Adventure Flying Guide – What if it all goes wrong?

Adventure Flying Guide – What if it all goes wrong?

If you plan and prepare well, then your flying adventure should go off without a hitch. There are, however, no guarantees in life and even the best laid plans can go awry. What do you do if you encounter a problem, or end up in a situation, which is beyond your ability to resolve?

The notes below are based on my own experience which is, of course, not exhaustive. None of the advice is in any way guaranteed; if you follow a suggested course of action and end up in a foreign jail, I accept no responsibility! The advice is also not meant to be comprehensive, but more to provide a starting point for you to think about what you’d do in your own specific situation.

The most important thing to remember in any of the following situations is “stay calm, and don’t do anything rushed or hasty”. There is no situation you can get into that doesn’t first allow time for a few seconds, minutes, or hours thought (depending on exactly what’s going on).

In flight emergency

By this, I’m referring to an emergency which does not necessarily require an immediate forced landing or ditching (those are discussed in more detail below). On your home territory, the typical reaction to such an in-flight emergency might be “land as soon as possible and figure it out”. However, when flying in more remote regions there are other considerations that come into play.

On a flying adventure in more challenging and restricted locations, there are often compelling arguments for continuing to your destination or a pre-chosen alternate, rather than the closest airport. Your decision will depend on the nature of the emergency. You’ll need to consider if you can safely keep flying, and for how long, what your permit restrictions are (and the consequences of breaking them), likely availability of maintenance support, the security situation in the region below you, and so on. Obviously safety of flight comes above all else; but try and avoid any “out of the frying pan and into the fire” kind of situation.

The aftermath of an in-flight emergency!

When crossing Sudan, our alternator failed about an hour out of Geneina. It was still another 5 hours to Khartoum, and there were a couple of small airports along the way. However, the western regions of the Sudan are renowned for being dangerous and stopping without having any local contact or secure accommodation would be unwise. We were also unlikely to find any mechanics there with the knowledge or parts to work on our Cessna. We instead elected to shed as much load as possible, switch from the electrical ECU to the mechanical back-up, and continue. To mitigate against the risk of showing up non-radio at Khartoum International and surprising everyone, we used 121.5 to pass a message through an airliner to Khartoum, and let them know the situation.

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Forced landing (on land)

The safety section of this guide covers a lot of information about this, and I won’t repeat it here. In the event of having to make a forced landing, there are a few items which are high on my priority list.

I am not an expert on this, and the following is the result of my studying the advice of people who are. You should be familiar with the specific checklist items for your specific aircraft, and have them close at hand for reference. The following are some general pointers that might not be covered in the checklist.

  1. Fly the airplane, and deal with the immediate emergency. Conduct your drills in accordance with your aircraft’s procedures.
  2. Communicate; if you’re going down in an area without radio contact with ATC, you still have options. Trigger your 406MHz ELT, and if possible hit the “SOS” function on the Garmin InReach. If you’re flying with another person, you can brief them before flight on these items, and direct them to carry them out. Issue a Mayday call on 121.5.
  3. Survive the landing. Conduct the forced landing in accordance with your aircraft’s procedures.
  4. Make yourselves safe; for example, if the aircraft is leaking fuel, get away from it in case of fire.
  5. Activate your Personal Locator Beacon. I always have mine on my person in flight.
  6. Treat any immediate injuries (if critical, you may want to do this before point 5 above, but activating a PLB takes seconds and the sooner help is on the way, the better).
  7. If you’ve activated an InReach or similar messenger, you can use it to communicate with rescuers. After activating the “SOS” function they will contact you through the device.
  8. Stay as close to the aircraft as possible, and make yourself safe/secure as best you can. With modern aids such as PLB, ELTs, and InReach, rescue is not likely to take long, and in many parts of the world somebody may have seen you come down.

My philosophy in a forced landing is to be equipped to try and ensure a swift rescue, and avoid a prolonged survival situation. With adequate equipment and the communications options we’re lucky enough to have these days, this should be practical.

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If you’re flying over large expanses of water, ditching is something which is likely to be close to the front of your mind. All pilots who’ve flown out of gliding range of land know how the engine seems to automatically start running rough as soon as you’re out over the water. Ditchings are surprisingly survivable, but some prior preparation in terms of appropriate equipment and thinking through what you’d do, are essential. If you can, I very strongly recommend taking a ditching course such as the one I took before the flight around the world.

By far the best resource I’ve found on the subject of ditching light aircraft is on the website of Doug Ritter at “Equipped to Survive“. This website includes an analysis of ditching statistics, the most successful techniques, multiple accounts of real-world ditching, tests and discussion of equipment and training, and more.

