I survived an airplane crash – here’s what I learned

In the summer of 1978, I was a flight instructor at Laconia, New Hampshire, flying a set of Grumman AA-1B Trainers. On a very warm, cloudless and nearly windless evening in June, my best friend of many years and I were out gallivanting around Lake Winnepesaukee. My friend had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force and was headed to Williams for primary flight training. He had flown with me throughout college, although he had no formal flight training.

We had just completed a practice approach to Moultonboro Airport, and had turned up into the hills behind the ridge on the north side of the Lake, near Tamworth. I regularly used this route as a form of ground reference maneuver, when I felt the conditions were good, and they certainly were that evening. At about 500 t0 700 feet above the ground, as we approached a shallow ridge, something went very wrong.

New Hampshire mountains
It wasn’t far from home, but these mountains might as well be 1000 miles away for an injured pilot.

It is pointless to debate what exactly went wrong; it has been 38 years. I didn’t know then, and I certainly don’t know now. It appeared that we were not going to clear the ridge, although we had been above it to begin with, and maximum power did not seem to yield a result. It has always seemed like a downdraft in my memory, even immediately afterward, but there was no wind. It was about five in the afternoon, and no clouds at all. I attempted a turn away from the ridge, probably induced an accelerated stall at some point, and we hit the trees. The NTSB, in their ingenious method of coding probable cause, said “Failure to maintain airspeed.” No kidding.

We spent about 43 hours in the woods on the side of Johnson Mountain. My friend passed away sometime during that period. I know he was still alive during the first night; after that, I have no idea.

It has been a long time since I talked about this much. I recently rekindled an old presentation discussing survival based on this experience and pitched it at a local FAA safety seminar. Some time after that, one of my airline colleagues, an engaged AOPA general aviation pilot, expressed interest in the story as well. Some of this discussion prompted me to take a look through current literature on the subject of general aviation survival, and I found it to be pretty much the same as it always had been, which is to say primarily focused on a model of survival that could be interpreted by many pilots as not applicable to them. It seemed like it might be useful to talk about this hard lesson again.

We were a local flight. There was no flight plan. The FBO staff locked up that night and assumed I had flown the airplane home to Rochester; to be fair, I did that from time to time, although not without coordination. It was only when my friend did not arrive at home later that night that his parents became alarmed.

About 24 hours after we went down, a Scandinavian Airlines System DC-8, piloted by Captain Haaken Gerdsell, passed overhead en route to Europe and detected the ELT signal. As we were in a shallow ravine, the line-of-sight signal was not heard unless one passed directly overhead within a pretty narrow cone. When Captain Gerdsell heard the ELT, he transmitted that to ATC; they replied that someone was missing and requested latitude and longitude coordinates.

Captain Gerdsell then did something right out of the old time brotherhood of aviation that Saint Exupery and Ernie Gann wrote so passionately about: he asked for and was given clearance to fly a single racetrack pattern back over the site. This seems like a simple thing to do, until you do some oceanic flying and realize how precious fuel is and how much it costs to make that circuit with four pretty inefficient engines. The second time he heard the ELT he captured accurate coordinates

The following day, the USAF sent over a UH-1 Huey from Plattsburgh, flown by Major Woody Kinsey and Captain Ron Lanier, and they spent most of the day drifting above the trees, looking. The particular Grumman we were flying sported a pre-war Navy trainer paint scheme, with yellow wings, and a yellow band around a gray fuselage. We had hardly broken a branch when coming down, and the airplane rested on a crushed nose, standing straight up against a large tree. At about two in the afternoon, the rotor downwash parted the foliage, and we were found.

I was in very serious condition, with two shattered ankles, a crushed vertebra, broken collarbone, collapsed lung and multiple lacerations. I was sufficiently dehydrated that it took an Air Force paramedic, a veteran of multiple tours in Vietnam, four attempts to get an IV inserted. While the Huey refueled, they packaged me up in a Stokes litter, and when the chopper returned, they hoisted me up through the trees and off to a long recovery.

ELT in airplane
It might be unreliable, but an ELT just might save your life.

I had no survival gear whatsoever. I had no flight plan. No one knew where I was. I did have an ELT, and it saved my life.

A great deal of the survival discussion, requirements and regulation centers on very remote areas and a type of survival that presumes little injury. There is a place for this; the Canadian and Alaskan requirements are rooted in serious understanding of, and experience with, very large, empty and remarkably inhospitable areas. These ideas are applicable in considerable areas of the western United States as well, and none of them can ever hurt when flying anywhere.

But there is another kind of survival, the kind that you must consider when flying ten miles from your home airport near developed civilization. In many of those cases, if you can walk, you can walk out. In my case, there was a farmhouse three miles down the hill. If I could have walked, I would have been there in less than six hours by simply following a nearby brook downslope. I had spent a lot of time hiking in those same mountains. That would have been easy.

