Like any pilot preparing for an exciting or particularly challenging flight mission, I’m preparing for an upcoming aviation-related mission—a winter survival course near Kalispell, Mont., Jan. 13 through 15. The majority of the course occurs on Saturday, and the weather is forecast to be sunny with a high of 39 degrees Fahrenheit. While most pilots review charts or “fly” their challenging course on a simulator or check out the destination airport environment on Google Earth, I’m preparing by working outside for an hour or two this evening in Maryland to get acclimated to the temperature and figure out just how many layers I need to wear. Thirty minutes outside has already taught me that thermals and ski pants won’t be enough.
Leading up to this survival course, I’ve learned that my emergency preparations for cold-weather flying have been woefully inadequate. My typical survival gear for flying across the Appalachian Mountains to visit family during the winter consists of gloves, a bottle of water, a pack of crackers, a flashlight, my Leatherman, and my cell phone. If I had to make an emergency landing in the mountains or foothills, where the good landing spots are few and far between, I wouldn’t survive long in the cold.
The Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which is hosting the course, recommended that participants bring with what we normally carry as a winter survival kit. It’s pretty obvious my “survival kit” won’t do. Thankfully, they also provided a packing list and some helpful questions to get us thinking in survival mode.
Fire starter: I picked up a FireSteel fire-starter kit designed by the Swedish Defense Department (something developed by any DOD should start a fire, right?). It has a built-in emergency whistle, and striking the two keys against each other should produce many sparks (haven’t tested this yet). I’m also taking cotton balls that I’ll coat with petroleum jelly to help get the fire going (thanks to REI for that tip).
Shelter: I picked up utility cord (similar to para-cord) and a tarp, and am packing my Leatherman and the AOPA knife. If the snow levels are appropriate, we might make snow caves, but I’ll have to improvise without a shovel.
Water: We’ll learn to purify and filer water, and to help with that I bought water purification tablets that work in 30 minutes and will pack my water bottle with a built-in filter. While I won’t be taking the kitchen sink, I will be taking a sauce pan to boil water in. (My checked bag will probably raise some eyebrows as it goes through TSA screening.)
Food: While we get meals during the course, I picked up freeze-dried chicken and noodles (what could taste better than that when you’re cold?).
Signaling device: Mirror. Although I don’t have a personal beacon to carry with me in the aircraft, that’s next on my list to purchase and carry on every flight, thanks to a gift from my family.
During the course, we’ll learn how to immobilize broken bones and treat burns. We’ll also be able to spend at least one night outdoors in the survival shelters that we make, and it might be possible to spend the other night in an aircraft fuselage. (My sleeping bag is supposed to be good down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lows that weekend are forecast to be in the 20s.) The best part is that I’ll get to test all of my new survival kit items. They are all remarkably light and compact (except for the sleeping bag), which will make it easy for me to carry in whatever aircraft I’m renting.
So far, all of the advice I have received has come from a packing list and REI. I want to hear from you—pilots who pack winter survival kits or who have had to make an emergency landing and survive in the cold for a few hours or longer. What do you pack? What are the must-have items? If you had a forced landing, what was the most important thing that helped you survive? Share your stories below for me and all of your fellow pilots to learn some new tips.
I’ll be checking back frequently leading up to the course to see what tips I can try out! Signing off for tonight though. My fingers are numb (those of you who fly regularly in arctic conditions can call me a wimp for being cold when it’s 39 degrees out).