Skids Up No. 7: Location (Part 1)

Location is the second of the Priorities of Survival (Protection, Location, Water, Food), but to me the most important!

You are not a survivor until rescued, and we all want to go home.

One of the biggest problems rescuers face is where to actually start looking – if somebody knows you’re missing at all!

If nobody knows you are missing, then nobody will look for you. Flight Plans (Cancellations, Update, Emergency Response Plans, and their dissemination to the correct authorities) are the key to maximizing your chances of being found.

For ground based operations in remote areas, key information for any pre-prepared rescue plan may include the following:

  • Number and ages of persons in group, plus contact numbers.
  • Emergency 24/7 contact number of Point of Contact (POC) not involved in physical operation.
  • Equipment carried by group.
  • Level of training in outdoors environment.
  • Start time, location, proposed route, and any deviations from that route. (Example: A group is white water rafting River X. On Day 3, we will trek to see the historic ruins at XX location before returning to the river the same day.) If it’s a simple flight plan from point A to B, but you divert to C (even though only a few miles due to weather), how often does the pilot update ATC?
  • End time and location. 
  • The group’s intended actions in event of emergencies.
  • Any communications strategies (e.g. communications schedule of calling a Point of Contact every 12 hours).
  • At what point does a rescue plan need to be commenced?

The final point can be very important. If all of your communications fail, and you have stated that we are in trouble somewhere at X time on X date, then a plan can be swiftly put into place. If you are late via natural reasons, and communicate this as soon as practicable, then it is no problem. However, if you are stuck with a casualty and no communications, you will at least know that in X amount of hours, somebody will start raising the alarm, and your casualty management plan can be adjusted accordingly.

Use the ATC ´flight following´ service; a simple radio request that requires a pilot to inform ATC every 15 minutes that you are ´operations normal´:

  1. Callsign. Use the full call sign until ATC shortens it.
  2. Type of aircraft. They need to know the performance ability of your aircraft.
  3. Altitude. If you are on their radar, this info will help them identify you.
  4. Location. This can be off an airport, VOR, fix or waypoint.
  5. Request. Request VFR/ IFR flight following service.

An example of a ´ops normal´ call is:

´ATC, this is Medic 1. Currently 2 miles southwest of Big Rock Mountain. Heading 120. Ops normal. 4 POB. 2 hours endurance. Over.´ 

Depending on your local ATC procedures, you will now have two options: fail to respond after 15 minutes and ATC will attempt to contact you or SAR services are notified (especially if you declare an emergency, because they know where you are).

One of the many reasons to file a flight plan is to facilitate people to start looking for you, in case of an emergency. Here in in Guatemala, from the city to a tourist resort in Lanquin, is an over-mountain/ ridgeline flight of approximately 35 minutes. This is submitted as a flight plan. If you get the time of day wrong, and you have to take the secondary route to avoid cloud base levels, it now takes you on a more North Westerly route. This increases the potential search area from a simple straight line search pattern to an area now approximately 7,200 square miles. So, where does SAR start to look?

It’s simple… Don’t be shy! Use ATC!


Disclaimer: This is purely my opinion on equipment based on my personal experience. Please refer to your company procedures, and, if in doubt, ASK!

Wherever you are, you will need to signal your location at some point. Whatever you choose, remember most search aircraft look for color contrast; what ´doesn’t look normal´ from the air. It is nearly impossible to see a human being from a search aircraft. The picture below shows a missing tourist (red circle) from approximately 100 feet in the air. They were only spotted by me, because of the sun reflecting off her inner arm.

There is a multitude of signaling options available. This section will look at some of the common and simplest types available, and more importantly, those that can easily be transported through Customs and Immigration.

This edition of ´Skids Up´ will introduce some of the various types of equipment, and its benefits / drawbacks. However, it is down to the individual to carefully select the equipment that works in their respective regions. 

Many items (e.g. flares) are not permitted through Customs and Immigration without special permits. Additionally, most flares can only be used once. Also, out of date flares need to be disposed of in accordance with local governmental authority regulations. For weight, durability and effectiveness, there are far more effective devices available. Personally, apart from smoke flares at sea, there are far better devices available.

Aircraft equipment

If you are not a member of the flight crew (Pilot, Aircrewman or Crew Chief), you should still learn how to use the radio in an emergency. You may not get a chance whilst in the air, but once landed/crashed (and the pilot is incapacitated), it may still work.

In ANY EMERGENCY, the priorities for the pilot are:


There are 2 types of emergency calls:

  1. ´PAN´- To declare a situation that is urgent, but for the time being, does not pose an immediate danger to anyone’s life or to the aircraft itself.
    1. Example ´PAN, PAN, PAN……(pause)…PAN. This is Medic 1, 5 miles southwest of Little Creek. Currently showing chip warning light on my starboard engine. Returning to XX Airport´.
  2. ´MAYDAY´- To declare a life threatening emergency.
    1. Example ´MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY….(pause)..MAYDAY. This is Medic 1, 2 miles southwest Little Creek, heading 210, 4 POB, ditching´.

The emergency frequency for all civilian aircraft is:

121.5 MHz

If you hear the term ´Guard´, this originates from the military equivalent channel which is 243.0 MHz.

IFF Transponder (´Squawk´)

Originally designed by the military as a non-radar way of detecting friendly forces (´IFF´- Identification – Friend or Foe´). Each aircraft is assigned an individual code by ATC (although there are specific codes for helicopters such as operating either SAR or ambulance tasks). This allows other aircraft to steer clear of you and maintain safety parameters. Unlike Radar/Radio Aid to Detection and Ranging, IFF is a simple encoded signal that is transmitted/received by any other aircraft with a modern avionics suite. It’s how (non-military) air traffic follow you. In the event of an emergency, the code is 7700.

