I recently saw an information segment on a cable news channel about preparing to survive a disaster, man-made or natural. The expert assembled a backpack with such things as preserved food, drinking water, first aid items, signaling devices, etc. He specifically addressed people who live in urban areas and might be affected by an event like the 9/11 attacks. That got me to thinking back to my Air Force flying days where we packed survival gear and practiced emergency procedures.
Military aviators always have to prepare for leaving their jet under emergency conditions and surviving, on land or water, in jungles, desert or arctic conditions. In small aircraft like fighters, the equipment must be small and survivable under ejection conditions.
An ejection seat is also the ‘working seat’ for a fighter pilot. The pilot sits on top of a padded surface and a clam-shell container which contains an emergency kit with a variety of items including a one-man life raft. After ejection and separation from the seat, the pilot will be swinging underneath a parachute and is expected to reach down with his right hand and deploy the seat kit. That action opens the clamshell and deploys the life raft on a 25 foot lanyard. In training, we were always advised to deploy the seat kit regardless of conditions to minimize the potential for injury upon landing.
Under combat conditions, we also wore a vest underneath our parachute harness. In that vest were many pockets containing a variety of survival items. My flight commander Charlie Cox who had previous war experience had a personal survival kit which he assembled and carried in his G-suit pocket. We also carried a personal firearm (in my day, it was a .38 police special) as well as a hunting knife.
The most important survival item is a radio so a downed pilot can call for rescue. Forty years ago, we used ARC-64 personal survival radios. We carried two of these ‘bricks’ in our vest. There was also an emergency locator beacon in the seat kit which would activate a homing signal upon ejection. On more than one occasion, we actually spoke with pilots using their ARC-64 who had ejected over enemy territory while they were coming down under their parachute. Those conversations were generally terse because, in all likelihood, they would soon be captured.
Every six months, we would go through life support training and practice our ejection procedures as well as an inventory of our survival gear. This training served to keep the subject fresh and current because under emergency conditions, there isn’t time to think and recall. Mere tenths of a second can mean the difference between life and death when your sick jet is plummeting toward the ground at high speed.
Additionally, we would go through survival training periodically. I went through courses for SERE (survival, escape, resistance and evasion); water survival; jungle survival; and the altitude chamber. Generally, we had to update this training with a refresher course every three years while we remained on active flight status. I also did something a little unusual by attending the Army’s Basic Paratrooper Course at Fort Benning in the summer of 1968. With that training, I completed five parachute jumps.
Every June, our weather forecasters and emergency management professionals talk to us about the
beginning of the six-month Atlantic hurricane season and the importance of being prepared. One of their topics is the ability for each of us to operate without any basic services like electricity. In their own way, they’re talking about a survival inventory just like we had in the Air Force. We haven’t had a significant hurricane season since 2005, so it is easy to become complacent. Additionally, the population of Florida increases every year faster than the national average; millions of Floridians have never experienced a hurricane and are generally clueless about how to prepare and react.
Two decades ago, I was in a situation where I had a weekly commute of a hundred miles across California’s rugged Mojave Desert. I packed survival equipment in my trunk in the case I was ever stuck along those remote roads by an accident or breakdown. I never had to use it in two years of commuting, but I was ready if need be, or as learned in Boy Scouts, “be prepared.” We didn’t have cellular phones back then which is everyone’s first line of defense in an emergency, but don’t forget, many remote places are not covered with cell phone towers and service will likely be disrupted in an emergency. That’s what the people in New York and Washington found out in the aftermath of 9/11. What’s your backup?