When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Hatchet by Gary Paulson. I read it over and over, and just recently I decided to read it once again. In this book, a boy finds himself in a two-person plane flying over Canada when the pilot has a heart attack and dies. The boy takes control of the plane and eventually crash lands near a lake. However, he has flown significantly off course and has crashed in dense wilderness.
This is a worst-case scenario for survival. Any plane crash is horrible, but when it comes to rescue, there are decisions to be made. You can stay by the plane and wait for rescue, or you can attempt to hike to safety. In this article, we will cover all of the variables that should factor into your decision in a scenario such as this.
Do People Know Where You Are?
One of the most significant factors in your decision of whether to stay by the wreckage or hike to safety is if people know where you are located. Nobody will know exactly where you are the moment you crash, but there are ways they can figure it out eventually.
A flight plan is one of these methods. Before any plane departs from an airport, it is required to register a flight plan. This plan indicates departure time, planned route, destination, and estimated time of arrival. All of this information can help rescue personnel determine your location.
If you are set to arrive at your destination at a particular time and several hours pass, the airport will send people to start searching for the plane.
However, there are situations in which a flight plan will not help. In the case mentioned in Hatchet, the plane flew dozens of miles off of the flight plan because the pilot was dead. The plane crashed in an area nowhere near the planned route. In this case, the flight plan would prompt a rescue, but they would be searching in the wrong area.
Also, there are scenarios in which there is no flight plan. Especially in areas like Alaska, many people own personal bush planes and fly without a flight plan. Even if you hire someone to fly you, there may be no flight plan.
These are some of the most dangerous crash scenarios. If you have a flight plan and have stuck to it, your best bet is typically to stay at the crash site.
Communication of Your Location
In addition to your flight plan, there are other ways that rescuers can know where you are.
One of them is a locator beacon. Most planes have a locator beacon on board that is designed to transmit your location to the authorities. Some work automatically and some must be activated in the event of a crash or emergency landing. However, there are times that this beacon is damaged in the accident. This should be a major factor in your decision to stay with the plane or leave.
You also may have a means of communication with other people. If you are lucky, you might have cellular service. A phone call to anybody can be relayed to rescuers to communicate your location. However, cellular service in the wilderness is rare.
Most planes have a radio for communication with other planes and with the tower at the airport. You may not reach somebody immediately, but a working radio will eventually allow you to contact someone and communicate your need for help. Again, the radio may be damaged in the crash making it worthless.
If you have been able to reach somebody or you have a working locator beacon, your best bet is to stay at the crash site.
Part of your decision should be based on the resources that you have at hand. If you have lots of food and water along with a way to stay warm, you can likely survive until rescue comes. Often these are scenarios in which larger commercial planes crash with ample food and water on board.
However, if you have a smaller aircraft with minimal supplies, you cannot survive nearly as long. You must consider if you have any survival gear with you. If you were headed out on a hunting trip, fishing trip, or to hike through the wilderness, you might have a pack full of essential gear.
Typically, this is not the case, and the plane itself will not have a lot of helpful equipment.
Resources from the plane should not be the only ones you consider. You must look around and consider your natural resources. Do you have a water supply close by? Is there an obvious source of food? Do you have dry wood and a way to start a fire? Do you have a method of shelter?
It is possible to have enough natural resources in the area to get by until rescue comes. However, you must be realistic about your skill level in using these natural resources. Do not get overconfident.
If you have plenty of resources from the plane or nature, it may make more sense to stay put.
Proximity to Civilization
You must also be realistic about where you are located in relation to other people. As your plane is going down, it is vital that you pay attention to your surroundings. I know this is difficult as your life is in danger, but you must stay calm and gather as much information as you can.
Look for buildings or roads in the area. Look for other planes in the sky. See if you can see any cities on the skyline. You will also want to use the sun along with landmarks to keep your bearings.
If you crash within a few miles of other people, you are best to hike in the direction of those people. You could be on your way home within a few hours.
However, if you see no signs of civilization in the area, you could be looking at hiking dozens or even hundreds of miles. Sometimes a hike like this is needed, but it should be a last resort.
Injuries and Medication
One factor that may trump everything else is your health. If you have been seriously injured in the crash, you may not be able to hike to safety. Trying to walk mile after mile through the dense wilderness with a significant injury is rarely a good idea.
If there are multiple people and one person has a life-threatening injury, healthy survivors should consider finding help to save their life. If you take medication to keep you alive and lose it in the crash, your time is limited. This is another scenario in which you may have to hike to safety.
In both of these situations, you should consider how long you can make it and how long it might take for rescue to arrive. If people know where you are, rescuers will typically find you within a day or two. If they do not, it will take longer.
When it comes down to it, the decision can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. If you know for sure that you can quickly hike to safety, then do it. Otherwise, you want to stay at the crash site if at all possible.
If you have no clear path to safety, hiking out should be a last resort. Keep in mind that rescuers will be looking for the plane, not for you. If you leave the plane, that makes you much more difficult to find.
Hopefully, you will never find yourself in this scenario. If you do, sit down, stay calm, consider these factors, make your decision, and never look back.
This article was originally published in Survival Dispatch Insider Volume 3 Issue 4.
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