A plane crash or forced landing in difficult terrain is one of the most dramatic of disaster scenarios. Since it could happen anywhere the individual cannot prepare for any specific situation.
Airline cabin staff are trained for such emergencies and you should follow their instructions. Aircrew will be trying to land the plane as safely as possible; there is nothing you can do, except to keep calm and support the crew in calming the other passengers.
To prepare for a crash landing, tighten the seat belt, link arms with people on either side, hold your chin firmly down on your chest, lean forwards over a cushion, folded blanket or coat, interlink legs with your neighbours if seating permits it and brace yourself for impact.
When the aircraft finally stops moving – AND NOT BEFORE – evacuate the aircraft as instructed in the pre-flight briefing. If a ground landing, then quickly get away from the immediate area of the plane, as there is danger of fire or explosion. Even if there is no fire, keep away until the engines have cooled and any spilled fuel evaporated.
If ditching into water, dinghies will be automatically inflated and anchored on the wings. Do not inflate your own lifejacket while you are in the aircraft. To do so would restrict your exit. Wait until you are in the water and then pull the toggle to inflate it and get into a life-raft. If the plane is sinking, release the life-raft from its anchorage as soon as passengers and equipment are stowed. As you leave the plane the more kit you can take with you the better. But do not stop to gather personal belongings and luggage. This is when you will be very glad you have a survival kit in your pocket.
NOTE: If bailing out from a plane by parachute in wild country make your way to the wreck if you can – the wreckage will be much more noticeable to rescuers than a single person or a parachute.
After the crash
However self-disciplined you are, the entry into this kind of survival situation will be traumatic, abrupt and confusing. You will be in a state of shock and may be on the verge of panic. If there is fire or the risk of fire or explosion keep at a distance until that danger seems to have passed, but no further away than seems necessary for safety. Do not allow anyone to smoke if fuel has been spilled.
You must not blunder off into unknown terrain, especially at night and need to maintain contact with other survivors. Move injured persons to a safe distance with you and try to account for all the people involved. The immediate treatment of the injured is a priority. Treat cases in order of severity of their injuries and with each individual deal first with breathing difficulties, then in sequence, with major bleeding, wounds, fractures and shock.
Separate the dead from the living if possible – the deaths are part of the frightening strangeness of the event and survivors will be easier to calm down.
Even with fire, all may not have been destroyed. Investigate the wreckage and salvage whatever you can of equipment, food, clothing and water. Take NO risks if there is still a chance that fuel tanks could ignite and beware of any noxious fumes from the wreckage which has been smouldering. If you have to wait for fire to burn out, take stock of the location in which you find yourself – which should in any case be the next step in your strategy.
Is it practical and safe to remain where you are? If your anticipated route is known, and with a flight it will be, some kind of search and rescue operation can be expected and there are considerable advantages in staying where you are. Searchers will already have some idea of your location and even if you have been forced off route they will have a record of your last reported position. The wreckage or grounded plane will be more noticeable from the air, especially in heavy wooded country where even a large group of people will be hidden by the trees.
If you find that you are in a very exposed or dangerous location then a move to a more protected position is necessary. However, do not move at night the threat to life outweighs the risks of trying to negotiate unknown terrain in the dark.
Leave an indication on the crash site of the direction in which you have moved off, so that it is possible for rescuers to know that there are survivors and to know in which direction to go on looking.
The usual reason for making an immediate move will be because you are in an exposed position on a mountain or hillside offering no protection from the elements, or at risk from rock falls or other dangers there. Move down, not up the slope, as conditions are likely to be less exposed on lower ground. Do not all go off looking for a safer location. Send out scouts to investigate the surrounding terrain carefully. They must keep together, working in pairs and not go off on individual explorations. They can maintain contact vocally and should mark their routes as they proceed so that they can easily retrace their steps.
The first requirement will probably be some immediate shelter from the elements, especially for the injured. A more extended reconnaissance can follow to choose a proper campsite. Make the most of any natural shelter and augment it by using whatever materials are at hand. If injuries are too severe for a person to be moved, some kind of shelter must be provided for them on the spot. On bare ground, if there is no equipment or wreckage which can be utilised, then the only thing to do is dig down.
If possible find a natural hollow and burrow deeper, using the excavated earth to build up the sides. This will at least get a casualty out of the wind. Get a fire going to provide warmth (it will also help raise morale) and use reflectors to maximise the heating effect, enabling you to conserve fuel. If the circumstances make movement away unnecessary or impossible, follow similar procedures. Build up rocks, wreckage or equipment to form a wind break if no natural shelter is available. If in a group huddle together, it will reduce the loss of body heat. Survival time for badly injured persons in these circumstances is limited and you must hope for an early rescue.
Fit people must go off in search of water, fuel, shelter materials and food – but always in at least pairs. Lay out as many signals as possible to attract attention. Remember that shelter may be as necessary from sun as it is from wind and cold. Exposure is not only a matter of hypothermia.
If you have a radio you can signal for help but do not go back on board a damaged and still potentially explosive aircraft to do so. Wait until you are sure it is quite safe. The rescue party will want to know your location. Those who have been traveling overland should have a pretty good idea of their position, even if temporarily lost, and with a map should be able to give a more accurate fix. If you are the victim of disaster at sea or in the air, however, it will help considerably if you know what your planned course was and have some idea of your position when disaster struck, as well as of wind or current directions.
As often as not you must light fires – three fires are an internationally recognised distress signal. Make them as large as possible. Lay ground signals to attract attention, use pyrotechnics when you know help is within range and even make a noise when help is very near. This is when you are glad that the responsible authorities were told of your intentions and that you kept precisely to your route. It is only a matter of time before rescue comes. Meanwhile make yourself as comfortable as possible.
However, even the most careful plans may go astray. Navigational instruments could fail, storms, high winds or fog could throw you off course and there you are, safe in your shelter but no one knowing where. You could have a longer wait than you anticipate and you need to provide for it. You also need to assess where you are on a more local scale, to study the terrain for anything it can tell you, not only to pin-point your position, if that is possible, but to see if there are safer and more comfortable locations to pitch camp, sources for fuel, food and water. In the long term you will also be assessing the possibility of making your own way across the land.
At sea you will be looking out for any indications that, rather than staying put, there is land close enough for your survival chances to be greater if you try to reach it rather than holding your present position. But you are at the mercy of wind and current, though you can delay your drift with a sea anchor.
On land it is seldom most sensible to set out immediately to walk to safety, rather than wait for rescue. However, if you know that no one will be aware that you are missing, if the terrain is so barren that it provides no food, water or shelter,or if you feel convinced that your reserves of energy and rations are sufficient to see you back to civilisation, or to a location where you are sure you will be able to live off the land, you may decide to set off as soon as the light is good enough or conditions are otherwise right.