Helicopters Magazine

Facilitating Your Rescue

May 3, 2011  By Dan Gibson

In parts 1 and 2 of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire crash scenario, then discussed the psychology of surviving, setting priorities, how to build an emergency shelter and the numerous benefits of fire.

In parts 1 and 2 of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire crash scenario, then discussed the psychology of surviving, setting priorities, how to build an emergency shelter and the numerous benefits of fire.

Continuing from where we left off, it is early dawn as you emerge from your make-shift refuge and assess your situation. Despite being warm and dry, your crude shelter was hastily constructed and uncomfortable, so sleep did not come easy. Without fire, the darkness made matters worse and every scurry and snap echoed and amplified ominously in your imagination.

Now, exhausted and wrought with anxiety, you find yourself cold and alone, trying to piece together some mosaic of understanding; you are safe and protected (you made sure of that last night), but you had no fire and that situation must change. You are hungry, but that can wait. You are definitely thirsty and that can’t wait long, but. . . does anyone out there know where the hell you are?

Yesterday’s flights were long, at low altitude, and to several random destinations, so pinpointing your location will be difficult. The narrow gorge where you crashed is surely impeding your ELT signal and the last time you looked your cockpit was spewing sparks and smoke – who knows the extent of the damage to your electronics. One thing is for sure – you have to find a way to let somebody know where you are, and that you are alive!


Road to Recovery
Following an aviation mishap, priorities are never clear or chronological. Instead, they overlap and leapfrog each other. In our hypothetical scenario, you are uninjured but night fell quickly, preventing you from establishing anything beyond a rudimentary shelter. Your once clear priorities are now blurred by fatigue and anguish.

To counteract this, congratulate yourself on your monumental feats of surviving the crash and your first night alone. Use the daylight and your ability to distinguish your surroundings to buoy your spirits. Strengthening your resolve and lowering your expectations protects you from being discouraged, so start by presuming that all is lost and your radio and supplies have been destroyed. The reasoning behind this is if a few things are in working order and some of your survival kit is salvageable, they become windfalls and you feel better, not worse.

Most missing hikers are found within three days – aviators much sooner, but don’t “expect” to be rescued. Instead, do everything possible to facilitate your own rescue. By placing “yourself” in charge, you will find more creative and unique ways to signal for help.

Search-and-rescue (SAR) aircraft will be looking for any visible signs of the crash site from the air, such as smoke from a signal fire or any of the international ground signals for help – SOS, a large V or X, or a large triangle. Use tree bows, peeled logs, sod, stones, branches, bright clothing, flags, parachutes, etc. to create colours that contrast your surroundings, and make your signals as large as possible – ideally 40 feet in length and 10 feet between each letter. You can also
signal an aircraft with anything reflective, such as broken glass, metal, mirrors or lenses.

With your outstretched arm in front of you, simply hold your fingers open in the shape of an upwards “V.” Position the distant aircraft between your fingers inside the “V” and hold your reflector close to your face to catch the angle of the sun’s reflection so that it centres within the “V.” The intensity of the flickering light will align with the SAR aircraft making it easier for you to catch their eye. A signal fire is very effective but use everything at your disposal and several methods simultaneously to increase your chances of being rescued.

Survival and Rescue is Part 3 in a series aimed at providing pilots with critical wilderness survival skills and insight. The next instalment will highlight how to effectively stock a flight survival kit.

Building a Signal Fire

  • In a clearing, lay a framework of alternating dry and green sticks in a large square.
  • In the centre, loosely assemble into a mound such combustibles as birch bark strips, dry grasses and pine needles, entwined with narrow, dry kindling.
  •  Build up your structure into a pyramid shape by alternating your firewood, ensuring plenty of ventilation from below.
  • Occasionally crisscross your square with dry sticks, placing plenty of dry grass, birch bark and small dry kindling on the lower tiers.
  • From knee to waist level top your tiers with a mix of dry kindling, birch and fresh evergreen boughs, switching solely to fresh evergreen on the upper levels.
  • Continue this process until your structure is eye height and the upper two thirds are dominated by fresh evergreen.
  • Once lit, a roaring inferno will funnel upwards like a chimney flue, rapidly igniting your “greenery” and resulting in copious amounts of thick yellow/white smoke billowing into the sky.
  • Keep an ample source of greenery on hand and ensure your structure is kept dry and ready to ignite on the first attempt upon seeing or hearing SAR.


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