Don’t Be Complacent: Survival Tips For Winter Flying

by Bob Worthington
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 i

It was late summer, in the mountains in the Middle East, in combat. I was a U.S. Marine PFC (Private First Class). Military privates are at the bottom of the food chain with one exception: For work details, they head any list. I was a member of a USMC (U.S. Marine Corps) infantry battalion, which was preparing to be released from combat. Part of our unit consisted of M-48 tanks, armed with 90 mm cannons. The work detail was to visit each tank site and recover all of its 90 mm point-detonating rounds and transport them to an ordnance supply point. The detail consisted of a 2 ½ ton truck with driver, a corporal, and four privates with strong backs.

Our day began at the supply point where a non-commissioned officer (NCO) showed us how to cover the entire truck bed with sandbags, then create a sand-bagged cradle for each 90 mm round. Using this demonstration, we could transport between nine to a dozen rounds each trip. The tanks were scattered throughout the mountain and the dirt road to each position was more like an animal path, rutted, curvy, and at least 30 feet straight down on one side or the other. It was very hot, the dirt trails were slippery and dangerous, and every tank had 10-12 rounds to be moved.

Half-way through the morning we realized that only transporting 10-12 rounds at a time would require days to complete the job. We were also mindful that nothing bad happened, so far. If, instead of building a separate cradle for each round, we placed a sandbag in front, one bag on each side, we could double our carrying capacity. Also, our driver was getting used to the treacherous mountain dirt roads and thought he could up his speed from 10 to 15 mph to 25 to 30 mph.

By mid-afternoon, we were dead-beat, hot, and still had a lot more rounds left to be picked up. Also, nothing bad had happened. So, we put one bag in front, one bag between rounds, and the driver could hit 45 mph on straightaways. By dark, we had completed our task and nothing bad ever happened.

What was the lesson we never learned? Humans will undertake risky situations, and if nothing bad happens, are willing to increase the risk, assuming nothing bad will ever happen. We became complacent. For us, fortunately, we ran out of point-detonating tank rounds before one exploded.

In January of my sophomore year in college, the local paper ran a story of four missing doctors. Collectively they held medical calls at clinics they supervised around northern New Hampshire. One was a pilot and he flew them to the clinics. Once a week, they would fly to each clinic, see their patients, and return that evening. However, one snowy, winter night, they never returned.

I dropped out of college, enlisted in the Marines, completed my hitch, and returned to college. Three and a half years after the docs disappeared, some hikers in the mountains came across their plane and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) began their investigation. Apparently, all survived the crash, but having made this trip every week for a long time, they became complacent, believing since nothing bad had ever happened, nothing would.

They all flew in their street clothes, coat and tie, low quarter shoes, and no survival gear in the plane. They survived the crash, but succumbed to the elements. Sub-freezing temperatures with no protection, killed them. They had become complacent.

Studies on the causes of aviation accidents reveal the same thing. Seventy-five to eighty-five percent of the reason for the accident is because the pilot made a wrong decision. He or she either failed to recognize a potential problem or ignored what could happen. Running out of fuel always makes me wonder. Why does a pilot, knowing that he/she only has one hour of fuel in the plane, initiate a one-hour flight? As an aviation psychologist I know why. The pilot is convinced that he/she can make that flight, successfully. After all, nothing bad has ever happened before, so it will not happen this time. They become complacent.

One time I was on climb out in our Mooney 201 when the engine quit, and I made an unscheduled, off-airport landing. My wife and I survived, but the airplane didn’t. Cause of the crash? Faulty engine design. A second time was right after I landed my Cessna Skylane 182RG. The nose gear collapsed, immediately stopping the plane, requiring over $90K to repair a $150K plane. The reason? Unknown. There was no evidence of any kind of failure.

I mention these incidents to reinforce the fact that anything made by man has the capability to fail at any time. And sometimes the failure may have no rational or reason. We fly very complex machines which can malfunction. Is this common? Of course not. Some pilots have experienced tens of thousands of flight hours with nary a hiccup.

As you read this article, it is October. The day-time temps are very mild, in the high 50s or low 60s. But in a few weeks the night-time temperatures in the Upper Midwest will hover around the freezing mark. My question to you is, what do you carry in the back of your plane? If your plane decides to quit flying and you go down as dusk approaches, can you survive the night? Is there enough survival equipment to protect everyone in the plane for that night?

