The word "survival" frequently brings up images of dehydrated people in life
rafts fishing with thread pulled from the hem of their trousers, or others
huddling under a parachute lean-to eating grass and squirrels. The simple fact
is that given today's modern radio, satellite, and location technologies, the
chances of a passenger having to spend a lengthy time surviving in either a
wilderness or water environment are extremely slim.
The vast majority of rescues occur within the first hour of the crash,
and virtually all occur within the first 24 hours - so the real concern for
survival lies not in the long term, but rather in the prioritization of
immediate, life-saving steps.
The greatest threat in a land survival scenario is the
actual impact and almost inevitable ensuing fire. During a crash, the violent deceleration and G forces can
cause grave injury to the occupants of an aircraft.
These injuries can be the result of forces simply exceeding the strength
of the body's tissues, portions of the aircraft crushing the occupants, exposure
to high-intensity open flames, or smoke and fume inhalation.
Secondarily, non-fatal injuries can result in a significantly reduced
chance of post-crash survival. The
best way to avoid these problems is to assume the appropriate body position
prior to impact, and to exit the aircraft a quickly as possible following
impact. It is imperative to listen
to the crew chief during the pre-flight brief and be thoroughly familiar with
all procedures and exits. Even a
slight variance could prove fatal. Once
the actual crash has been survived, the following concerns should be attended to
- IN THE ORDER SPECIFIED!!!
There is nothing magical about "survival" first
aid; the procedures are identical to those taught in any Navy or Red Cross first
aid class. It is well beyond the
scope of this article to provide a detailed description of first aid procedures,
but for the sake of reference, the following provides the traditional
prioritization of medical care:
breathing (administer rescue breathing if necessary)
circulation (begin CPR, if appropriate)
Bleeding (direct pressure, elevation, pressure points, tourniquet)
for shock (elevate feet, keep body warm [but not over heated])
fractures (immobilize joints above and below injury)
As time progresses, everyone should be aware of possible
heat stress or hypothermia related injuries/conditions that could develop.
Obtaining shelter, in extreme weather conditions, is the best way to
prevent this from happening.
The relative importance of this step will depend greatly on
the environmental conditions at the time of the crash.
If it's a "nice day", then there may be little need to seek
shelter, but if the temperatures are extreme, or there is precipitation, then
getting out of the hostile environment becomes much more important.
If the body of the aircraft is still in tact - or at least some portions
of it are - and there is no fire threat, it can serve as an ideal shelter. Even standing under a wing section is preferable to standing
in harsh direct sun or rain. Alternately,
life rafts, if not destroyed in the crash can be inflated and propped up to
provide some cover. If none of the above is available, check the vicinity for
natural features (caves, overhangs, trees) that might serve a shelter.
Make sure that other animals are not already using them. If available, a
"space blanket" from a survival kit can also provide good shelter.
The shiny side goes wherever you want to keep the heat; toward you in the
cold weather, away from you in the heat.
If it is cold, survivors should pair up and roll themselves together in a
space blanket (shiny side in); this can provide considerable benefits in
There are many additional techniques for shelter building,
ranging from lean-tos and tee-pees to ice caves and igloos; contact an ASTC for
information on these.
Obviously, being rescued is the end-point of all successful
survival scenarios. In the process
of "going down", the aircrew will undoubtedly broadcast a
"mayday" call. That
coupled with on-board locator beacons means, realistically, that the rescue team
already knows the map location of the crash site. Also, typically, a crash leaves a fairly identifiable
"footprint" that is readily visible from the air. The aircrew are
supplied with a wide variety of flares, radios, etc. and are well-trained in how
to use them. If on-site
communications are required, the aircrew will conduct them or will instruct the
non-aircrew survivors in what to do.
In the absence of aircrew, the survivor will have to try to
locate signaling equipment (in the vests of deceased aircrew or in aircraft
survival kits) and follow the instructions printed on the devices.
In some cases, a cell phone (if being carried) may well be the best
signaling device available, although this will be a function of the crash
location. If none of the above are
available, anything that is visible from the air can serve as a signaling
device; fires can be especially effective (smoke during the day, flames during
the night), as well as reflecting the sunlight off of something shiny such as a
mirror, piece of glass, or even a wrist watch.
