Winter Flying: Be Prepared — Or Else!

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Minnesota-based Carl Petersen, president of the Citabria Owners Group and a loyal AVweb reader, offers a short but insightful discussion of how to maximize your chances of surviving a wintertime flying mishap until help arrives.

SafetyA story currently unfolding on a maillist that I subscribe to is reason to review preparations for winter flying. It seems that a group of people headed out on a flight a few days ago and has not reported in. They disappeared from radar somewhere in the Sierras. It has been cold up there and the chances of survival, for the ill prepared after a crash, are slim.

Now think about it. If you put your plane in and survived the crash, could you survive? Probably not if you haven't really prepared. One who has written well about this topic is F. E. Potts in his book Bush Flying. All winter flyers owe it to themselves to read what he has to say on this subject at least once.

In an airplane you can really cover some distance. Even in an Aeronca Champ you could easily be far from civilization in a very short period of time.

This means two very important things to you. First, you will have a very long walk out if that is your choice. Second, rescuers will have a long trek in to get to you, if and when they locate you. I believe the FAA doesn't really consider you missing until 72 hours after you were supposed to check in. Fat lot of help that will do if you are not prepared!

Pull out a sectional. Right now. Take a look at the country that is between your home airport and some of your favorite winter destinations. Do you see any places in between that might be a long walk out? Imagine yourself, in the worst conditions that winter could possibly throw at you, standing next to a plane that you just landed (emergency, precautionary, etc.). Are you going to be comfortable waiting for help? Could you survive a walk out from there?

In Alaska, I am told, it is required that you carry food and supplies for one week after your intended return date. Good advice. I also hear that this is a law that the pilots religiously abide by up there.

Staying warm

Pack a bag! Bring what you need to survive the toughest weather that winter could possibly come your way in the region that you are traveling in. For winter pack your Polartec, Gore-Tex, Primaloft, and wool stuff. Bring lots of energy foods. There are lots of web sites devoted to winter camping and mountaineering that can describe this so much better than I can. Winter mountaineering is really where you will be after you put it in. Be prepared!

I live in Minnesota and we still have the bragging rights to "the icebox of the lower 48". I have a small duffel bag that rides around with me all winter. In the car and in the plane, it goes with. Wearing the clothes I carry I could nearly lay down in the snow to comfortably sleep, AT THIRTY DEGREES BELOW ZERO!

I have a hollowfill snow suit. I have a primaloft jacket that can go over that. I have Gore-tex bibs and a Gore-tex shell to go over it all to keep me dry. Gore-tex Gaiters, Polartec Baclava, snowmobile boots, and several weights of gloves. This year I will replace my worn out goggles and keep them in the bag. When the wind is blowing and it is really cold they are a lifesaver! I might also include my 3.1 lb two man tent and a winter sleeping bag. I may even add snowshoes.

Do you think I am getting too high tech? Remember, "cotton kills". Cotton gets wet with your sweat and stays wet. Leave it home. Silk "ain't" what it is cracked up to be. Down is by far the warmest insulation for clothing and sleeping bags but if it gets wet it is worthless. (I "soaked" a down sleeping bag in the Boundary Waters long ago in the month of July and had some miserable nights after that...)

Fire and first aid

If you are going to start a fire when it is really cold you will need matches, dry ones. Forget the cigarette lighter as the fuel doesn't burn worth a shit below zero. Try not to burn the maps, you may need them. You have plenty of things to burn. You won't be needing that POH soon and if an FAA guy shows up the last of your worries will be the ARROW stuff you long ago forgot about from private pilot training.

You could start a fire using the battery and some cables for spark and some of the fuel you still have in your tanks (you do have fuel in the tanks, don't you?) Be aware that the battery creates hydrogen gas (very explosive) and that it doesn't take much gas (not as explosive as it is cracked up to be when in the open air but keep it downwind and off of your clothing/self!). This is a time to get inventive, not lay down and die!

Carry a small first aid kit. The normal stuff and then some. One of my favorites is from my horse days. Leg wraps are like ace bandages only better. They make it easy to create a makeshift splint too. If you bring a knife with you (recommended) use the wing/seat fabric for the same purpose.

Summoning help

Remember how to check your ELT? I know it has been a long time since private pilot training but this could actually be the thing that saves your life. Make certain it works before you take off! If you do put it in a field and don't actually see a place to make a phone call make certain that your ELT actuated. They don't always go off by themselves. Check it with your handheld or the aircraft radio (121.5).

OK, you are warm and dry. Can you raise anyone on your handheld VHF radio? You do carry one, don't you? 122.9 is a good bet in the country, next 122.8. Try air-to-air on 122.75 AND 122.85.

If the SAR folks are looking for you they will be monitoring 121.5 for your ELT. Commercial jets monitor 121.5 also. Surprise them and give them a call. If you are in an area where pilots may be talking to a tower or approach try them on those frequencies (see your sectional). They may hear you even when the controller can't...

What if help doesn't come?

So, against all advice against walking out (everyone gives this advice, it makes it easier for them to find the bodies) you decide to walk out anyway.

Take the compass! The plane won't need it for awhile and there is absolutely no sense walking around in circles. Make a plan. The closest place on the map may not be the easiest, fastest, or likeliest place to get to. Pack what you need. Make a pack out of the seats if you have to.

Stuff to stay alive, stuff to find your way, and stuff to contact aircraft if available. Heck, take the ELT with you...

Leave a message in the plane telling would be passers by of your circumstances and intent. Tell the date of your "collision with a planet", your physical condition and that of any passengers, where you set off for with your compass and when. If they find the plane first this may speed them in your direction.

Oh, if you hear that my plane is down don't give up hope because of a little weather. I am probably all warm and dry, sitting next to a big fire, munching on my energy snacks, and planning my hike. Where the heck are you? You could be here, helping me decide what airplane to get next...


NOTE: For much more information on survival and survival gear, be sure to visit the Equipped to Survive web site operated by AVweb's own Doug Ritter.