Commercial, Military, Public Service, Safety, Training

Safety Watch: Stay with the Wreckage!

By By Terry Terrell | March 1, 2010
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The business of developing strategies for actions following aviation mishaps is not usually a favorite topic for helicopter operators, but it does represent an area of flight planning, and mission execution, that can prove to be absolutely pivotal where bottom-line safety concerns are considered. Optimum strategies dealing with post-crash actions are usually thought of as so unlikely to be needed that they receive little attention during mission planning, but the particulars of one recent anecdote would seem to illuminate an alternative argument.

A couple of years ago a news article came to national light which described heroics exhibited by a U.S. Forest Service employee after the crash of a small aircraft (it doesn’t matter whether it was an airplane or a helicopter) in the mountains of Montana. The Forest Service group leader, it turns out, was one of four persons on board, as the ill-fated single-engine encountered terrain in a remote setting, at a high elevation. One occupant was killed on impact, but three souls survived to deal with some interesting post-crash challenges.

A second fatality, after an uncomfortable night in the cold, imposed itself on the group as burns from a post-crash fire took their toll on another occupant, leaving one survivor with fractures, and the Forest Service group leader relatively uninjured. The uninjured survivor convinced the fellow with fractures to follow, on foot, in a walk out of the mountains, toward envisioned help.


During the torturous two-day trek a helicopter was spotted by the highly stressed pair, and the team leader tried to attract its attention with lots of yelling and arm waving, but to no avail. Their hellish hike was consigned to continue. Finally, after interminable suffering, the couple was able to achieve completion of their awful journey to at least an edge of civilization. Eventually, after several days spent recovering and debriefing, the group leader became widely lauded for an extended list of “heroics”, largely imagined by an innocently appreciative public.

The amazing aspect of this story is not that the uninjured survivor was able to “force” an eventually successful mobilization to eventual assistance, and that lavish but misplaced praise was awarded, but that the victims, and most lay observers, failed to appreciate, or even notice, that the rescue helicopter had flown directly to the wreckage of the aircraft, and that the survivors would have realized assistance and rescue two days earlier than recorded if they had stayed with their wreckage.

The helicopter community at large should be able to draw considerable wisdom from this story. Operating areas, of course, are widely variable in terms of environmental conditions and population densities, and thinking pilots must always keep correctly proportioned strategies in mind accordingly. Many flights, taking advantage of the helicopter’s attractive transport flexibilities, are conducted in remote geographies, and/or challenging weather conditions. Other operations, for those perhaps more fortunate, are conducted in the vicinity of well-populated areas, and can offer mission proximities never more than short distances away from perceived access to ready help. Either way, many cases of downed aircraft producing mobile survivors involve some element of temptation toward the allure of walking in the direction of imagined comfort and assistance.

In recent years a newly upgraded proliferation of contemporarily available survival equipment, most electronic by category, has been injected into the aviation marketplace, contributing substantially to potential survival strategies. Any number of “personal locator beacons” can now be carried, greatly enhancing the likelihood that a downed airman or passenger can be found quickly and easily. Additionally, GPS locators are now so common that very few public service organizations, or associated individuals likely to be involved with search and rescue activities, are not familiar with latitude/longitude navigational particulars and universally standard position locating. And cell phone networks, combined with handheld radio transceivers accessing any imaginable communications band, make it increasingly improbable that an air transport mishap survivor would ever suddenly find himself on the ground minus the ability to communicate with assistance.

But the Montana story, availability of advanced equipment notwithstanding, provides an opportunity to stress a categorically proven and time tested cardinal rule of post crash survival. Unless and until ready assistance can be positively confirmed, ALWAYS STAY IN THE VICINITY OF THE WRECKAGE. The downed airframe, whether hosting its own operating ELT or other beacon, will almost always be found more quickly (and much more reliably) than a survivor, or even a group of survivors, on foot.

Even if an ELT is removed from an airframe (so that, for instance, it might be “saved” from a fire threat, and made available for “walking” with survivors), and even if “known” civilization and assistance can be reached “just over the next ridge,” resist the temptation to strike out on a walking gamble and STAY WITH THE WRECKAGE!

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