The unplanned landing

 - May 19, 2008, 7:41 AM

“If you haven’t flown a search-and-rescue (SAR) mission, it is difficult to appreciate just how hard it is to find an aircraft on the ground,” John Desmarais, emergency services plans officer at the national headquarters of the Civil Air Patrol, told AIN. “And it’s next to impossible to see a single person unless you’re directly over him in daylight and he’s in a clear area.” Desmarais said the single most important factor in being found is having a flight plan on file and sticking to it.

Lt. Col. Mark Fowler agreed, “Corporate pilots typically don’t give it a second thought because they usually operate on an IFR flight plan, but as they’re descending somewhere they may occasionally turn off course to get a close-up look at some fishing spot. If they go down, nobody has any idea they’re not along their flight planned route.” Fowler, the director of the U.S. Air Force national search-and-rescue (SAR) school at the U.S. Coast Guard training center in Yorktown, Va., also stressed the importance of talking to someone as soon as you think you have a problem.

“The most fundamental piece of SAR equipment you can carry on board your aircraft is an ELT,” Desmarais said. “But you really need to check it because 97 percent of ELT-activated missions are false alarms. Be sure it is current and working properly.” He also stressed the value of having the newest-generation ELT, the 406-MHz beacon. “It interfaces with a GPS so it transmits your precise position and tail number.”

In the U.S. it is the Air Force rescue coordination center at Langley (Va.) AFB that coordinates SAR efforts with the FAA and Civil Air Patrol. “If you’re flying a multimillion dollar airplane, a couple of thousand dollars [for an ELT] is just plain good insurance,” he said. (The FAA will require all U.S.-registered jets involved in nonscheduled operations to have ELTs by Jan. 1, 2004.)

Commander Douglas Olson, HC-130 platform manager assigned to the USCG’s headquarters, has flown many SAR missions. He listed some essential items that should be on board every flight.

“We recommend you have a portable VHF transmitter that you can take with you when you evacuate the aircraft. You must have a light source such as a chemlight because it will show up at night on night-vision goggles,” he said. “During the day, use a mirror. It can be seen as far as 50 miles away on a clear day.” A signal mirror even works at night if there is a bright moon, and there is a case of a rescue as a result of someone flashing the shiny side of a compact disc. Olson also recommended having smoke flares.

Once you’re on the ground or in the water after evacuating the aircraft, according to Tom Lazzaro, training manager for Groton, Conn.-based Survival Systems Training, there are four steps you should take: protection, first aid, pyrotechnics and endurance. First evaluate your new environment and provide proper protection. In a life raft it is provided for you. On the ground, provide shelter from wind, precipitation and cold.

It is critical to maintain body temperature. Excessive cold produces hypothermia and excessive heat causes hyperthermia; either can be lethal, and more swiftly if compounded with an injury. Lazzaro recommended, “Make a fire. It bolsters mental attitude, and SAR personnel look for anything bigger, brighter or different on the visual terrain. They’re looking for what’s abnormal to the environment. Fire and smoke stick out. Besides, even in the summer in the wilderness it can get pretty cold at night.”

Be Visible

Most aircraft seat cushions will produce a heavy black smoke that’s not likely to be mistaken for someone’s campfire. You can also use tires, oil or green leaves or branches to create a lot of smoke. Three fires forming a triangle are an international distress signal.

You may use aircraft fuel to help start a fire, but never pour it directly onto a fire or hot coals. The flashpoint of aviation fuels is low enough that a small remaining hot spot can cause instantaneous ignition. Instead, soak tinder in the fuel and then throw the tinder on the fire while keeping as far away as possible.

Lazzaro suggests grabbing the life raft when you exit the aircraft. “It might seem odd to take a life raft on the ground, but it contains all the things you need, and the life raft itself can be used as an inflatable tent,” he explained. It may be tempting to consider using the fuselage for shelter but there are some negatives.

In the fuselage there’s the probability of fuel spills, creating both fire and breathing hazards. A fuselage also tends to get hot in the sun and cold when the outside temperature drops. Also, there’s poor ventilation, which can result in condensation making everything wet.

If you don’t have a life raft to use as a tent, natural shelter may be a better option than the fuselage, but always avoid riverbeds regardless of the time of year as they’re subject to flash flooding. Think creatively–a fir tree could very well keep you dry during a rainstorm (but scratch this idea if there’s any lightning). One of the key components of survival is the ability to think outside the box.

