Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
The Psychology of Survival

January 25, 2011  By Dan Gibson

It has been a long, cold day – slow, heavy sling loads and mountainous terrain rolling 500 feet below appear as barren and ominous as they did at first light.

It has been a long, cold day – slow, heavy sling loads and mountainous terrain rolling 500 feet below appear as barren and ominous as they did at first light. At 17:00 hours you’re squinting to scan your gauges and then, almost instinctively, second-glance each of them, this time more alert and uneasy – but something isn’t right. Engine oil pressure is zero? Without warning, there is a violent shudder, the shrill of the engine-out horn and the annunciator panel is lit up like a Christmas tree – flameout! You immediately bottom the collective and punch the load: “OK, now focus man. Altitude. Airspeed. Into the wind. . .” But all you see is “rocks and canyons, rocks and – damn, nothing to choose from . . . still not level . . . but no choice, flaring hard.” The impact stuns you; your eyes water and you bite your tongue. Sparks and glass explode, illuminating the dusk. Disoriented, you detect the smell of fuel, reach to shut down the electrical system and frantically scramble up – and then out.

As a pilot and aviation wilderness survival skills instructor, I repeatedly encounter students who have yet to grasp how scenarios such as the one above can be the source of real nightmares. And while it is universally recognized that advanced wilderness survival skills training dramatically improves our chances of surviving such a frightening experience, the fact remains if we are unable to stay rational, composed and positive, it won’t matter how much know-how we possess, or how many gizmos we have in our flight survival kit. What really matter is what’s inside each of us because in a crisis situation, fear and panic will always be our worst enemies.

Understanding and overcoming psychological vulnerability is the principal theme woven through every segment of the modern-day pilot’s expanded survival training – and a particularly effective technique to teach this comes directly from the annals of basic aviation instruction: memorizing checklists.

The aviation world uses checklists for myriad reasons and in the extraordinary environment of an aircraft cockpit, where the potential for human error is considerably heightened and the phrase “multi-tasking” was surely born, checklists are recited as routinely as we reach for our seatbelts. As such, the checklist model has proven conclusively to be an invaluable safety tool and its positive impact on the industry worldwide is truly beyond measure.


In a crisis/survival situation, making fire, securing shelter and finding food and water are essential; however, our capacity to cope under pressure plays a paramount role in everything we do. Recalling checklists aids in prioritizing our tasks, boosts our confidence and serves to keep us composed, focused and, more importantly, emotionally stable. If we are not alone, reciting checklists aloud instils confidence in others and speaks to strong leadership, which has a distinct calming and stabilizing effect on everyone’s emotional state.

Memorizing checklists generates vital information “bookmarks” in our minds. In crisis mode, these markers are more easily located, bypassing the overwhelming sense of panic, allowing us to quickly sort our options into more rational, discernible patterns and permitting us to better evaluate and select our best course of action. Just as the scuba diver who has run out of air must, despite his bursting lungs and frantic desire for oxygen, ascend slowly to ensure his ultimate safety; in catastrophic situations the automatic impulse to survive can be dangerously overpowering and lead to irrational, panic-driven behaviour.

Those who are able to control this impulse live. Those who can’t, usually perish. That is why understanding the psychology of survival is so critical. This, more than anything else, may just save your life.

The Psychology of Survival is Part 1 in a series aimed at providing pilots with critical wilderness survival skills and insight. Coming issues of Helicopters will highlight rescue, shelter and fire-making techniques, preparation, and how to correctly stock your 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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