The space blanket is also a valuable passive signaling device.
For the most part, this will be of minimal concern in the
short time survival scenarios that are typical. If water is needed/desired, consume any bottled/canned/bagged
water that was brought onto the aircraft first (it's known to be pure). DO
NOT ration water. If you're
thirsty, and you have it, drink it; the body will ration it for you.
There have been a number of cases of survivors dying of dehydration -
who still have canteens of water left! Next,
look for a source of clean fresh water; a quickly moving stream is usually a
better choice than a stagnant body of water.
Some aircraft survival kits contain water purification tablets. If it's
raining, collect as much water as possible in anything that will hold water.
If there is snow on the ground, avoid eating the snow as the cold can
lower the body temperature and lead to hypothermia; melt/heat the snow first.
NEVER drink salt water or urine!
This should be the LAST priority. People have gone months without food and survived. If
water is in short supply, eating will be counterproductive to survival because
of the amount of water needed to digest food (proteins require more water than
carbohydrates). Crew members typically bring some food along on a flight; if
available, this should be eaten first (see above cautions regarding water).
If food MUST be gathered from the environment, vegetation is generally
easier to gather and requires less preparation than animals.
It is also predominately carbohydrate vice the high protein of meat.
Identification of poisonous vice non-poisonous plants (as well as
techniques in trap/snare building) exceeds the scope of this article; additional
information is available at either an ASTC or in any number of civilian books on
camping and survival.
in the Water
As with land scenarios, surviving the crash and egressing
the aircraft may be the most hazardous portion of the survival process.
The impact with the water may be less violent than that with land, but
presence of water brings with it many additional problems.
All aircraft will eventually sink. Larger, wide-bodied aircraft may remain afloat long enough
for everyone to egress in an orderly manner.
Virtually all helicopters will immediately roll inverted and sink -
quickly. Disorientation is
inevitable. The water may be very cold. It
might be pitch dark. The airframe
may be so deformed that none of the briefed exits are recognizable (or usable).
All of these issues are discussed extensively during underwater egress
training (commonly known as "Dunker Training" ) available at ASTCs; there
is absolutely NO substitute for this training! A few basic points to remember:
Prior to flight, plan a primary and secondary escape
route from the aircraft that will allow you to maintain constant,
hand-over-hand contact with the airframe. Imagine how you would do it with your eyes closed.
After water impact, grab hold of your first hand hold.
Hold on tightly, and DO NOT
release your harness until all severe motion stops.
If the aircraft remains afloat, exit quickly through the nearest
available exit. If the aircraft
continues to sink, remain in your seat
until all in-rushing water stops. Then,
following you pre-planned route, egress the aircraft using hand-over-hand
NOT swim or kick your feet.
When you reach an exit, pull/push yourself away from
the airframe as forcefully as possible (suction/currents from the sinking
aircraft could pull you down with it).
Only when clear of the airframe, inflate your life
preserver and swim to the surface. If
disorientated and you do not have flotation, follow your bubbles to the
Aircrew (and only recently, some specially trained
passengers) are issued small compressed air bottles (called either HEEDs or
HABDs, depending on the model) to assist with underwater egress.
By OPNAV instruction, only people
who have documented training with the device are allowed to use one.
This training is available at the ASTCs.
These devices are potentially dangerous, and if very specific breathing
techniques are not employed, an otherwise completely survivable crash could
become a fatality or result in a severe cardiopulmonary injury (air gas
Once the aircraft has been successfully egressed, there is
a list of survival priorities similar to that with land survival.
For obvious reasons, flotation is the number one priority.
The primary flotation device is the life preserver that the
individual is wearing. There are
several different designs used in the Fleet; the passenger must pay close
attention to the crew chief's brief on how to use which ever device is issued.
Some general rules to keep in mind:
NEVER inflate a life preserver while still in the
aircraft. If the aircraft
sinks, the buoyancy provided by the life preserver may trap you inside the
The life preservers used by the tactical jet community
have a water-activated automatic inflation device.
These life preservers should NEVER be used in a non-tactical jet
aircraft (see above).
