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The Priorities of Survival

March 8, 2011  By Dan Gibson

In the first part of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire scenario sure to horrify any pilot.

In the first part of our “Survival” series, we drew up a dire scenario sure to horrify any pilot.

Crashing in the remote wilderness after a long, cold day of working sling loads in mountainous terrain, you managed to survive. Now, alone in a lifeless and desolate wasteland, night is falling. Glancing back through a smoke-filled crevice at what is left of your helicopter – lodged absurdly sideways and smouldering at the base of a narrow gorge, you compose yourself, take a deep breath and automatically recall your most important survival checklist: Please Remember What’s First, dictating the order of your safety priorities: Protection, Rescue, Water and then Food.

More than 95 per cent of those experiencing an aviation accident survive the crash but many struggle beyond that point. It can take up to three days to succumb to dehydration and as long as three weeks die from lack of food. However, exposure, especially if it is extreme and compounded by injury, can immobilize you in less than three hours – so it’s imperative to act quickly. Protection encompasses every aspect of your immediate safety and is your top priority.

Retrieving your flight survival kit (with first aid supplies and other essentials) from your aircraft as quickly as possible will be immensely valuable, but not vital and certainly not at the risk of additional injury – so caution and common sense must prevail. Obtain what you can, but only when, and if, it is safe.


In the early moments following a crash, administering emergency first aid by tending to injury and shock – including caring for the anxious state of mind of others – is critical. Nightfall will bring additional hazards and more challenges, so you must find suitable shelter and establish and maintain a reliable fire without delay. Every step will be aided significantly by the items stocked in your flight survival kit, and of these, fire-making implements are without question the most valuable tools at your disposal.

Your ability to make fire impacts literally every aspect of your existence in the wild and significantly improves your chances of survival. As well as waterproof matches, every survival kit should include a flint/magnesium stick.

Your shelter needs will always be determined by the climate and when combined with fire, a good shelter will save your life. Expending as little energy as possibly for the greatest reward is crucial, so locating an existing shelter far outweighs the effort required to construct one. If you can’t find shelter you can usually craft a compact and dependable “debris shelter” in less than 20 minutes, even in the most barren of locales.

Made from scattered debris, this shelter consists of a roughly two- to three-metre length of any relatively straight beam such as a branch or downed evergreen tree, and a collection of branches, bushes, boughs, birch bark, tarps etc. With one end resting on the ground, securely position the other end of your beam onto a low limb of an upright tree, slightly less than half your height from the ground, creating an approximate 30-degree sloping angle. Break off any branches on the underside of your beam then lean and pack as much debris as you can along both sides, leaving a small entrance opening at the high end base of the upright tree. In winter, pack snow against the debris sides to reinforce and seal any open areas. By lining the floor of your shelter with dry leaves, pine needles or cattail down, and covering it with evergreen boughs, you will prevent your body heat from being drawn away by the cold ground. In essence, you are constructing a miniature, enclosed, cave-like nest that will act as an insulating sleeping bag, preventing loss of body heat and protecting you from hypothermia – and you can make one in under 20 minutes.

Once safe and protected, facilitating your own rescue will be your next priority . . . one of the main topics of Part 3 of our series.

The Priorities of Survival is Part 2 in a series aimed at providing pilots with critical wilderness survival skills and insight. Coming editions will highlight fire-making and rescue-signalling techniques and explain how to correctly stock a flight survival kit.

Dan Gibson is a consultant with the Helicopter Association of Canada, an award-winning pilot and president of Bear Beaver Aviation Services. He teaches wilderness survival skills for the Ottawa Flying Club in the Commercial Pilot/Aviation Management Program at The Algonquin School of Advanced Technology in Ottawa.


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