Skids Up No. 8: Location (Part 2)


This second part concentrates on the equipment that may be necessary when we add open areas of WATER to the survival equation. Each of the Priorities of Survival (Protection, Location, Water and Food) still need to be addressed by the crew member, but now it is in a ´hostile environment´. All of the subjects covered so far in ´Skids up´ still apply, but with some slight modifications. For example:

  • If you haven’t received underwater egress training, you have only a 66% percent of escaping the crash in the first place (as opposed to 91.5% after training).
  • If you don’t ´Dress to Egress´ and aren’t wearing a lifejacket, you will drown. If you aren’t wearing an immersion suit, water below 15 degrees Centigrade (59 Degrees Fahrenheit) will cause hypothermia, and you will still drown.

Don’t fly near the sea? Don’t do the FAA definition of ´overwater flights´?


This picture is here in Guatemala over Lake Atitlan. If we had an aircraft emergency…

  • Where is the safest and flattest place we can land?
  • Which surface gives us the best chance of survival?

Even though this is not technically an overwater flight, water is our only real option of a safe landing. After the initial escape from an aircraft ditching, we immediately need to focus on the following:

  1. Airway Management
  2. Thermal Management
  3. First Aid (Stop bleeding and prevent marine predators coming for a free dinner.)
  4. Group Management

If we are correctly ´Dressed to Egress´, we can eliminate everything except emergency first aid (which we can still achieve). The equipment we wear aids in LOCATION.


Again, my disclaimer: This is purely my opinion on equipment based on my personal experience. Please refer to your company procedures, and if in doubt, ASK! I have included links to some of the gear. (I have no professional affiliation – It’s just where I bought my gear.)

There is a multitude of signaling options available. As before, we will look at some of the most common and simplest types available; and more importantly, those that can be easily 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 comes down to the individual to carefully select the equipment that works best in their respective regions. Many items (e.g. flares) are not permitted through Customs and Immigration without special permits. Also, most flares can only be used once. 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.

As discussed in Part 1 of Location, wherever you are, you will need to signal your location. This is even moreso when you are floating in the water. Whatever you choose, remember most search aircraft look for color contrast; what ´doesn’t look normal´ from the air. In my personal experience, the ´International Survival Color ORANGE´ should be banned on land and replaced with blue. Nothing in nature is blue. At sea, it is obviously a better color! The phrase ´needle in a haystack‘ REALLY applies when looking for persons in water. Think ´a small coconut in a very big swimming pool´. If deceased, bodies look like black trash bags and are very difficult to see. FLIR is only effective if your body is still generating heat.


 Immersion Suits

As part of the ´Dressed to Egress´ section, immersion suits not only increase your in-water survival time up to a potential 19 hours (with correct thermal protection underneath), their natural buoyancy forces a more supine position in the water. This increases the surface area of your body above water.


Usually available in orange, they come in a multitude of colors (e.g. orange and yellow, black/ dark blue, or khaki to allow tactical/ military capabilities). I have the Mustang Constant wear suit. These have separate high visibility hoods and inflatable mittens in the pockets.



The aim of a lifejacket is simply to keep your airway clear of the water , even if unconscious. This is contrary to the ´Personal Flotation Device (PFD)´ style that kayakers’ wear. Lifejackets are fitted with water operated lights/ strobes, and as with an immersion suit, not only save your life, they increase your visible surface area above the water.


Lifejackets are usually similar to those that you see on commercial airlines, or they can be a ´constant wear´ aviation specific type. Constant wear styles are designed to decrease stress on your neck, and they prevent your helmet from causing damage via the constant rubbing. I currently use the ALPS collar from P1 Air Rescue. It is not noticeable at all (compared to my life of older military styles) , because the rear section is located out of the way of my helmet.

With minimal pool training, a group of persons in the water can create a ´carpet´. This provides both Thermal and Group Management, and it greatly increases your visibility!


As covered in ´Skids Up´ Part 7, all of the location equipment carried for land survival can also be used at sea. Some are repeated in this blog, but I recommend that you read all the editions!


All of my signaling gear is carried in the same pouch externally on my vest, so that I can access them with either hand. Inside are two simple green cloth pouches that are there to stop everything from getting tangled.


