Alyssa Miller

Icy fuselage vs. survival hut and machete

January 17, 2012 by Alyssa Miller, AOPA Online Managing Editor

Sleeping in an icy fuselage during winter survival clinic

Photo by Cameron Lawson

When you’re in an iced-over Beechcraft Musketeer fuselage at night in the Montana wilderness, you have a lot of time to think. There’s really not much else to do.

Rocky Mountain College student pilot Donne Rossow and I had known each other about two hours before we (voluntarily) found ourselves shoulder to shoulder in the fuselage, which creaked and crackled every time we moved and had a door that refused to latch shut. We didn’t talk much because we were trying to stay warm and sleep—conditions that aren’t really conducive to girl talk—but it sure was nice to have another person with me. We were participating in the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic in Marion, Mont.

While I was trying to get to sleep, I kept thinking about the frosted metal structure against my left side and feet (all of the seats had been removed from the aircraft) and the words of wisdom “Mike” shared on my previous blog post, “Don’t take shelter in the airplane, it’s too large a space to heat.”Frost inside the fuselage I also contemplated what aircraft I would rather crash in, based solely on the physical comfort it would provide as a shelter. I chose a very specific one: AOPA’s Sweepstakes Cessna 182 that we gave away in September. I picked it for a very specific reason, too: padding and insulation. The Cessna 182 had a tremendous amount of padding and insulation to help with noise reduction. In my state of mind that night, I reasoned that it would be a little warmer too. (Or, I could have thought about it because it was work related and work was the reason I was sleeping in the frozen fuselage.)

I actually didn’t get too cold, thanks to several layers of clothes and my mummy sleeping bag, but I was glad when morning came. It didn’t take Donne or me long to pack our stuff and head to the bunk house to meet the other 30-plus participants (who slept indoors) and instructors for breakfast. My thoughts on the night echo Donne’s description, “cold…and I really hope I never have to sleep in one again. At least we’re going to know what to expect [if it happens for real]—a poor, cold night’s sleep.”

winter survival shelterThe second night, I slept in a survival hut that fellow pilot Mary Lemons and I made from tarps, rope, and pine branches. We built it near the aircraft because I knew that if my shelter didn’t work, I could survive in the fuselage. Physically, I was warmer and much more comfortable than I was in the fuselage, but mentally I was more stressed. I was alone; my only “friends” close beside me were my machete and a fire that I built. Even though the instructors and other participants were camping in huts 50 yards away, I felt like I was the only soul for miles. My shelter perfectly protected me from the howling wind and snow (who knew tiny flakes could sound like grains of sand hitting a tarp?), but I couldn’t sleep. To occupy my mind, I recorded a video blog on my camera, prayed, and thought about an interview that I did last year with aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker. He’s so optimistic and enthusiastic and, believe me, I needed some of both!

After 10 hours in my hut, I decided it was time to be “rescued” (if only it could work that way in real aircraft accident situations). I trudged back to the bunk house in the dark to be pleasantly surprised that I was just in time for 7 a.m. breakfast—I had survived the entire night!

I learned several things about myself those two nights outdoors. I need to keep my mind occupied; I need to have my back or side against a solid structure for security (either the cold fuselage or the pine branches on the side of my survival hut); I don’t like to be alone; but most importantly, I CAN SURVIVE. I have the will, and thanks to the clinic, now I have basic survival knowledge.

I’ll be sharing more about the survival clinic in upcoming stories on AOPA Online and in AOPA Pilot, so stay tuned!

12 Responses to “Icy fuselage vs. survival hut and machete”

  1. Craig Says:

    Very nice article Alyssa. I live in Montana, in the Bitterroot Mountains. Winter is my favorite time for hiking, skiing, snowshoeing and camping in the mountains. Yes it’s cold but there are no ticks and the bears are usually sleeping. Alot less people out in the woods also in the winter. :) I have done a few classes on surviving in the woods, and was with Ravalli County Search and Rescue for a few years. It’s good to see you taking time to learn about surviving in the woods. I look forward to reading more about your experience.

  2. Sander Ruscigno Says:

    Nice article.
    I live in Brazil, and here we almost never have snow or severe winter, so is difficult to us practice that kind of survival. In the other hand, we have a lot of tropical forest and there are insects, what can be a big problem too because they can bite you at every 1 second contracting malaria or another kind of illness.

    I agree with you, to me the worst part will be stay alone, I really need something to do, I don’t like to stay alone without nothing to do, it can be a big problem for me. In this case I’ll have to keep me

  3. David Reinhart Says:

    Your post proves the old addage that at least 50% of survival is mental, not physical. I’ve written and lectured on survival, especially desert survival, for years and it always comes down to what goes on between your ears more than anything else.

  4. Tom Argentieri Says:

    Interesting debate. I just attended an FAA workshop on Winter Survival and was told not to seek shelter in the fuselage once temps fall below 10 deg F. The reason given was that the aluminum would conduct heat away from the occupants. I don’t buy this – at all. In my opinion the design of this experiment was flawed. The goal should have been to make THE BEST shelter out of the fuselage and THE BEST shelter out of the tarp etc.and compare the results (and more than just one time). The inside of the fuselage could have been filled with pine bows and other insulating materials, tarps etc. to improve comfort. Luckily it was cold and snowing and not 36deg and raining. The wind protection and weather tightness of a fuselage should not be overlooked (assuming it’s intact of course). If I ever find myself in a similar situation you can bet I’ll be building a makeshift tarp and pine bow shelter – inside the fuselage. I would like to suggest that we abandon this blanket statement/concept that the fuselage is an unsuitable shelter below certain temperatures.

