After the Fall

Your flight has ended — but not the way you had so meticulously planned. After the engine quit, you found that you had learned your lessons well: The forced landing was rough, and you’re a little banged up, but you’ll live. The problem is, you’re miles from anywhere, you don’t have a cell phone with you, the plane is heavily damaged, and it’s going to be chilly tonight. The first thing you remember having read about post-crash survival is not to panic. The very next thing — after treating any injuries — is to seek a safe shelter. And you prepare yourself to cope with pain. What now?


  • It goes without saying that if you own a cell phone, don’t leave the airport without it.
  • If you’re flying over any expanse of uninhabited terrain, bring water.

But let’s say you were feeling invincible, and you brought neither…

If it’s more wasteland than wilderness, it is often best to ignore hunger; you can last weeks without food, but not water! Searching for sustenance may cost you more energy than you will gain. You will have to evaluate the cost/benefit of burning energy to find food and water, vs. being inactive and conserving both. If in doubt, stay put. (And if you do find something questionable, eat sparingly — diarrhea could leave you worse off.) If water is scarce, avoid exertion, avoid hot spots, and eat little, because digestion uses up intestinal fluids. Conserve energy, and stay warm; you burn energy during activity (voluntary), or shivering (involuntary). Have a weapon handy, whether it’s from something salvaged, or found. And if you talk to yourself or whistle to try to cheer yourself up… well, don’t! That’s another great way to offer up water (as vapor) to the atmosphere.

In cold weather, seeking shelter is critical. It’s even more important if you are weakened by injury. If you are injured, shock can take up to an hour for symptoms to appear. If you feel weak, or nauseous, try to stop any external bleeding, lie on your side, and try to keep warm and dry. Start a fire. Actually, have materials for three fires at the ready, for a signal if and when rescuers are in the vicinity: use rubber, oil (salvaged from the aircraft), and green foliage to help generate smoke.

Your aircraft battery — if it survived — can be used to start a fire by briefly touching the cables together to create a spark. Of course, you’ll need some very dry tinder. Good sources are bark, tree resin, dry wood in rotted logs, dried moss, leaves, pine needles, and animal droppings. But be careful; this can be extremely hazardous! Shield yourself behind something, in case the battery explodes. Also, on the subject of batteries… Here is a clever way to send an SOS: Attach two long, heavy gauge wires to the battery terminals. Make one as long as you can; this is your antenna. Make the other one a few feet long, so you can get far enough from the battery to be protected from acid (if it explodes). Bare a one-inch section of the long wire, a few feet from the battery. Arc the short wire to the long one to duplicate the ‘dit-dit-dit, dah-dah-dah, dit-dit-dit’ of the Morse code for SOS. Any radio receiver within fifty miles on any frequency will hear it. You’ve just made what used to be called a spark-gap radio, and it puts out an obnoxious broadband noise that everyone will hear.

Most often, a shelter can be made from whatever is at hand (branches, stones, or dirt). In snowy areas, shelter can be found under lower tree limbs. Work steadily, but avoid sweating. Stay off any game trails, and don’t set up house near running water (should you be so ‘fortunate’) as that can drown out sounds of both rescue, and danger from wild animals. (Be wary of snakes, which are sluggish in the early morning, and often camouflaged.) Stay warm and dry; remove any wet clothing. If you’re desperate, bed down in rotting logs and leaves. Pull it up and all around you; the rot produces heat and insulates effectively. Keep your body insulated from the ground. Keep your head covered! In warm weather, most of these same rules apply.

As for water, you might get lucky; it could rain. But you can find water by other means, as well. If you don’t find any lakes or streams, plants with green leafy growth indicate a water source, and digging at the outside bends of dry streambeds can also yield moist soil. You can make a solar still by digging a hole and covering it with a weighted tarpaulin, draining into a container. Watch movements of any grazing mammals; most can lead you to water. Bees and wasps also live within range of water. There is also harvesting dew in the morning, checking cavities of any living or dead plants. Water will condense on the inside of a plastic bag wrapped around a leafy branch. With ground water especially, boil before drinking! If it is winter, ice produces more water for less heat than snow. Stay to the North on high ground; there is less sun, much more growth for food, and water does not evaporate as quickly. Move downhill in forests, where there is more water at the bottom. Similarly, move uphill in deserts, where there tends to be more water at the top.

Be prepared to deal with the bugs. If you’re in the northern woods in warm summer, your determination (and sanity) will soon be tested. Smear mud on exposed skin. Fashion a hat from clothing and wrap it tightly at the neck. Tuck pants into boots and lace them tightly. Keep exposed hands to a minimum. Prepare a mask from material to place over the nose, and plug your ears. Check for ticks and leeches whenever in woods and grasslands.

Concerning food, there are several widespread plants without poisonous mimics:

  • pine cones (when roasted, eat the seeds)
  • dandelion leaves and roots,
  • oak acorns, and
  • clover. (The entire plant is edible, raw or cooked.)
  • If you’re really desperate, most insects are edible (without hard shells and appendages) when mashed into a pulp, raw or cooked.
  • Most reptiles, amphibians (avoid toads), and fish are edible, once gutted and cooked. If you encounter a large carnivore, stay calm. Talk in a low voice, never avert your eyes or run, and back away slowly. If attacked, aim for the eyes and nose… good luck.

As far as your environment, avoid high ground in storms. (But shun low-lying areas, also! In desert areas, avoid walking or camping in depressions or low areas due to flash flood danger.) Assuming you knew where you were before the fall (and you’re still lucid and ambulatory) you may have some idea which way to head afterwards. By day, if you have an analog watch, and you hold it horizontally with the hour hand pointed at the sun, halfway towards 12 o’clock is the North-South line. For digital watch wearers, a line connecting the tips of the shadow from a three-foot branch stuck in the ground, taken at each end of a one-hour interval will be generally East-to-West. If you’re really desperate, forget the signal fire; set fire to the forest. That gets attention. (Just stay upwind.)

You’re not out of the woods yet, but this is the way.