Survival: A Guide for the Occasional Flyer


Extrication Videos

Crash Rescue

Crash Rescue: AH-64 Apache

Crash Rescue: C-12 Huron

Crash Rescue:CH-47 Chinook

Crash Rescue: OH-58 Kiowa

Crash Rescue: UH-1 Huey

Crash Rescue: UH-60 Blackhawk

Extricate a Patient from a Vehicle
Extricate a Wounded Crew from the M1 Tank
Extricate a Wounded Crew from the M3 Vehicle

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.

Surviving on Land

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!!!

First Aid

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:

  • Free airway

  • Initiate breathing (administer rescue breathing if necessary)

  • Restore circulation (begin CPR, if appropriate)

  • Stop Bleeding (direct pressure, elevation, pressure points, tourniquet)

  • Treat for shock (elevate feet, keep body warm [but not over heated])

  • Avoid further injury

  • Immobilize fractures (immobilize joints above and below injury)

  • Dress minor wounds

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 avoiding hypothermia.

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.

Surviving 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. 

Underwater Egress

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 navigating.  DO 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 surface.

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 embolism).

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 aircraft.

  • 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 ascent.

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.

First Aid

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 serious concern.


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.

Rescue Procedures

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.

Survival Swimming

Note:  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:

  • The ONLY 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.

Survival 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.

This 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, USN
Naval Aviation Medical Institute

For further information, read Survival, Evasion and Recovery

More Information on Operational Safety

From Operational Medicine 2001: Health Care in Military Settings
CAPT Michael John Hughey, MC, USNR
  January 1, 2001

Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Department of the Navy, 2300 E Street NW, Washington, D.C, 20372-5300
United States Special Operations Command, 7701 Tampa Point Blvd., MacDill AFB, Florida, 33621-5323

Home    Textbooks and Manuals    Videos    Lectures    Distance Learning    Training    Operational Safety    Search

Operational Medicine

This website is dedicated to the development and dissemination of medical information that may be useful to those who practice Operational Medicine. This website is privately-held and not connected to any governmental agency. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and unless otherwise noted, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brookside Associates, Ltd., any governmental or private organizations. All writings, discussions, and publications on this website are unclassified.

© 2006 Medical Education Division, Brookside Associates, Ltd. All rights reserved

Contact Us



Advertise on this Site