So, what is my point in all of this? First, a plane can quit functioning at the most inopportune time. Ask any member of the “Caterpillar Club.” Second, there are things a pilot can do to mitigate an unfortunate event, to make things better, not worse.

General aviation survival consists of two parts: First, preparation prior to the flight, and second, what you do once on the ground.

Begin by filing a flight plan, VFR or IFR. Enough said. If not IFR, use flight following. When in the sky, I love it when I know I am more than a blip on a radar screen…I am a real person, talking on the radio with another real person who knows who that blip is. I feel secure. Also, let friends or family know where and when you will be flying. At the very least if you do not arrive at your destination airport, someone will start a search for you.

If you lose an engine and do make an unscheduled, off-airport landing, your ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter), if on and armed, will transmit a signal letting the proper authorities know where you are. A second source of security is found in a personal locator beacon or PLB, a personal ELT. This device, carried on your person, when activated, transmits a signal, just like your aircraft’s ELT, showing where you are, on the ground.

Survival, on the ground, depends on your training, your physical condition, your current state of mind, and having the appropriate survival gear in the plane. Survival equipment in the back of a plane depends on when you fly and where you fly. What I carried when flying across Alaska was totally different than what I carried flying across the southwest deserts. Also, survival gear is a compromise between weight and the worse you think you may need protection from. In the summer deserts, one needs fluids while in the Upper Midwest during winter, it is protection from cold.

Based on my training and experience in survival, I made my own survival gear. These include protection from the weather, fluids, and food (energy). Flying over the Midwest reveals plenty of streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. But a crash site one-half-mile away from a source of water may become meaningless if you flew solo and now have two broken legs.

Since most of my flying consisted of long cross-country flights, my baggage contained plenty of clothing, shirts, pants, coats, etc. Therefore, extra weather protection was already at hand. Survival gear in the back of a plane is not subjected to bad weather, rough handling, and being used, over and over for a long time. It is for (hopefully) a one-episode event, and until being used, is handled with care and protected. Mummy sleeping bags can be purchased for $20-$40, weighing 2-3 pounds, and good for temps down to the teens or zero degrees.

Food should be high in calories and nutrients — dried fruits and nuts, dried meats (jerky) and protein bars package in assorted zip-lock plastic bags which can be used for other purposes. A caution on fluids. They are most necessary, but also heavy. I do not recommend energy drinks because of their contents. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, were designed for a specific purpose, to maintain the body’s ionic balance after a vigorous workout. High in sugar and sodium, they were not designed as an alternative to plain water. My survival gear contains plain bottled water.

All of my survival gear fits inside a backpack which also contained several heavy-duty, large, plastic garbage bags. In the plane, I have a comprehensive medical kit with an excellent book on first aid. My medical kit contains supplies to treat broken bones, serious cuts, infection and pain. If you have never done so, avail yourself to lessons and seminars in practical first aid. Include a couple of bottles of water purification tablets, just in case.

Other items I deemed important include a lightweight foil emergency blanket, lightweight ponchos, a Swiss knife or Leatherman-type tool, a lightweight collapsible shovel and small hatchet, and several feet of parachute cord. Waterproof matches (I would take “strike anywhere” table matches, dip in melted candle wax, and store is a small medicine bottle), small flashlights with extra batteries, and heat tabs (chemical tabs which burn providing heat to cook with), and assorted spices.

Next is an item that in today’s “politically correct” environment can lead to trouble, legally or otherwise. On my cross-country flights I carried a handgun. For some of the states I flew over, my possession was illegal. I knew that. The handgun would be used as protection against wild animals, signaling, or for food as a 9 mm hollow-point round fired into a pool of water in a stream can stun enough fish for several meals. Depending on your beliefs and your own expertise, some might consider a small shotgun or a small carbine. Just be aware of the laws regarding firearms in the states (or countries) you wish to pass over. The decision to transport a firearm in your aircraft is a personal one and I do not advocate it either way. I am only sharing with you what I have done, and my rationale as to why.

My survival pack also includes a cooking pot with a cup inside, both lightweight aluminum, and a sheath knife (I prefer the U.S. Air Force survival knife issued to pilots). Additionally, I always carry two or three paperback novels so I wouldn’t become bored, waiting to be rescued.

We all carry insurance on our cars, planes, recreational vehicles, and homes, but how many of us have submitted a claim for a tornado-destroyed car or a burned-down house? We don’t assume we will lose a home or vehicle, but we are not complacent, we are insured. So, when flying, don’t be complacent, carry survival gear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the  author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (, and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” ( Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (

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