Contemplating the Unthinkable

By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the September 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Last month we explored the issue of emergency egress — a topic that we often neglect in our initial and recurrent training. At the end, we touched on the topic of survival. But, in retrospect, it seems this too is a topic we need to visit from time to time. While finding ourselves in a survival situation is unlikely, our chances of survival are greatly enhanced if we’ve reviewed the knowledge and practiced the skills. Once again, we should think about what could go wrong for us and our passengers in such a situation. And while we don’t have the space here to fully address all the details, the following should be enough to get us all thinking about the unthinkable, asking more questions, and planning.

Planning to Crash

The problem with aircraft emergencies and off-field landings is that once such scenarios are unfolding, it’s too late to do a lot of the preparation that might improve the outcome. So, the best advice is to plan on crashing. Sounds pessimistic, I know, but it really can help. Here are a few tips:

First, file a flight plan (VFR is good; IFR, if applicable, is better) or get flight following when available. When something goes wrong, someone will know, and a rescue can be initiated promptly. We should plan to fly over areas where an off-field landing is more likely survivable, and where our landing site will be more accessible to rescuers. Finally, we should know and practice survival skills, carry survival equipment on every flight, and tune it to the environment being overflown. Read on for more details.

Getting on the Ground

The first step in survival is getting the aircraft on the ground with the minimum of injury. We all know that every flight will end with us getting back on the ground — the issue is what the “landing” looks like. Years ago, Mick Wilson of the Denver Flight Standards District Office wrote a booklet called How to Crash an Airplane (and Survive!). He based it on his years of investigating light aircraft crashes, and he included many useful insights.

First is that our survival rate improves when we chose to make a precautionary landing rather than wait for a forced landing to overcome us. In other words, we choose where to go down. At this point, we don’t want to worry too much about damage to the aircraft. We want to keep ourselves and our passengers alive. Regardless of whether it’s a forced or precautionary landing, the key to survival is to spread the impact out over a longer time, allowing energy to be absorbed along the way. The slower we’re moving at the time of impact with obstacles, the better. Remember that doubling the groundspeed quadruples the impact energy, which means a more violent collision. So, when setting up for a forced or precautionary landing, it is better to hit trees on the ground at the far end of the clearing at a lower speed than lose control in the air hitting the treetops at in-flight speed.

Other experts lend their advice and insights as well. Former NTSB crash investigator Greg Feith warns about the “precordial thump” that can occur when the yoke slams against the passenger’s chest, causing the aorta to detach from the heart (fatal injury). Have the front seat passenger put their seat back as far as possible, and then retighten their seat belt. Only a tight seat belt can help prevent injury. We need to be strapped tightly to that seat. As the pilot, we need to stay on the controls until the aircraft comes to rest, but we should only wrap our fingers (not our thumbs) around the yoke. The last thing we need is to break our thumbs because of the force of the yoke as it abruptly snaps back.

Many decisions come into play in any precautionary or forced landing scenario. Retractable gear up or down can be a tough call. Having the gear down to get sheared off can absorb a lot of energy but flipping the aircraft over adds immense risk of injury. All we can do is take our best shot depending on the scenario. For soft surfaces (water, snow, mud, and soft ground), maybe up is better.


Having an activated flight plan and communicating with ATC is a good first step in effecting a rescue. Once we’re on the ground, we can activate our emergency locator transmitter to sound the alarm for rescue efforts and help guide them to our location. A handheld radio can be invaluable when seeking assistance, identifying our needs, and guiding rescuers to our precise location.

Warmth and Shelter

If we can’t be rescued promptly, we may need to seek warmth and shelter. The best strategy in most cases is to stay with the downed aircraft. It can often provide basic shelter from the elements, plus a great number of survival resources such as fuel for fire starting, an ignition source to start fires (the battery), parts from which to build a simple camp stove (spinner), wires for lashing things together, and so on. The only limit is our imagination and ingenuity.

Consider carrying blankets or sleeping bags for emergency use when overflying desolate terrain, especially in the colder months and environments. In some cases, we might end up with nothing but the clothes we’re wearing, so even if shorts and sneakers are appropriate attire for the destination, we should wear something suitable for the terrain and elevations we’ll be flying.

Starting a fire in a survival scenario is not as easy as many think, but realistic outdoor practice can help set us up for success. Carry matches or a lighter and a plastic bag of dryer lint for starting fires. Stretch out some extra fine steel wool and put the ends on the terminals of a 9-volt transistor battery to get a fire started in windy conditions. Dry wood (dead) is easier to get burning, but those green needles on fir, pine, and hemlock branches create some high visibility smoke to help attract rescuers.

First Aid

A good first aid kit can be indispensable in the event of an off-field landing. Buy one off the shelf or assemble your own to suit your anticipated needs. Experts tell us that items to treat lacerations and contusions are high on the list of items to include. Have plenty of gauze, tape, antibiotic ointment, and pain relievers. If we ourselves or frequent passengers require prescription medication, consider including some in the first aid kit.

Food and Water

In reality, we can get by for days without food, but we’ll think better (and have a more positive attitude) if we have something to put in our stomach. Water is critical, so carry some. Numerous smaller bottles are better than just one large one. We don’t want to lose everything if that one bottle gets damaged.

These are just a few of the factors to consider, but they can help get us into a better planning mindset. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever experience an off-field landing and survival situation, but if we consider the unthinkable and plan for it, we’re much more likely to live to fly another day. That’s really what we’re aiming for here.

Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.

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