This is a slightly updated version of an article originally published in Aviation Safety Letter Issue 1/1997. Good advice!
Walking, they say, is as good as running. But not always. If you’re trying to stay in shape, walking can indeed be as good as running. But if you’re trying to get your shape back to the jungle we call civilization, walking can be hazardous to your health.
Years ago, when luckless aviators found themselves contemplating a wrecked biplane zillions of miles from the nearest outpost, they had no choice but to walk out. But it was at least 50 years ago when such teaching went out of style. With the advent of search and rescue (SAR), radios, emergency locator transmitters (ELT) and, more lately, GPS, the advice is to stay with the aircraft.
Why? Because when SAR starts looking for people, it goes to the last known point, then follows the proposed track. Although they’re really looking for the people inside the airplane, they have long since learned that the aircraft is easier to see than the people. Thus the search tends to concentrate on that area between the last known point and the proposed destination.
The search isn’t confined to that area, but it does start there, and initially concentrates there. During the search, SAR and Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) crews look for anything unusual. You might think that a person wandering through the woods in a passionate purple T-shirt and bright yellow stretch pants would stand out, but such targets are pretty small. Even the larger remnants of, say, a single-engine Cessna or Piper are hard to see. But they are bigger than the average person.
Thus, SAR organizes the searches to find the downed aircraft. What does this mean to restless campers who think that walking out is showing admirable initiative? Unless they are retracing their proposed flight route, it means that they are moving away from the primary search area; away from possible detection.
Once in a while, there are valid reasons to move away from the crash site. If the aircraft slides underwater, you shouldn’t go much farther than the nearest shore. If you’re in the middle of a forest fire, you’d probably want to move to the upwind side.
Most of the time, you should stay with or in proximity to the wreckage. If you can get at the ELT, move its function switch to ON. Then leave it there. The SAR tech who comes to your rescue can make any further switch selections.
Of course, you want to make yourself visible to SAR or CASARA crews. During the day, smoke gets attention. Your campfire, covered with pine boughs, will have local environmentalists on your case in no time. You can also add a touch of oil from the engine crankcase, just to make the smoke smokier.
Shiny bits from the aircraft can make signalling mirrors that you can use to attract the attention of SAR crews. Or, as one pilot did recently, you can arrange larger chunks of aircraft in a nearby clearing to make it show up better for airborne searches.
Search efforts taper off at night, as SAR crews are not wild about flying into mountains. However, there are overflights, and most pilots are pretty good about reporting fires in areas where no fires had trodden before. Thus, an especially exuberant signal fire should get attention.
If you’re an incorrigible Type A and think you must walk out—don’t. Not unless you can see the lights of a nearby town, and the road connecting you to it. Even then, remember that distances are deceiving. If you must leave, leave a message of some sort. Let SAR know that you survived, and that you are walking northeast to salvation.
Salvation is fine. Too often however, it becomes eternity.
Stay with your aircraft.