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Landed OK... But Couldn't Call for Help!

Recently, a Cessna pilot in the Yukon Territory did a great job of landing his aircraft in a swamp after the engine oil vacated the premises. Neither the pilot nor the aircraft was damaged during the few moments of stark terror that punctuated his many hours of routine flying.

Just before the landing, the pilot transmitted a "Mayday" that was overheard by two overflying aircrafts and relayed to a nearby FSS. However, the position transmitted was more generic than it was exact. The FSS notified the rescue coordination centre (RCC). A major search began promptly, employing about six aircrafts. The searchers found nothing the first day.

The next morning, an RCMP aircraft aiding in the search found the undamaged aircraft sitting forlornly in its swamp. A search and rescue (SAR) aircraft sped to the scene and lifted out the uninjured pilot. So what's the problem?

A couple of things might have sped the rescue and reduce search costs. According to a report filed by the RCC after the event, "The pilot was unaware of effort put into search. Also had no clue that ELT could be picked up by satellite, his radios could be heard by overflights, or that numerous grizzly bears were in the area."

The pilot was not unique in not knowing how to attract SAR's attention to an emergency site. Other survivors have also awaited ... and awaited... and awaited rescue while neglecting to flash up the ELTs or radios to summon help quickly.

Rather than concentrate on the things that could have been done better, let's focus first on what went right. The "Mayday" call alerted two aircraft, the FSS and the RCC. The position was a bit vague but, in northern Canada, that's to be expected. Then there was the landing, which was apparently a superb piece of airmanship.

Could more have been done? As it turned out, yes. The aircraft contained an automatic fixed ELT and a portable ELT. The arrival did not excite the fixed ELT, and the pilot didn't think to turn on the portable. Thus, search aircraft had nothing to home to. After the landing, the pilot did not attempt to use the aircraft radios to contact high flyers. Oddly enough, not using the radios may have been the prudent course of action. A forced landing may have resulted in an unnoticed fuel leak. Flashing up the aircraft electrics could have resulted in a spark-a spark sufficient to ignite the spilled fuel. Although the resulting fireball and smoke plume might have attracted search aircraft, it's not a recommended technique.

Now let's sort out a few ground rules to help SAR pluck you from the site of your emergency landing. If, someday, you find yourself in the same situation as this pilot, down and undamaged but immobile-place the ELT function switch to the ON position. Leave it on. Within 90 min, COSPAS-SARSAT will hear it. Within three hours, SAR will have a fix. Someone will come to get you. As well, most military aircraft monitor 121.5 MHz, and if they or other high flyers in the area report your ELT, SAR might get there even sooner.

Are you using the aircraft radios to talk to local high flyers? If your forced landing was relatively jolt-free, there is no obvious damage, and you can't smell avgas, it's probably OK. But remember, avgas is distilled to be susceptible to small sparks. Turning on electrics may trigger a fireball that will alert SAR agencies three provinces away.

ELTs were intended to attract SAR to emergencies. A forced landing in a swamp with an oil free aircraft constitutes an emergency. In this case, the company had two ELTs aboard the aircraft. Either one could have been used to summon help to an aircraft and pilot that were going no farther that day. Fewer search aircraft would have been needed and the pilot would have spent less time contemplating nature. Fortunately, he did not have to contemplate the grizzly bears that are a formidable part of that area of nature.

And, contrary to popular opinion, grizzly bears don't have 121.5 MHz ears, so turning on the ELT won't attract them. It will attract the SAR aircraft that will prevent you from having to outrun them.

Originally Published: ASL 2/1997
Original Article: Landed OK...But Couldn't Call for Help!

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We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada for this initiative through the Search and Rescue New Initiative Fund (SAR NIF).