Helicopters rescue many people, maybe more today than through any other mode of transportation. If you become lost or stranded in a wilderness area, there are things you can do to aid a helicopter in your rescue.
From the air, it’s hard to spot one person among trees and rugged terrain features. So, as soon as you have set up any survival camp, expand your visibility. Scatter colorful clothing around the area, secured with rocks or sticks. Emergency blankets, with their reflective surfaces, keep you warm at night. During the day, lay them in the sunlight out in open areas. Be sure to secure them; the slightest breeze and they blow away. If you’re involved in a plane crash, scatter the pieces of the aircraft around in open areas, especially shiny bits. Do not abandon a crashed plane or stalled automobile. Planes and cars are easier to spot than people.
Pilots are trained to look for movement. Waving your arms is good. Waving a white or brightly colored tee shirt over your head is better. Waving a tee shirt on the end of a long stick is better still. A reflective emergency blanket waved like a flag on a long stick can be seen for miles.
At night, the flash of a camera can be seen for miles too. If you have a flashlight, point it directly at the helicopter and either blink it by turning the light on and off or move it back and forth. When the helicopter gets close, shine lights on each other or the area around you. Do not shine lights into the pilot’s eyes; it blinds the pilot.
Excitement will make you want to chase an aircraft. Don’t do that, because people tend to look up into the sky for the aircraft as they run. You could trip and injure yourself. If you must to hurry to a clearing, control yourself and look where you are going, and then, once you've arrived, look up at or for the bird but only after you have arrived.
A helicopter can land almost anywhere, and it helps the pilot and saves time if you find a suitable landing zone before it arrives. The largest helicopter used in rescue operations is a Chinook. You won’t know what type of helicopter will come, so, if you can, prepare for the biggest. A Chinook’s landing gear is 11 feet wide and 22 feet long, and the rotor system is 60 feet wide and 99 feet long. Therefore, a clearing of at least half the size of a football field is necessary. A helicopter can descend from a hover into a tight spot, but it is better to find an area without tall obstructions where the bird can fly in and out on a normal landing flight path. If you are among tall trees, then just find the largest clearing possible. If there is no clearing large enough for any helicopter to land, find some sort of clearing for winching operations.
A helicopter can land on gentle sloping ground, but it can’t land on terrain that is too steep. Try to find ground as level as possible. Tall grass, weeds, or flowers do not pose a problem, but do stomp around and make double sure there are no hidden hazards. Search the area for rocks, stumps, fallen logs, ridged bushes, and all such obstacles.
Mark the center of the spot of your proposed landing zone with a colorful panel. A red tee-shirt works, and so does the colorful underside of a rain poncho. Be sure to stake down your panel and or secure it with plenty of rocks. The downwash will blow loose materials around, and anything flying around might get sucked into the engine intake (Also, have everyone take off their hats and secure loose clothing, scarves, handkerchiefs, etc, for the same reason).
The most important thing you can do for an arriving helicopter pilot is to show the wind direction or absence of wind. Helicopters, like all aircraft, need to land and take off into the wind. Try not to indicate the wind direction with arrows on the ground unless you have no other choice. Wind, especially in the mountains, often changes direction suddenly, and you could confuse the pilot into attempting a downwind landing by mistake. I've seen Army helicopter pilots try to make a downwind landing high up the mountain on the Big Island, Hawaii. I saw this twice, actually, but the second time I was riding in the bird. That was a fun day--thanks, Captain Hill.
Smoke is the best indicator, showing both direction and wind speed, but keep all fires at least 100 yards from the landing zone. Wispy clothe on a flagstaff or tall stick stuck in the ground works; three or four strips of flagging (surveyor’s tape) tied to a branch works, as long as it is visible and unobstructed. If nothing else is available, toss dust or flour in the air or hold some flagging in your hand or tied to a stick above your head. Don’t wave it around but let the wind blow it. If there is no wind, just stand still so the pilot can see.
Give the bird a wide berth and work your way around to level ground. (Never walk behind the helicopter near the tail rotor. Those are whirling blades of death.) Always make eye contact with the pilot before approaching a live helicopter. His hands are busy flying the bird, so he will let you know he is ready for you to load with a nod of his head. If a rescue member is on board, wait for him to come get you. If the pilot is alone, send one person to open the door and to help others climb up into the bird. Have a second person waiting with the group send members of your party to the helicopter one at a time. Once loaded and everyone is belted in his seat, shut and secure the door and then tap the pilot on the shoulder or give him a thumb up that you are ready to go.
(Don’t engage the pilot with a lot of useless chatter while he is hovering or taking off. Thank him when you reach your destination. Don’t grab him in your joy or slap his shoulder. Give him a tap when everyone and everything is ready to go for takeoff, and leave it at that.)
Usually, a pilot will send down a rescue member to help you during winch operations. It is possible, in extreme circumstances, for the pilot to lower some kind of device for you to load yourself, like a basket or rescue collar, without a rescue person. Take your time, and keep your head. Make sure you are securely in the basket, collar, or harness before signaling the pilot to winch you up by circling one finger in the air like cowboy swinging a lasso rope. Go online and search for pictures and video of winch operations to get a good idea how these things work. You won’t become an expert, but a bit of knowledge may save your life.
Do not touch the cable before it touches the ground unless you have no other choice. The cable needs to discharge the built-up static electricity. Also, it is safer to handle the basket or harness after it has landed rather than grabbing at it as it swings wildly around. If you must touch the cable before it touches the ground, try to grab it in a quick solid motion. This will let the charge flow through you without a nasty shock. If it does shock you, grit your teeth and carry on.
If the helicopter is a Chinook, do not touch the cable before it touches the ground. A Chinook creates a tremendous amount of static electricity, and it will knock you out. Again, don’t grab the cable before it touches the ground.
A radio can help you to guide your rescue helicopter to your location, if you are so equipped. You can also give the pilot more information than you can with hand signals. When you see the helicopter or search plane, guide the pilot to your location. Don’t use the clock method for location, you know, like in the movies when they say, I’m at your six o’clock. Use right, left, front, and rear, like in the following example:
“I am at your right rear.” Release the mike for a possible response. Watch the plane turn, and then say, “I am now at your right,” release the mike. “I am now at you’re right front,” release. “I am now at your front one mile. I’m beside a grove of Aspen trees, waving a silver emergency blanket,” release the mike.
Tell the pilot of your selected landing zone and how it is marked, any possible hazards like power lines or extra tall trees, and the location and type of wind indicator. Tell the pilot the number in your party, their condition, and any medical emergencies. He can, if necessary, rebroadcast this information at altitude in case he looses radio contact closer to the ground.
Most people are rescued within a few days. Nonetheless, prepare your mind for a longer stay, so you won’t be disappointed if rescue doesn’t come right away. From the moment you become stranded or realize you are lost, fix in your mind that you will survive. Faith is your greatest asset. No matter how dark the night, decide in your heart you will survive to see the morning sun.