But I wasn’t able to walk. I did try to fashion a crutch from a Y-shaped stick. I even tried to make a splint for one of my legs with my belt. My plan on the second day was to make my way over to the brook and float downstream, which I thought would be useful in cleaning the dried blood caked over my left eye as well as discouraging the flies buzzing around the stub of bone sticking through my left sock. Since, in actual fact, the brook was about six inches deep and two feet wide, this perhaps gives an indication of my state of mind. In any event, I was about halfway to the brook when the helicopter arrived.

Not only was I unable to walk, but I was also very thirsty; by the second day, I had crafted and memorized a list of drinks I would consume immediately upon rescue. Three glasses of milk, big glasses, like those Schlitz steins I had back in my chalet, a can of Pepsi, a can of lemonade, a can of Seven-Up, three glasses of orange juice and a large cherry slush.

I was pretty sure the ELT had not worked because I couldn’t hear it. I also, at one point, thought I was lying in the woods beside the path between the town pond and the dirt parking lot. At another point, I vaguely remembered locking up the hangar, checking the tie downs, and then going to lay down in the woods rather than driving home.

By the middle of the second day, after about three hours of listening to that Huey, I was sure who they were looking for. When they settled into a hover directly over the crash site, I knew I had to get them to see me. This was my chance; I had to get their attention. I was face down in the leaves, and by then I could not even raise myself up slightly. I had no signaling devices at all. So I grabbed a handy sapling and shook it as hard as I could… a noble effort, if adding an entirely new line to the definition of the word “forlorn,” given the predominant effect of rotor downwash. Thank goodness they had already seen me.

Orange smoke
Sometimes, there’s no replacement for this old fashioned tool.

What I needed to do was pop an orange smoke, and if I’d done that six hours earlier they would have been on me in a heartbeat. This was not the time for signal mirrors or even portable strobe lights. We were under a very dense forest canopy, and there was a pretty good chance we were going to stay there for several hunting seasons, had it not been for a handful of very intrepid, altruistic and just plain good-at-what-they-do aviators listening to an old fashioned ELT.

Today, with Cospas/Sarsat and 406 Mhz beacons, preferably equipped with GPS, the ELT world has changed. Some manufacturers advertise remarkable accuracy, and, given the ability of my cellphone to identify which room of my house I am standing in, this capability is probably not overstated. But this also raises a point, probably the most important point of any discussion about survival: there won’t be any do-overs. There won’t be any second chances. It really doesn’t matter how any particular system is advertised, marketed, or what the brochure looks like. It has to work. It has to work. It just plain has to work.

After I recovered and returned to general aviation flying, I put together a simple survival kit meant to address the problems I encountered on the mountain. I began with my own personal ELT, because at the time the FAA was waiving the ELT requirement due to persistent battery problems, and a local area trainer (such as the one I was in) was not even required to carry one in the first place. Today, I would have carried a personal locator beacon.

I was lucky in that it was summer and very warm. But part of my survival kit was a wool blanket, because wool has superior insulation qualities even when wet. That said, insulation technology has made great strides in the past forty years. There are some even better synthetic materials today, although they are not necessarily available in the form of a blanket. The best information on materials that work well when wet probably comes from the people who make and use drysuits, whether for diving or kayaking. Bear in mind that while synthetics may offer even better wet performance than wool, they are quite flammable, whereas wool is decidedly not.

Also, consider that when injured, you may not be pulling on a coat or jacket… a blanket is the easiest and most universally usable form of protection against cold. That certainly doesn’t preclude you from carrying the appropriate parka. The three-mile hike that I might have made, had I been mobile, would not have gone well in sub-freezing weather without a proper coat. But you must plan for injury.

Many people carry space blankets; you should thoroughly research these before trusting your life to them. One of the things you will find with any engineered system is that the more efficient it is, the more specific the conditions of usage will be. When trading off weight, what may happen is that the system will work very well for a limited number of specific applications; if those conditions are not met, then the system really doesn’t do well at all. A broader, more universally effective but less efficient system may be better suited to the wide variety of situations that you may find yourself in. Hence, my wool blanket, because it has to work. That said, space blankets are so ridiculously light that you can’t go wrong by tossing a couple in anyway for whatever use might arise.

Canteen
The most important thing in your survival kit?

Along with the wool blanket, I carried a Very pistol, meteor flares, orange smoke signals, and perhaps the most important piece of gear you can bring along: a canteen of water. I note today that many survival kits have water purification systems and bags for collecting rainwater, which are useful if you are marooned in various remote parts of the world, but not if your legs are broken. You will become dehydrated in a hurry, as I did. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of these words… it has to work. The water has to be accessible and in a container that is highly likely to survive the crash. I used a rubberized canvas canteen. The idea was that it would be able to deform when it impacted aircraft structure, or my head, and be less likely to fracture. It was tough enough to absorb sharp impacts, or at least I hoped it was.