Most light aircraft do not have a specific ditching checklist. You don’t want to be making things up as you go along however, so if you plan a flight where ditching is a possibility in the event of an emergency, it’s worth creating a ditching checklist in advance. The checklist I created for the C182, after attending the ditching survival course, is as follows. It assumes that the failure occurs at cruise altitude; if you’re low and time is short, then I’d skip a number of these items and concentrate on a survivable touch-down and egress.

  • Pitch for minimum sink rate (if engine has failed)
  • Activate ELT/InReach SOS
  • Transmit Mayday on 121.5
  • Secure InReach on person
  • Open cabin door(s)
  • Jettison or secure all non-essential loose items
  • Wedge cabin door(s) open
  • Tighten seat belt and life vest
  • Approach: HIGH WINDS into wind, LOW WIND parallel to swell.
  • When close to water: flaps full
  • Speed: just above stall
  • Land on top or back of swell
  • Brace for impact; feet off rudder pedals, thumbs off of yoke
  • Exit aircraft once violent movement stops
  • Take life raft and ditching bag
  • Inflate life vest once clear of aircraft

If you’ve followed the advice in the “safety” section, then everything you need to survive for a few days and be rescued should be secured on your person. The life raft and ditching bag are “nice to haves”, with the life raft being particularly important!

I picked up a number of tips from the training that struck me as particularly useful, or were things which I had not thought of.

  • Ditching is likely to be very disorienting, and the aircraft may come to rest in a strange attitude, with water and debris in the cockpit. Learn to find the exit to your cockpit by feel only; pick an easy to identify point (such as the sides of the seat cushion), and then practice the movements your hands need to make to find and open the door, and pull you out. Repeat until you know you can do it, no matter what orientation the cabin is in, and without using your eyes.
  • Once in the water, stay together with any other aircraft occupants as a matter of urgency. Next highest priority is keeping hold of the raft, and getting it deployed.
  • Take a sea-sickness pill at the earliest opportunity, and stay dosed up, even if you’ve never suffered from sea-sickness. Being in a raft can make even the most experienced seaman sick, and dehydration is the last thing you need.
  • Know in advance how to use all your survival equipment and signalling devices.

Between your onboard satellite tracking going off-line (it’s good to always have people watching it for you, back at home), the InReach SOS, your PLB, and any Mayday you managed on the way down, people should very quickly know what’s happened and get the wheels in motion for rescue.

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In all my flying adventures, I’ve been lucky to only encounter corrupt officials that I couldn’t talk my way around a handful of times. There are a number of strategies for minimising the likelihood of corruption causing you problems on your trips.

Obtain quotes for everything in advance wherever possible, and in writing. Try to make sure that you’ve clearly agreed, in writing again, that these are all the charges and no others will apply! On a number of occasions (such as Turkey) I have been presented with a much higher invoice than originally quoted, and have been able to show my correspondence and successfully argue it back down to what it should be.

Ask for evidence, showing where the relevant charges are mandated. In Laos, the Air Traffic Controllers presented us an invoice of $550 – $50 for ATC services, and $500 for “overtime” (arrival on a Sunday). This was a bit of a surprise, so I showed them the ATC fee listed in the Laos AIP ($50, no overtime mentioned), and they agreed to decrease it to $300. A quick email to the HQ of the Laos Civil Aviation Authority produced a reply confirming that no overtime fee applied, and showing this to the staff at the airport led to the magical disappearance of all overtime charges!

Having small non-monetary gifts available for people often helps deflect any demands for large payments. Packets of biscuits, fridge magnets, and the like from your home country are often effective.

It’s not always possible to avoid corruption, unfortunately. In Port Harcourt, the immigration officers refused to return our passports until they received “a gift”, but we did manage to talk them down from $90 to $6. In Laos (again!) the immigration officers refused to let us into the country without payment of a significant fee, for which strangely no receipt was available. At some point you need to know when to admit defeat.

Often, “playing dumb” can work in your favour. If asked for a “gift”, play along and ask if they have a gift for you too. If it seems like you’re not really understanding what they want, they’ll often give up rather than come out and directly make it clear that they’re looking for a bribe! You can also try having some small gifts from your home country; key rings or magnets for example, to be given when a “gift” is solicited.

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Hopefully you’re not going to do anything on your adventure that would lead to this scenario. Strange things can happen though, and sometimes things happen that you just can’t predict; such as our temporary detention on suspicion of drug smuggling in The Gambia!