If you haven’t learned already, now is the time to make sure that everything in your survival vest is ATTACHED TO YOU. If you drop it in the water, well…



Sound travels very far on open water. That’s why they have ´fog horns´ on ships and dangerous rocks. Choose a whistle without a ´pea´ inside.

Heliographs or Mirrors


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


Strobe Lights


Highly effective at sea, especially at night, strobe lights offer various options including the models that are automatically activated by water. If you keep your flight helmet on (Thermal protection?), they can be attached by a simple Velcro patch to the visor cover / top of helmet or the hood of a survival suit. This assures that they are always visible above water.


´See Streamer´


This is one of my newer additions to my kit. Available on Amazon for approximately $80 USD, and available in two models (20 or 40 feet long), see streamers are designed to free float on the surface. They have reflective tape plus cyalumes attached. It is in our company’s policy to replace any used see streamers free of charge, if they are used in a rescue.

Sea Marker Dye


Not to be confused with shark repellent (which can be packaged very similar) and not really popular in current times. Extensively issued during the 1970s to aircrew, sea marker dye is essentially a bag of colored dye that you release into the water. With strong currents, it dissipates quickly. As is the case with everything in survival, use it at the RIGHT TIME.


Rescue Laser


A relatively new device, rescue lasers projected into the sky give an illumination area of approximately 6 miles that 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, so unless you want your rescue helicopter crew sat next to you after crashing 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, as illumination for shelters, for marking paths, and a multitude of other uses. With the addition of a length 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)

As mentioned in Part 1 – simply GET ONE!!!


Surplus PLB/ SARBE beacons

Surplus beacons are available on eBay, and often look like a very cost attractive option. HOWEVER, these 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 of this frequency. Modern PLB´s use the more effective 406 MHz. Don’t waste your money.



There are essentially two types of pyrotechnics: the ´Rocket or rocket/ parachute combination ´, or the ´Day/ Night´ flare. As I have mentioned before, these are not my personal favorite. They can be effective, if not used too early, but they have major safety implications. Many are very difficult to open when you lose fine motor skills due to hypothermia, and at night, if you get it wrong, you will drip molten magnesium on your survival gear/ life raft. If you are not rescued at that point, you may be in for a far worse day than you have already! They should be a personal choice.

 Life Rafts


You probably won’t have one of these! The FAA now requires a life raft on-board for overwater flights over 50 miles for Parts 121, 125 and 135 aircraft and for Part 91.501 over 100 miles overwater. Life rafts come in many different styles. The difference between 50 miles at sea and Lake Superior, for example? It’s you in the water and not the rule book.

Yes, life rafts are expensive, but they A.) Get you out of the water, B.) Provide additional location and safety, and C.) Contain extra survival aids. Some even have their own emergency beacon. They can be rented, if budget is an issue. You can either be faced with a 4 hour float in the water at night (which from personal experience is depressing, to say the least), or you can be relatively comfortable while waiting for rescue. I know which one I would choose!

To put this into a real world context.:

On 17 November 2012, Jose Salvador Alvarenga from El Salvador set off on a professional fishing trip with his co-worker. A few hours into their voyage, a storm which lasted for 5 days blew them off course. They tried the radio to summon help, but then this and much of the rest of the boat’s electronics began to fail.

A search party was sent, but after two days of looking and to no avail, the search ended and assumed they had drowned at sea. Alone and without food or supplies, the two fishermen survived off of eating raw fish, turtles and rainwater. Weeks turned to months, and Alvarenga´s co-worker became severely unwell from eating months of raw food and died.

Alvarenga then endured another nine months alone at sea, until he eventually spotted a small island. Abandoning his boat and swimming to shore, he almost immediately met a local couple who alerted authorities. He had reached the Marshall Islands.

His journey lasted 438 days, and his voyage is estimated to have covered between 5,500 to 6,700 miles. He is the first person recorded in history to have survived in a small boat lost at sea for more than a year

Everything we carry is only a ´Aid to survival´, combined with an individual’s ´Will to survive´…

In the next Blog, bizarrely enough – we look at water! In a nice way!!

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