Consider what you need and then review what’s available to you that could be converted to what you need. If you need a shovel to dig out shelter in snow, there are numerous things in or attached to an aircraft that could fulfill that requirement, such as a broken out window, landing gear door, ice bucket or toilet seat cover. Don’t think of objects as what they are but instead think of what they could be. With that mindset, something as simple as a plastic trash bag turns into a raincoat, a water trap or even a tent.

The second step is first aid. Lazzaro said it is critical to treat wounds as soon as possible. “First you are protecting the wounded person, as well as psychologically comforting them. Doing so also familiarizes you with the medical needs so you can tell the SAR people what to expect as they approach you if you have a radio.”

The third step is pyrotechnics, which in a broader sense is any sort of signaling device. An ELT, cellphone, radio, mirror or even a piece of glass will help. Gather up and take an inventory of anything that can be used to communicate your position. A survival whistle is also helpful to ground teams–depending on terrain and wind it can be heard from as far as five miles away.

The fourth step is endurance. “You must stay positive,” Lazzaro stressed. “The will to survive, the right mental attitude, is the most important thing you have going for you. If you think you’re not going to make it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Never allow anyone in the group to develop a negative attitude.”

He said the key to staying alive as long as possible is hydration. “The average person can live weeks without food but only three days without water, and the time decreases with injuries,” Lazzaro explained. “Unfortunately, there is no substitute for water. Never drink any bodily fluid or alcohol. Don’t even smoke for that matter; all these contribute to dehydration.”

Even a relatively minor degree of dehydration can affect your faculties, and by the time you’re 10 percent dehydrated it can have a significant effect on your judgment. It is recommended the average person take in water at the rate of one to one-and-a-half gallons every 24 hr.

Stay with the Aircraft

Everyone interviewed agreed that passengers should stay in the immediate area of the aircraft, but don’t take it for granted that they will. Brief passengers at the beginning of a flight about the possibility of an unscheduled landing and where you will meet if that happens, such as 50 ft in front of the aircraft’s nose.

“People are expecting you to arrive somewhere and they’re going to miss you when you don’t show up,” Cole Brown, on the board of directors of the National Association for Search and Rescue, said. “SAR personnel are going to come looking for you, and it is far easier to spot the aircraft than one person walking in the woods. Once we find the aircraft we expect you to be there. If someone’s gone off on their own, now we have a new search.”

Once you’re safe and secure, the next item is helping SAR personnel find you. Aircraft are difficult to spot in wooded heavy brush or even snow-covered terrain, so using high-contrast ground signals is more effective. Use brush, rocks, an orange tarp or signal panel or even pack down snow to form lines at least two feet wide. A simple “X” will do the trick. You probably have blankets or a backpack or suitcase on board with clothes in them. Spread them out. The point is to do your best to “look big.”

If you end up in the water it is impossible to overstate the value of using your life raft. Even with a life jacket on, your chances of being found, much less surviving, in the water are slim. Olson pointed out that experience has shown in rough water no matter what direction you face, you’re going to swallow seawater. According to Olson, seawater is hypertonic, meaning when swallowed it will draw fluid out of the body and into the gut, accelerating dehydration.

Even on a warm night in warm water, hypothermia is only a matter of time. Body heat loss in water is 25 times greater than in the air, and heat transfer is accelerated by moving water. Ideally, you want to lay as still as possible in the water, with your rapid heat loss areas–the groin and armpits–closed down as much as possible. “Aside from keeping you out of the water and providing a larger target for SAR to spot, a life raft comes with survival gear for shelter, nourishment and safety,” Olson explained.

“A lot of pilots are reluctant to contact the Coast Guard as soon as they think they’ve got a problem,” Olson stressed. “Trust me, it is far better to call out the cavalry and subsequently decide you don’t need it than not to have anyone looking for you when you are in the water. The sooner the SAR wheels are
put in motion, the sooner they will get to you.”

He also put to rest misconceptions about when to inflate a life vest. “I cannot think of a single good reason to inflate a vest before you exit the aircraft,” Olson said. “You certainly don’t want to have your vest inflated should the aircraft become immersed before you egress, and it would be even worse if the airplane flipped over in the water, though that’s not very likely. I guarantee if you end up having to use an alternate exit under water, you’ll be in even bigger trouble if your vest is inflated. Even if the airplane is floating, should you have to exit via a window or baggage door, it could impede your getting through the smaller opening, possibly damaging the vest in the process.”

Finally, everyone interviewed recommended that you educate your passengers about SAR and survival procedures. It can be handled in a preflight passenger briefing to a limited extent. If you have recurring passengers, it is probably worth holding a short seminar for them. There are also survival-training programs tailored for flight crews and passengers that range from one day to several weeks. The important thing is for everyone to know what to do in an emergency. There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that you’ll be around to do it for them.