Baby Anne and the suspicious package of sand that caused issues in The Gambia

The best way to avoid detention or arrest is, of course, not to do anything wrong. This is not always as easy as you might think, because other countries have different, unfamiliar, and often strange-seeming rules and restrictions. Many countries do not permit photography in and around their airports, and some do not even allow aerial photography at all; if in doubt, ask someone before taking pictures (and always ask before taking pictures that have police or military in them). If you have externally or internally mounted cameras, have them removed before arrival or departure in a country unless you know for sure that they’re permitted. In Tunisia, we were not permitted to take our handheld radio land-side, it had to stay in the airplane. GPS devices (such as the InReach) and drones are other items that are often not permitted. If in doubt, ask.

However, as seen in the Gambia, simply not doing anything wrong is not fool-proof! You also need to be careful not to do anything that can be easily mistaken as doing something wrong. Try not to have anything questionable (such as medication) hidden away in the airplane; always have it out in the open and easy to see, at least until any arrival checks are complete, and you want to hide it away again for security. In Senegal our large supply of anti-malarials caused some consternation for a while before we managed to clarify what all these pills were for.

Biosecurity rules, PPR rules, prescriptions for medication, all aircraft documents up to date, country entry requirements checked, opening hours, cash declarations.

What to do if it happens.

If you do end up in a situation where you’re being detained, the absolute most important thing to do is remain calm and polite. You’re unlikely to be in a position where getting loud or angry will do anything but make thing worse.

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There are two main way that crime can impact on your trip; those are crime affecting you directly, and crime affecting the aircraft.

Crime affecting you directly

There are a number of things you can do to keep the aircraft safe. The first is all about where you keep it, and this is heavily dependent on your choice of airport. Most airports have pretty good fencing and security in the first place, especially outside of North America. At smaller airports, in less developed places, it is often possible to pay a nominal fee to have someone keep an eye on the aircraft overnight; these services generally make themselves known when you arrive, as they’re keen to make some money.

Working door/canopy locks, combined with an aircraft cover (and, even better, internal sunshades that can’t be tampered with from outside like a cover can) will discourage any theft, as will leaving anything valuable-looking out of sight, or taking it with you. If you’re parking up for a while, or somewhere you feel particularly threatened, then you can take a 1/32nd Allen Wrench with you and remove high value avionics such as GPS; these slide out and in very quickly and easily.

To protect the aircraft itself, you can use prop and throttle locks. Throttle locks can typically be bought, designed specifically for your aircraft; a prop lock can easily be fashioned from a heavy duty bicycle chain (with soft cover!), and a good padlock.

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Illness or injury

Add link to medical preparation section below.

Earlier in the guide we discussed medical and fitness preparation, and hopefully by following those you’ll be able to avoid any significant illness. However, illness and injury are always possible and it’s important to be prepared. Day to day illness or injury such as a cold are not a cause for concern, but what if something more serious occurs?

You should ensure before you set off that you have medical insurance that will cover you for all territories you’re passing through, and ideally that doesn’t exclude travel in light aircraft. Keep the contact details for your insurers on your person, somewhere they can easily be found if you’re not conscious. If something does happen, let the insurers know as soon as possible, and also alert any family or friends who might be able to provide support, advice, or just check in with you now and then.

If you need to seek medical attention, it’s wise to have an idea in advance of where the closest quality medical care might be available, such as an international hospital. Your insurers should be able to help with locating medical care, and other places to seek help and information in pinch include your country’ embassy, the embassy of any nation with close relations to yours, multinational companies that operate in the area, and hotel staff.

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Loss of passport

To minimise the chance of this, look after your passport well! There are varying schools of thought on this; leave it in the hotel safe, or have it in your pocket at all times. What you decide to do will probably depend on where you are; in the UK, the hotel safe is probably a good bet. In less stable areas, such as West Darfur, I prefer to carry it on me in case of the need to make a run to the airport and get out fast.

In case of loss, keep scans of your passport on your mobile devices and in an online storage such as Dropbox. This can help for talking your way through some situations where a passport would normally be needed. Contact your nearest embassy to find out about getting emergency travel documentation, but there’s a good chance this will only be good for returning to your home country, not continuing a trip.

Some countries allow you to hold two passports; for example, the UK will issue you a second one if you can demonstrate need. Your second passport could be kept with a trusted contact, to be couriered to you in case of need.

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Political unrest

To be completed.

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Extreme weather event

The beauty of a flying trip is that you can generally outrun the weather. The best way to avoid getting caught up in such an event is to keep an eye on the news and weather reports; an extreme event such as a hurricane or tropical storm rarely sneaks up on a location by surprise.

To be completed.

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Global pandemic

Unfortunately for me, I have first hand experience of this one.

To be completed.

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