Similar to the picture, this is displayed as an emergency in ATC. Military units that use active radar receive a different and more distinct ´eyebrow´ around the target.

The aircraft ELT (Emergency Locator) is similar, and is either operated by a switch in the cockpit, or in the event of a crash, is activated by impact forces:

Ask the aircrew/ALSE team about how they operate. At the end of the day, it may be only you in the wilderness staring at this equipment.

A lot of aircraft have different emergency options, so it is a case of spending approximately half an hour learning about how they operate.

We will now take a look at the basic location aids that you can carry. In Part 2, I will cover those that are applicable for overwater operations.


So often forgotten… There are many recorded instances of rescue teams walking past survivors who had lost their voices from shouting. Choose a whistle without a ´pea´ inside. It’s as simple as that.


As mentioned, the most important of all skills to possess is the ability to make fire. Normal cooking and survival fires do not produce enough smoke to be visible from long distances. By constructing a simple signal pyramid, you can convert a small fire into a signal fire that creates large plumes of smoke.

  • Place 3 sticks about chest height into the ground, and tie the top together to create a pyramid or ´teepee´.
  • Take smaller sticks and tie them horizontally approximately 8 inches from the ground to provide a ´shelf´.
  • Line the base of the shelf with spare dry kindling, dry twigs and anything else that will burn rapidly.
  • Above this layer, place green leaves and pine branches to create smoke.
  • On hearing or sighting a rescue team, lift up the structure and place it directly over your survival fire.
  • A more drastic/effective method is to set a fire to a lone spruce tree. However, be aware of forest fire risks!

Dependent on your backdrop, you may need to change the color of the smoke to be more effective. White is sufficient in most areas, however, in the desert or arctic regions, black smoke is preferred. This can be achieved by adding anything man made into the fire (e.g. rubber or plastic trash). White is natural. If you fly for 10 minutes, there are camp fires and forest fires in every direction. Each is subsequently investigated during a search pattern. However, investigation = TIME.

Cigarette lighter

This is a multi-purpose device! Even if it is empty, you can create a signal by only utilizing the spark. The spark cannot be seen by NVG´s over long distances, though (approximately 4 miles).

Wire Wool

By attaching to a cord and lighted, wire wool can be used effectively at night. If swung on the cord, it creates a short acting signal device. This is similar in duration of time to that of a small firework. However, the more wire wool used, the longer it lasts.

Heliographs or Mirrors

In the words of Tina Turner, ´simply the best! ´. Mirrors are one of the best signaling items of all. They can either be a purchased item, or you can utilize the inside of a survival tin lid that is highly polished. They have no moving parts, nothing that can break, and are visible for up to 24 km on a sunny day. They do require some practice, though, in order to use them effectively.

Strobe Lights

Highly effective at night, strobes are available in many different styles. They either operate manually with a switch, or they have an automatic function that operates the unit when in contact with water. Visible from approximately 5 km, some models have integrated batteries (with a shelf life of 5 years). Others take standard batteries. The battery types depend on how long the strobe light will operate. The strobe on the bottom of the pictures is a military type with an infrared filter for NVG ops. These confuse many non-military people. Without teaching you to ´suck eggs´, the filter is only there so that people with NVG’s can see you. Special Forces, downed aircrew or tactical units do not operate at their best whist illuminated by flashing lights! The filter shields the strobe flash to the naked eye. You do not necessarily need one of these types! Many are fitted with a Velcro backing to attach to your flight helmet, if in water. This will be covered in the next blog.

Rescue Laser 

A relatively new device, the rescue laser, when projected into the sky, gives an illumination area of approximately 6 miles. This can attract the attention of passing aircraft. Unlike other lasers, this does not affect the eyesight of the pilot and crew. These lasers are specifically designed NOT to blind the aircrew. Unless you want your rescue helicopter crashed right next to you, buy the correct and approved type.

 Cyalume / Chemical Light Sticks

A very cheap and highly effective method of signaling at night, light sticks can be used to mark individuals when walking at night. They can also be used for shelter illumination, path marking, and a multitude of other uses. With the addition of cord and swung over the head in a rapid fashion, they can be visible at night from approximately 2 miles (without NVG´s). These can be bought as a manufacturer purpose built device or made you.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB)

There are many different types of location devices available, such as PLB´s (personal locator beacons). Modern PLB´s can transmit an emergency satellite signal that is accurate to 1.5 meters. However, in developing countries, there is no way of local rescue services accessing this information. If this is your sole emergency communications plan, then your system will fail. I have no affinity with any of the companies whose products are pictured (Unless they want to send me a free one!). They are quite expensive, but highly accurate. If you operate in a region that SAR services can support it, get one!

Surplus PLB/ SARBE Beacons

These are available on the used market and often look like a very cost attractive option. HOWEVER, they operate on the old 121.5 MHz satellite monitoring system. This is not to be confused with the emergency distress channel. Approximately 6 years ago, the US Government turned off satellite monitoring on this frequency. Modern PLB´s use the more effective 406 MHz. Don’t waste your money!

These are some of the basic devices that you should carry at all times. As with everything, you can pay a lot of money for something that you may never use. If you don’t have it, though, you can’t use it. A simple start is to make sure the initial flight plans, updates and associated procedures are in use. After that, a few simple items will aid you in attracting attention.

In the next edition of ´Skids Up: Location´ , we will look at items specifically for use at sea or in open water. This is when you really want to be found quicker than normal, as the priorities of survival are much more difficult (but not impossible) to achieve.

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