Alan Carr is an avid aviation aficionado learning about the aspects of the flying world from the business to the technical, while also frequently writing on what he finds. He currently works with globalair.com to provide resources on aircraft related information.
Veins of water stretch out across the ground below you. You just refurbished the engine of your Cessna 185, and it seems like your simple camping trip will stay simple. As quickly as the clouds gather too close to the cockpit, the engine starts to run rough. RPMs drop. You notice smoke. All of your hours of training flood your brain, and you know it’s time to press the “nearest” button on your GPS—
Sometimes, there’s not even time to make it to the strip. Every backcountry pilot needs to be prepared for engine failure, or other mechanical mishaps that can lead to a crash landing. Thankfully, we are beyond the age of solar flares and branches spelling “S-O-S.” Today’s pilot can use technology as the first line of defense against a disastrous emergency landing and still be prepared for that technology to crash. Though nothing can replace common sense and hours of experience in the air, the following five things will help any pilot survive any backcountry landing.
Knowledge of Backcountry Etiquette
What do you do if someone is already camping where you want to land? The most intense backcountry pilots may claim that if you need to consider your manners, you’re not in the true backcountry yet. Sure, etiquette can be thrown to the wolves if you’re sure you’re completely isolated, and if you run into other pilots in the event of an emergency landing you would likely consider yourself lucky. However, some scenic backcountry destinations have gained a following. Rather than force your fellow pilots to hold on to their hats—and tents—as you come in at a pattern altitude and commandeer their solitude, consider a few common sense rules so we can all enjoy public lands.
First of all, make sure you are arriving at circling or pattern altitude. Start listening before you arrive, and blend in with the traffic. Of course, make sure you can communicate clearly. Check to see whether you are on the right radio and frequency. Clearly communicate your position and intentions, and respect any response. Don’t take a tie-down that could be occupied, and even if you think you’re alone, make only small power adjustments while moving your plane. With all these specifics in mind, treating others as you would like to be treated will get you the farthest.
Knowledge of How to Set Up Camp Almost Anywhere
Backcountry piloting and camping go hand-in-hand, so if you’re not an experienced outdoorsman, I wouldn’t recommend flying your plane through a canyon. In addition to the standard waterproof tent, sleeping mat, sleeping pad, headlamp, dry socks, a shovel and toilet paper, and matches that you would bring even if you were roughing it, there are a few other items that will make camping on barely-charted territory much easier.
A water filter is more important than any amount of energy bars or Chef Boyardee. You can survive for days without food, but not without water. An old-fashioned pump filter will suffice, but bottle filters like Vapur’s MicroFilter implants the filter in the cap to kill an impressive percentage of waterborne bacteria. A portable charger for your electronics with solar capabilities is also incredibly helpful these days, especially if you’re using a gadget to turn your iPhone into a satellite phone. Communication beyond your campsite will ensure your survival more than your ability to pitch a tent on a rock, but you should also have the ability to pitch a tent, start a fire, and get some rest.
Rations for Each Occupant
Though it may seem antiquated to some, many states require backcountry pilots to carry enough rations for each occupant to survive a week. It’s common sense to provide enough food to eat for the duration of your trip, but many pilots consider a satellite phone and a credit card to be rations enough, especially since water is more important to survival.
However, it’s wise to carry MREs if your technology fails you (or if you credit card falls in the fire!) Sailor Boy Pilot Bread is also a popular choice for a backcountry feast. Energy bars, like Luna or Cliff Bars, will provide you with enough protein to get by and the flavor won’t kill you. My personal favorite foodstuff is Chef Boyardee’s Spaghetti and Meatballs. Stack four cans in the back of your plane for a serving of nostalgia to accompany your unexpected adventure.
A Comprehensive Survival Kit
If you can camp anywhere, why would you need a survival kit? Honestly, most elements of a comprehensive survival kit are things that you ought to carry with you if you’re just flying to the grocery store, like GPS, a first aid kit, and a cockpit fire extinguisher. A backcountry trip demands more accessories, and many websites sell pre-constructed kits. These will include a first aid kit, plus a variety of other survival tools.
A pocket chainsaw will make your pocket knife look like a nail pick. Make sure you purchase one that can cut through a 3 inch limb in about 20 seconds. Windproof lighters and waterproof matches will secure your ability to make a fire almost anywhere. If you don’t normally camp with a headlamp, include one in your kit! It’s important to be able to make use of your hands wherever you land. As I’ve mentioned before, a satellite phone like the Iridium Extreme is key to the modern backcountry pilot’s survival, and this can be coupled with a PLB, a personal locator beacon. Also, if you plan on flying above 10K, hang an oxygen system in your cockpit. You can’t fly if you can’t breathe.
A Backcountry Toolkit
Occasionally, whatever is wrong with your aircraft will be something you can mend on your own. Having the right toolkit in your plane can be the key to getting you from your campsite back to your home landing strip.
A complete toolkit will include a variety of pliers—diagonal, long nose, linesman, slip joint, groove joint, an adjustable wrench, a multi-tip screwdriver, a hex key set, cable ties, duct and electrical tape, a tire gauge, and a tire pump, plus whatever you’ve found necessary for your particular plane. Every plane—and pilot—is different, and with commonsense etiquette, outdoor survival skills, and the right gear, we can all survive and enjoy the backcountry together.