One of the most important questions to consider is that of accessibility. Your survival kit isn’t going to be worth much if it is in the baggage compartment and you have been orthopedically compromised… your legs are broken. Or if you are intact but the baggage compartment is locked, or even better, thanks to the now deformed fuselage, the compartment door is jammed. One approach to this is to consider a distribution of equipment based on priority. For example, you will need the water and the signaling devices in almost every possible survival situation. On the other hand, if you cannot physically reach your ring saw or your water purification equipment, you probably are not going to be able to use it, either. Equipment can be distributed based on priority of need and ease of use.

My initial approach to this was to carry a couple of pencil meteor flares and orange smoke signals in a pouch that I wore on my belt, so that I would have them even if I couldn’t get back into the airplane. This same approach could be achieved with a cotton vest with suitable pouches… cotton because synthetic material is distinctly unpleasant when it catches fire.

In any event, you need to seriously consider accessibility for your particular aircraft type. Look at it from the perspective of priority of equipment, limited movement and strength, but also consider unintended consequences, such as the whole thing arriving rather suddenly in the forward cockpit during the impact sequence, and generating as much injury as the accident itself. Speaking of unintended consequences, note FAA Advisory Circular 91-58a and the discussion of pyrotechnic signaling devices contained within. From my perspective, smoke and meteor flares are absolutely essential. They work, they are simple, they don’t need batteries, and they are universally recognized. You also don’t need one spontaneously igniting itself while clipped to your belt. Note the FAA’s emphasis on Coast Guard approval for these types of devices, and proper maintenance of them.

PLB
Personal Locator Beacons have never been less expensive or more powerful.

Finally, there is the endlessly discussed question of the flight plan. Someone needs to know where you are going. That someone, be it the FAA, your FBO, or your father, which was my approach for years afterward… that someone needs to know what to do if you don’t show up. They cannot hesitate. They cannot fall asleep and then realize the next morning that you are not there. It has to work.

In his popular western novels, Louis L’Amour would occasionally write about the rancher or farmer who mounts his horse, waves to his family and begins the 20-mile ride to civilization, never to be heard from again. His horse stumbles; he gets thrown, and breaks his neck or worse, his leg. Because of the vastness of the country, no one ever finds him, or even passes nearby for a hundred years. It is a very big world out there. The disappearance of an entire Boeing 777 into the Indian Ocean, without a trace being found for years, is a further reminder of how big a space we fly over regularly. Even the space contained within locales that we think we are familiar with is much bigger than we comprehend. In December 1996, a Lear 35 went missing following a missed approach at Lebanon, New Hampshire. Although their general location was known, the wreckage was not found for three years. They did not have an ELT, nor were they required to carry one.

You need a GPS-capable 406 Mhz ELT that is properly maintained. You need someone to know that you have not arrived, on the chance that the ELT fails. You need a properly maintained, high caliber PLB, on the chance that the ELT fails, or in case you believe it best to leave the crash site. You need pyrotechnic signaling methods that will immediately locate you when the rescue is nearby. Finally, you need to stay warm and hydrated while all of the above works.

And it has to work. Fix it so it does.

16 Comments

  • Surreal to hear what happened and the survival analysis but some one who gained the qualification the hard way. I feel for the sad loss of your friend, commiserations. Inadequate speed probability was it not worthwhile to take that forwards to find out why. Your skills picked up something out of the ordinary otherwise why the attempt to power up. Thanks for sharing an awful experience where lessons were learned.

  • I owned an AA1 and had the pleasure of flying about 300 hours in it over 2 years. On a long cross country flight, I very nearly had a similar accident in the desert near Tuscon. Coming up on a saddle, thought I had enough clearance, but suddenly the VSI pegged down and ground speed on GPS dropped by 30 KTS! Must have been a huge down draft over the saddle. I was lucky to have noticed so quickly. Added max power and turned away while loosing altitude… ended up maybe 250 AGL going away from the saddle and 135 KTS GS, 100 KTS indicated. I had some survival gear on board but really glad I didn’t have to test it.

  • Thanks for a great read, a great reminder, and for the strength and courage to re-live that painful experience. Your account is extremely valuable.

    FWIW, the stats I see say that most off airport crash landings result in injuries. Most who survive the immediate crash have injuries to limbs in addition to their other wounds. And most injured persons succumb within the first 24-48 hours after the crash. Those same stats also make it clear that failing to file (and then FOLLOW) a flight plan is often a fatal error due to very significant delays in launching a search and the difficulty in locating the crash site absent a flight plan and/or a reliable ELT signal. It’s also true that a minority of ELTs fail to function for a variety of reasons (poor installation, the aircraft comes to rest so the ELT antennae is masked, the ELT doesn’t activate because impact forces don’t reach the threshold, etc.).

