and will to live will be the only thing you can count on. Others have done it and you can, too. It won’t be easy, but the good news about periods beyond two weeks is that the value of your book and movie rights will increase as the duration lengthens.