  5. Jay Bryon Says:

    Aluminum is an incredibly good conductor of heat, which means that while it may provide a wind break, it will also act as a passive freezer. A tarp will be infinitely better as a shelter. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it’s just physics. Heat sinks to cool computer cpu’s are made of aluminum, and combined with a fan can dissipate tens or hundreds of watts with a surface area smaller than your hand, at room temperature. The only metal better at heat conduction is copper, and it’s not much of a difference. With a winter wind as a heat sink, even a smooth shell would be able to dissipate a stunning amount of heat.

    The plastic tarp, on the other hand, is not nearly as conductive and while it’s not true insulation, it’s at least it’s not conducting almost every erg of heat that hits it out into the winter wind.

    You could build a shelter inside the fuselage, but it will be more difficult, offer no more protection from the cold (and possibly less than ground or snow), and of course this presumes that the fuselage is safe to be in after an accident. Building a fire near an broken airframe which had fuel in it a while ago, well, could be a darwin award waiting to happen.

  6. Tom Argentieri Says:


    You are correct ONLY if you are in contact with the aluminum. Otherwise what you’re suggesting is that the aluminum is making the air inside the fuselage colder than ambient. If this were true then it would be colder inside the fuselage than outside – the physics doesn’t add up.. My point is I don’t see any data here, and Alyssa’s experiment proves nothing. Have you slept under a tarp during a cold wet windy night???? Suggesting that people abandon a fuselage as a shelter is naive and potentially dangerous.

  7. Ray Toews Says:

    I’ve had the “opportunity to inadvertantly alight” twice in northern Alberta, once in summer and once in winter.
    Summer was better, all we had to deal with was mosquitos and a curious bear.
    The winter one was “survivable” as I was stupid but smart enough to land on a small lake with, unfortunately, no spruce trees near by. We made a shelter and a fire in the willows but it was unihabitable, so we slept in the airplane, a Citabria which for two people in winter clothing is surprisingly comfortable. We had an electric blanket with us but couldn’t find a tree to plug it into.
    A worse scenario for me is crashing and being hurt with passengers who are also hurt or possibly deceased. Google Martin Hartwell.
    Survivorman had this as one of his episodes recently, I couldn’t watch it.
    I’ll deal with it when it happens.
    I don’t watch horror movies either.

  8. Jim Says:

    “words of wisdom “Mike” shared” – Actually, that was me.

    I wouldn’t argue with someone who’s actually done it – slept in a fuselage in a survival situation – and people must adapt to the situation in which they find themselves, so all general statements have exceptions. However, I stand by my general statement that a fuselage is a poor place to make a shelter.

    Generally, the fuselage is not empty after a crash, you have to take the seats out. Is that how you want to spend your energy? Do you have the tools? An aircraft wreck may have spilled fuel, so building a fire at the airplane might not be a good idea. If there aren’t any trees nearby, I could see that making a shelter against the side of the airplane might work.

    I agree with Tom’s statements that if you have to take shelter in a fuselage, you should make it the best shelter you can, using boughs and other material. But it’s not my first choice. Note Alyssa’s comment that she found the shelter warmer and much more comfortable than the fuselage, even though she was alone in the shelter, and had a partner in the fuselage.

    In a treed area, build the shelter a short distance from the aircraft – close enough to run to and wave if you hear an aircraft. Build a lean to perpendicular to the wind, with a fire no more than five feet from the opening, and put a reflector behind it. The height should be about stomach height, and long or deep enough to lie comfortably. The number of people determines the length and depth – if it’s just you, you can lie parallel to the fire. Otherwise, you lie with your head to the fire.

    Psychology is a huge part of survival. Keep busy working on your shelter, collecting firewood (daytime only to prevent injury), and laying out signals. A deck of cards can be a useful thing. Don’t use your phone to play games, you might need it for something else.

  9. Trevor Says:

    I live in Alaska. First priority in any situation up here is fire. The cold temperatures demand it as within 15 minutes after ‘survival situation’ begins you are in serious trouble. Butane lighters don’t work after 2 minutes exposure time- the gas freezes. I use cotton balls soaked in vaseline, a small squeeze ball of car anti-freeze, and magnesium, matches, lighter, and blowtorch flares. Why flares? When you are cold, scared, or shaky matches break too easy; flares also make great signaling devices.

    Always keep in mind three things for survival: fire, shelter, positive outlook/attitude. Fire will cheer you up and give you something to do: it takes a lot of collecting wood to keep it going. A shelter is for the obvious reasons: it keeps the elements off of you and hopefully keeps a few of the crawlies and creepies away. The positive attitude is in reference to “I will make it through this” attitude. As long as you keep it formost in mind that you will survive your will will make it happen. Supplement as much information as you can to assist you in surviving but remember that you WILL survive.

    Some people are wondering right now why I didn’t include food, reason is this: each person has different limits on endurance. How much food and water one person requires to survive varies on the individual. Test your limits before they test you and you will be aware of what will occur when you find yourself in a survival situation.

    The last bit of advice I will impart is to treat every time you leave your front door as a survival situation. I guarantee you won’t pack or purchase as much junk if you remember you have to pack it with you. Instead pack your preparedness inside your noggin and it will always travel with you. When every trip you make away from home becomes a practice trip for the unknown eventuality; it makes you become a safer and more careful individual which can only extend into a longer life of enjoying flying.

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