    A year ago a V-tailed Bonanza crashed in the Cascade mountains of Washington state. The pilot didn’t file a flight plan and there was no certain date known to family for their arrival at their destination, nor was their route known to anyone. The sole survivor of the crash high on a mountain ridge was a teenage girl from an urban background. She was INCREDIBLY fortunate that she (a) was relatively uninjured; (b) was young and able to walk; (c) that she chose the correct side of the mountain to walk down… (d) and that she found a well traveled road after a couple of days negotiating very difficult terrain. Had she gone down the other slope (north) she would have wandered in a 626,000 acre wilderness until she succumbed to exposure and starvation.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

  • Steve, thanks for finally putting this story on paper. I remember those days we were sitting through your Metro II ground school in Lynchburg; all of us wanted to hear the story, but you were so time-limited and focused on your task at hand that you deferred… I’m sure many of us benumbed cheddar-heads thought we could have been better served and entertained by imagining ourselves the heroic main character in your story rather than addressing the engineering machinations of those nefarious click-clacks. Thanks again.

  • I flew search missions for the Civil Air Patrol for about 18 years and I have heard just about all the stories that I can stand. This one is very typical of crashes in the mts: I live in the Sierra Nevada Mts of CA. I have owned a Beech Debonair for almost 25 years and it has never left its hangar without a 14-15 lb survival kit. Never had to use it, but it was a comfort to know that it was in the floor right behind my seat. One item that the author didn’t mention: dress for mt flying like it was the dead of winter. You never know when that trusty steed will fail you and shorts, a tank top and sandals will not serve you well.

    Stay safe and be sensible.

    • I carry my PLB on my person in my survival vest. Inalso fly in natural fiber clothing since a very high proportion of otherwise survivable accidents involve a post crash fire. If flying over mountains with few survivable landing sites I wear a nomex flight suit.

  • In nearly all instances of a forced landing, the ability to communicate the position of both the aircraft and the surviving occupants is the most critical item. Time = life.

    Severely injured occupants typically require medical care delivered within hours at most. The only way to assure prompt rescue and emergency medical care in forced landing scenarios involving mountainous or heavily vegetated terrain, or on the water, is via satellite GPS signals.

    With worldwide satellite communications being readily and cheaply available, there is really no excuse for any pilot today not to have on board a minimum of two position locating satellite based systems when flying cross-country. Redundancy is critical.

    Firstly, upgrade your ELT to 406 Mhz. Replacement 406 Mhz ELTs can be purchased for under $600 now, the installation is easy and can be done mostly by yourself with sign-off by a licensed A&P or AI, and chances are the old 121.5 Mhz unit in your aircraft is about to quit anyway.

    I also always carry a SPOT GPS satellite communicator on cross country flights. They’re inexpensive devices to purchase, though the annual subscription fees aren’t cheap. The advantage of the SPOT communicator is that, besides position reporting, you can also use it as an all purpose digital sat communicator. The SPOT provides periodic position tracking, with frequency of position reports varying by subscription price (my wife tracks my cross country flights on the computer, which is a big reassurance for her), as well as non-emergency messages (“I’ve arrived!”). The latest versions allow one to send hand-typed sat text messages via a smartphone, tab computer, or handheld GPS navigator. So a downed flyer can report the status of passengers, weather, terrain, etc. to rescuers.

    Or, one can buy a GPS-equipped PLB to allow precise location of the downed occupants, even if the aircraft and its ELT disappears in a fire or underwater. The PLB, however, is only good for sending an SOS position report, while it does not require a subscription.

  • Winds in the mountains do not always mean turbulence. On the other hand, there are some effects that are inflexible: winds across the ridge are double the reported winds; and winds through the passes are triple the reported winds. Many light aircraft are unable to climb against such winds, which mean “downdrafts” on the lee side of the ridge or pass.

    Beyond that, it is not uncommon for a pilot approaching a ridge line to unconsciously try to keep the horizon at the same location on his plane’s windshield. This means a climb, during which airspeeds can quickly become even less than flight supportive, leading to a full stall.

  • 1. I suggest 1000 ft. AGL before you approach the ridge (and I mean 1000 ft. above the ridge).
    2. Approach at a 45 degree angle, so turning away is easier.

  • All good advice. I keep a small survival kit in my aircraft but never considered flares. That’s now on my list. I’m curious how ADS-B Out now factors into your survival advice.

  • Thoughtful discussion ! I Appreciate the details , Does someone know if my assistant could grab a blank a form example to edit ?

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