Search and Rescue Awareness for the General Aviation Pilot
Tips from the Civil Air Patrol to Help a Rescue.
By Major Randy Gibson
CAP senior pilot
California Air Wing, USAF Auxiliary
Your first reaction is noting that all of your body parts are still working and that it's very quiet. You have just survived an engine failure and managed to put all that simulated training to work, and you and your passengers have survived an "off airport landing", or crash landing. Now what did all that training teach you to do as pilot in command once you have survived the crash? It is called survival training, and the answer is "very little", from our initial or re-currency FAA required training. My intention is to make you more aware and prepared in case of an emergency.
There are many agencies that are trained in search and rescue (SAR) who are depending on you, the pilot in command, to do the right procedures to survive and attract attention until these highly trained SAR teams can locate your position.
You, the general aviation pilot must be aware of the SAR activity going on in your behalf. At the same time, you must be prepared to have the right mental attitude to survive long enough for these SAR teams to find you. Who are the SAR teams and what has their experience been in locating missing general aviation aircrews. First, I said aircrews, not aircraft.
The Civil Air Patrol (CAP), USAF Auxiliary, has many charters. The most requested is search and rescue, (SAR). The CAP dispatches aircrews and ground crews, sometimes in coordination with sheriff and police, to find and rescue missing general aviation aircrews. The CAP is and all volunteer organization with assistance from the USAF. As and experienced CAP SAR pilot, I have often felt that we can have a much better chance at finding the downed aircrew if they are prepared and aware.
The CAP aircrew, consisting of a mission pilot, and observer in the right seat, and one or more scanners in the rear seats, will be dispatched from a mission base. Often times, several crews will be launched in order to cover many areas. The total CAP SAR, is under the direction of a mission coordinator (MC) and staff. Many aircrews may be used to assist in the SAR. They follow the same procedures that the USAF uses in military SAR activities. These CAP aircrews will use electronic route and grid search techniques to locate you, the missing crew. They will work in coordination with CAP ground teams using the CAP FM radio net. The CAP ground teams
will assist the CAP MC and aircrews with information gathering, electronic and visual search, and
is the first on site team to assist survivors and secure the crash areas until the controlling authority
arrives. These CAP crews also coordinate with the military, sheriff and other state and federal
The problem all SAR teams experience is that the general aviation pilot does little to assist in their rescue and survival. Examples include no FAA filed flight plan, dead ELT batteries, no survival equipment, no warm clothing or shelter, no attempt to mark their crash site, and death from exposure are all common occurrences in an otherwise survivable crash.
If you have prepared for an "off airport landing" and are aware of the effort on your behalf to locate you, then you will have the right attitude to survive. The purpose of this article is to make you, the pilot, aware, and thus be prepared.
The newspapers and magazines are full of articles of the sad outcome of not being prepared. A pilot walks for days in the high mountains through snowstorms, only to lead rescue crews back to find his two friends have died from exposure. The same pilot could have walked less than a mile to an open area to mark their location thus assisting the SAR crews. They could have possibly been located in hours, not days. His passengers could have had shelter, warm clothes, a fire and survival rations instead of light clothing and the airplane for shelter. This scenario is documented in post rescue reports over and over again. Hopefully by now, you are beginning to be aware that there are many SAR crews counting on you to be prepared to assist in your own rescue.
So what can you do as the general aviation pilot to take the responsibility for yourself and passengers to be prepared to survive an "off airport landing"?
Preparation takes place before you leave your home for the airport. Make up or purchase a survival kit containing the following: First Aid Kit with instructions, ample water, food rations, warm clothing, shelter and "hunter orange material", if it is winter, a sleeping bag certified for below freezing temperatures for each passenger is a must, water proof matches, fire starter, cutting tool, signaling mirrors, strobe light with extra batteries, flash light and 12 hour light sticks.
When it comes to survival, "more is better". If you wish to purchase a kit, almost any of the major pilot shops advertise their kits in catalogs. Backpacking sports stores are also a good place to investigate. Another suggestion, before you leave home is to call your passengers and tell them=
what to wear based on your route of flight. Night or day, try to choose a route that will keep you over valleys, and major highways as much as possible. Too many general aviation pilots follow IFR or point to point Loran/GPS routes without consideration for the terrain they will fly over.
Lastly, file and FAA flight plan and make position reports along your route. Before you take off, include in your pre-takeoff check list instructions to your passengers on what to do in case of an emergency. Include in these instructions: to wedge the door open before landing and getting out of the airplane immediately, and in what order. It is important to take any survival equipment with you when vacating the aircraft if possible, but the main goal is to exit the craft quickly. Spilled fuel can instantly ignite, and fire is the major cause of death in survivable crashes. Instruct the passengers, or better yet give each a checklist on the priorities that must take place after the crash landing. Remember, you the pilot might be unconscious, or severely injured, and your survival might depend on your passengers' actions.
Suggested priorities for post-crash actions are: 1. Treat any injuries. 2. If help is nearby, seek it immediately. 3. If help is not nearby, retrieve the ELT, extend the antenna, test to be sure it works, leave it on for 24 hours, then leave it on during daylight hours. An emergency position indicating radio beacon (APITB), essentially and ELT for humans, would be a good backup for your aircraft ELT. Remember, both satellites and SAR teams can determine your position from this signal. 4. Now, stop and form a plan of action, assigning tasks to each able-bodied person. Leadership and a plan are the keys to survival. Panic is the killer at this stage of survival. 5. Take stock of your supplies, equipment and surroundings. 6. Build a fire a safe distance from the airplane. If it is cold, it will help to maintain body temperature. A fire is one of the best emergency signals and a great comforter and morale builder. 7. Check the aircraft comm radio. If it is working, try to contact anyone on 121.5. Most commercial and all SAR pilots monitor this frequency. If your ELT is on, turn it off during your broadcast attempts. Since the aircraft radio often does not work after a crash, it would be a good idea to have a hand-held radio. 8. Prepare a shelter and gather as much fuel as possible for your fire. Remember, you will need two fires; one in your protected area, and on in the open as a signal. Your shelter must protect your party from
wind, rain and snow. The aircraft is usually a poor shelter. 9. Now, it is time to help the SAR teams by attracting more attention to your aircraft. We already have the ELT, HF radio and a fire going. Place your hunter orange panel in a large, open area with an arrow pointing toward=
your location. This arrow can be rocks, cloth, dug out of the ground, or stomped out in the snow. Place another one in the largest opening near the aircraft. 10. A signal mirror is the best overall signaling device. It can be pointed at an aircraft and seen from 50 miles away. Don't leave=
home without a mirror. Instruct and assign someone to watch for aircraft and signal them. SAR crews are trained to watch for this type of signal. 11. If the weather is clear, the CAP will dispatch night crews in the first few days after you are reported overdue. Remember, the FAA flight plan, if filed, means they will start looking for you one hour after your filed ETA. Your ELT will also aid as long as it works. Turn the strobe on at the highest point possible whenever you hear an aircraft approaching. 12. Your decision to send someone for help depends on the terrain, distance, nighttime temperatures, and the extent of injuries. If any of the above is not easy to do, your best bet is to stay with your prepared shelter and plan for detection. The SAR crews are trained to find you. Your chances of being located are much greater if you help.
Lastly, many aircraft and crews have gone undetected for days with survivors, less than a mile
from help. This will not happen if you have prepared before take-off and assisted the SAR teams
in detecting your crash=\ site. Detection includes an FAA filed and open flight plan. Your
detection, an "SAR Find", will lead to an interesting story to tell your grandchildren.