Inflate your life preserver as soon as egress from the
aircraft is completed, whether on the surface or under water.
If underwater, the buoyancy will help you reach the surface more
rapidly. Aircrew who use the
HEED or HABP are instructed NOT to inflate until the surface is reached, due
very serious concerns of air gas embolism developing during an uncontrolled
All Naval aircraft are equipped with life rafts.
The nature of the scenario leading into the emergency, as well as the
physical aspects of the actual ditching will determine how many, if any, rafts
will be available. If there is a raft, board
it as soon as possible. Hypothermia
is a significant threat in water survival situations, and being able to get out
of the water and into a raft is the single most important step in reducing the
effects of hypothermia. Listen to
the crew chief's brief for specific procedures on how to board the life raft.
Bailing will almost always be required and may be a full time occupation
depending on the sea state and type of raft.
If rafts are not available, all survivors should get
together in a close grouping and physically connect themselves to each other
(hooks/toggles are provided on the life preservers specifically for this
purpose). Once flotation has been
established, then other survival procedures can be initiated.
The same considerations that apply to land also apply to
water survival situations. Cramped
conditions in a life raft coupled with a lack of a stable/rigid
platform will make all first aid procedures more difficult
to complete. Worse still is
a situation when a raft is not available and each survivor is using a life
preserver. In these cases, only the
most severe injuries will be treatable, and even some these may have to be left
until rescue arrives.
Separation from the elements - especially the water - is an
extremely important consideration. Depending
on the type of raft, there may be a built-in weather shield that can be
deployed. If in a raft, the "space blankets" provided in the survival
kits are a valuable tool in protecting the survivors from sun and rain, and can
also provide some thermal protection. If not in a raft, there is really very little that can be
with regards to shelter. In a cold
water environment the survivors should huddle together as closely as possible to
share body warmth. If alone,
holding your arms tightly to you chest and pulling your knees up in a
"fetal position" can help protect the higher heat loss areas of the
body and increase survival time.
The same considerations that apply to land also apply to
water - except for the obvious inability to make a fire.
One difference is that survivors may drift from the location of the
actual water impact. For this
reason, it is sometimes more difficult for a SAR crew to spot the actual
survivors once they are in the vicinity of the crash site.
For this reason, once an aircraft is in the immediate vicinity, all
survivors should splash as vigorously as possible; this has been cited by SAR
crewman as the only thing that let them know exactly where a group of survivors
was located. Trained aircrew will
typically be in radio communication with the SAR team and will probably fire a
signal flare. If there is no crew
and this equipment is available, consider using it, following the instructions
printed on the equipment.
Unlike a land environment, the only water available to you
is either that which was brought or which can be collected from rainfall. Two
issues in particular to be re-stressed - do
NOT ration water and under NO conditions should salt water be consumed! Some
rafts are now being equipped with reverse-osmosis desalination pumps that allow
salt water to be safely converted into fresh water.
If one of these is available, critical water supply should not be a
All that applies to land survival applies to water survival
with regards to eating. Fish will
be the primary source of protein and seaweed will be the primary source of
carbohydrate. If fresh water is
available, rinse the salt water off of the seaweed prior to eating it.
As with land scenarios, NO food should be consumed unless there is a
sufficient supply of fresh water available.
The most likely form of rescue in either a land or water
survival scenario will be a SAR -equipped helicopter. If this is the case, a crewman is almost always dispatched
and the only thing the survivor has to do is follow the instructions of the
crewman. If for some reason a
crewman is NOT deployed, the following considerations should be kept in mind:
No matter what type of device is
lowered to you, MAKE SURE that it
touches the ground or water before you touch it.
The static charge that can build up on a rescue device can be
measured in the thousands of volts and is capable of knocking you out.
If a basket is lowered, climb into it completely and
hold on tight. The crew may
wait for a "thumbs up" from you before they lift you.
If a "rescue strop" is lowered, you have one
of two choices, depending on the type of life preserver you are wearing.
If it is equipped with a hoisting ring, connect the large hook (to
which the strop is already hooked) to the ring, hug the strop, turn your
head to the side and give the rescue crew a "thumbs up".
