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Dress for the Worst

Being Cool Can Be Carried Too Far

by Bob Merrick

In much of modern life, being cool is "where it’s at," but too much coolness in your aviation life could be life threatening.

Aviation has come a long way since pioneering Canadian aviators wrapped themselves in bunny bags, daubed themselves with whale grease and set out in their open-cockpit planes to help build a country. Back then, engine reliability was a somewhat fanciful dream, navigation was an occult art, and aviators embarking on long flights fully expected to spend time in the bush before arriving at their destination. Thus, they went prepared.

Much of the aircraft’s payload was given over to survival gear. Using the stuff they brought along, early aviators could build a house, then machine the various parts needed to restore their HS-2L to serviceability. They knew that if they went down, rescue would be a long time coming.

Not so these days. Now, the emphasis has shifted to prompt extraction of distressed aviators from their involuntary campsites. As well, modern aircraft and modern navigation systems have greatly reduced the incidence of unexpected camp-outs. Thus, most aviators and their passengers give little thought to the consequences of engine failure or navigational shortcomings. They know that search and rescue (SAR) or the Civil Aviation Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) will be along soon. In summer, such an attitude is not necessarily excusable, but perhaps understandable. In winter, such a cavalier attitude can be fatal.

Winter is upon us and now is the time to review a personal survival kit, just in case a flight terminates at a point many miles from anywhere. After a simple forced landing, the first act should be to turn on the emergency locator transmitter (ELT). Unless you are a skilled woodsperson, a wintertime forced landing is an emergency, and that’s what the ELT is there for. So get it beeping now.

In most of Canada, most of the time, you would want to have mitts, tuques, snow boots and scarves at hand if the aircraft goes down. Cargo pants are currently trendy and cool, and they have pockets for stowing such items. Waterproof containers of windflamer matches are also essential, and there is no way of having too many of them.

If your camp-out results from something more vigorous than a mere forced landing, first aid to the injured will loom large in your list of first things to do. Again though, you should manually flip the ELT function switch to the "on" position. Yes, the impact should do it, but it doesn’t hurt to turn the switch on. Leave it on until a SAR TECH turns it off. Then do your best with the first aid; remember that those with injuries will likely feel the cold more than you will.

Attracting attention to your campsite is urgent. The ELT will summon help, but the help may have trouble seeing you. Plumes of smoke will help advertise your presence, and the oil from your engine, or some pine boughs, will help you make a dandy smudge on the horizon. A signaling mirror is also useful when the winter sun bursts through the clouds.

SAR aspires to provide same-day service to all distressed aviators, but, even under the best of circumstances, they are often thwarted by weather. Staying warm is essential; tuques, mitts, scarves and warm boots should be worn or in your pockets for all winter flying. It can get excruciatingly cold in the interval between the end of the crash or forced landing and the first crackle of the fire that you plan to start with those windflamer matches. You can also get hungry, so a couple of granola bars or similar nourishment will help prevent major league tummy rumbles.

Statistically, most pilots are unlikely ever to find themselves in a position where they need SAR’s service. But that should not preclude taking minimum precautions. What survival gear do you routinely keep close at hand while experiencing the joys of winter flying? What survival gear should you routinely keep on hand? Are the two answers the same? If not, perhaps you are working too hard at being cool. If you’re out in the cold, "cool" may be deadly. Check your survival kit today.