If you do not have a hoisting ring, route the strop under one arm
pit, across the back of your shoulder blades, under the other arm pit, and
back to the same hook to which the strop is attached.
Hug the strop in front of you, turn your head to the side, and give
the crew a "thumbs up" signal.
If in the water, make sure that there is no cable wrapped around your
legs prior to giving the "thumbs up".
When you reach the aircraft, do nothing but follow the
crews' instructions. Let them
know immediately if you think you
are injured in any way.
Alternate forms of rescue may be dispatched;
ambulances/fire trucks if on land, ships/boat if at sea.
In these cases, follow the instructions of the rescuers.
There is no possible way to learn "survival swimming" other
than to be in a pool with trained instructors.
This section is provided as a review for those who have received the
training and as notes on skill adaptation for already proficient swimmers.
Generally speaking, actual "swimming" is a very
minor portion of a survival scenario. Other
than getting away from burning wreckage, "catching" a raft, grouping
up with other survivors, or moving to a lowered rescue device, there is very
little need to swim. This is
probably a good thing as swimming while fully clothed and wearing boots is
exhausting - even for skilled swimmers. A
general rule of thumb is the less swimming that you have to do, the better.
If you are forced into a situation where swimming is unavoidable, keep in
mind the following considerations:
effective kick while wearing boots is a frog kick (i.e. breast stroke).
A scissors kick (i.e. side stroke) is highly inefficient, and the
flutter kick (crawl stroke) is completely exhausting and unless done with
precisely the correct technique, may actually be counter-productive.
Keep this in mind for both swimming and treading water.
The breast stroke should be used for most swimming
needs. It allows you to face
forward and uses the frog kick (see above).
A good swimmer, with proper
technique can swim several hundred yards using this stroke without
experiencing severe exhaustion.
The crawl can be very effective if speed is required
and the distance is only a few yards. More
than 10 or 15 yards of this can exhaust even the most well-trained swimmer.
The side stroke is an alternate survival stroke, that
if done correctly, splits the difference between the breast stroke and crawl
in both speed and exhaustion. One
benefit is that it is a non-symmetrical stroke; by switching sides different
muscle groups are used thus aiding in the prevention of fatigue.
If you do not have flotation, and there is no
particular goal to reach (a raft, land, another survivor, etc), swimming is
discouraged. Rather, survival floating (often called drown-proofing) is
recommended. To do this, bend
at the waist and tuck your chin to your chest.
You should float at or near the surface, with your legs pointing
down, your face in the water, and your arms floating over your head.
If you feet sink, give a gentle
kick. When you need to breathe, lift your head out of the water,
using a slight arm stroke as needed, take a breath, and return your face to
the water. As minimal energy is
required, this can be continued almost indefinitely.
Treading water, even when done correctly, is very
tiring (because of the vertical body position) and should be saved only for
those cases when your head must be out of the water and you must remain
stationary. If treading is
required, the frog kick should be used.
The scissors kick will cause excessive "bobbing" and a
flutter kick or the "bicycle" kick may actually pull you under.
The "egg beater" or "rotary" kick (often used by water
polo players) is not recommended due to it's very high energy requirements
and inefficiency when wearing boots.
Under Hostile (Enemy) Conditions
Everything discussed above makes the assumption that the
mishap occurred during peace time - or at least in an environment where there is
no threat of enemy capture. If
there are enemy forces present, you still obviously want to be found and rescued
- but by the "right" people. If
you find yourself in the unlikely position of having to fly into a hostile
arena, you will receive extensive briefings from intelligence officers on very
specific procedures to be followed. Listen
carefully and follow the procedures explicitly; even a slight variation could
mean the difference between a safe rescue and an enemy capture.
discussion does NOT replace the need for survival training for anyone who will
be flying regularly, but rather should serve as a quick refresher for someone
who may have forgotten what they have learned.
Acquiring the proper training at an Aviation Survival Training Center (ASTC),
as specified in OPNAVINST 3710.7, cannot be emphasized strongly enough.
LCDR Brian D. Swan, MSC,
Naval Aviation Medical Institute
For further information,
Survival, Evasion and Recovery