Xplorer Ultraflight
Performance Paramotors
for powered paragliding

Survival and Flying Emergencies

Written by Keith Pickersgill, 25 June 2007

Following the recent tragedy of losing Niel Calitz during our recent PPG expedition in the Woody Cape area, those of us involved with the 12 day search had a lot of time to think about various scenarios one might find yourself in.

During the entire 12 day search duration we were convinced that Niel was alive but probably injured, and either lost in the dense forest and bush, or unable to move to a clearing.

We had many brainstorming sessions during this time. I believe the info gathered could be of great assistance to other pilots.

Though some of the ideas that came from this brain-storming might not have helped Niel specifically, the next person might well be able to make use of these ideas.

Unfortunately rescue could take many days in some cases, especially if the rescuers need to search for you. You need to be able to survive during the "search" part of a Search and Rescue operation.

These proposals could save your life. Some of these will cost you nothing, some of these will cost very little (a few Rands). Some other ideas may well cost a lot more, but are still worthy of consideration. You can decide for yourself.

To start off with, I propose a small pack of in-expensive, compact and lightweight items that should accompany every PG/HG/PPG/ML pilot on every flight, but especially on cross-country and expedition flights (multi-day aerial tours).

Thereafter, we can look at some more sophisticated technologies, some of which may require more investigation and further research.

    Basic Survival Pack:

  1. A whistle attached by a bungie (stretchie) to your flightsuit (not your harness, in case you ditch the harness). A cheap sports whistle costs almost nothing, weighs almost nothing and will not hamper you in any way, but could be used to attract attention without the need of shouting until your voice is so hoarse you can no longer call for help.

  2. A cheap disposable cigarette Lighter, in a plastic or cardboard sleeve to protect the igniter-switch and gas-valve from accidentally activating. Normal matches are too dangerous with paramotor vibrations and are prone to getting soaked in rain/dew. With a lighter, you can start a fire and feed it with green grass/leaves to make a pall of black smoke, easily seen from afar during daylight hours.

    Note: PPG pilots should carry a small container of 2-stroke oil for emergency refuels (small baby's bottle is pre-calibrated in 25ml increments, is tough and just the right size). Tear off a piece of clothing, soak one end in the oil, the other end in fuel from your tank, crumple the cloth and set it alight. Feed the fire with leaves dipped into the oil for maximum smoke. A commercial smoke cannister delivers only a few seconds of smoke, is expensive, bulky and heavy, whereas a lighter can supply you with many hours or even days of visible smoke.

  3. A few solid-fuel blocks such as Esprit, can be used as fire-lighters, also for heating /cooking if required.

  4. A small tactical torch (mini-mag or similar), or a compact headlamp, preferably the LED kind that is light on batteries, plus a spare set of batteries. At night, smoke will not help you, and a large bonfire might endanger your own life, whereas flashing a torch can attract attention. Some LED headlamps have an auto-flashing mode. The torch can also help you find your way through thick bush in the dark if you are capable of moving.

    The comfort of having light and fire will be invaluable at night with wildlife about.

  5. A Space Blanket is light, compact and cheap and can save your life against exposure at night, as well as shelter you from cold wind and rain. Also good for sun protection during the day. Also makes a great reflector, easily visible from afar. It is also an excellent gatherer of dew and rain for drinking water.

  6. A roll of Dental Floss. If hanging in a tree, tie the end to your carabiner, lower the roll down to the ground to pull up a rope that rescuers bring. Also used for temporary line/cloth repairs, tying of space- blanket into place, etc

    Note: Another tip if you are hanging in a tree: Deploy your emergency parachute carefully so that it falls straight down towards the ground. This gives you several meters of line/fabric to climb down and will reduce the risk of getting injured if you try to drop to far to the forest floor.

  7. Spare radio battery. No need to buy the brand-original, there are plenty of after-market suppliers with less expensive batteries. Approx R200 is not much and having a spare battery can save your life if you have an injury and need to be found fast!

  8. Consider also a spare cellphone battery, even if the cheap R50 variety. This naturally implies you should take your cellphone with you on every single flight. Also remember that if your phone is switched on, certain SAR authorities can request the network to provide location details to pinpoint you within approx 400 meters, even if you are not able to make any calls (injured or worse).

  9. Pack some very basic First Aid kit. A single roll of bandage can be used to support sprains, wrap a splint to stabilise a fracture, and/or apply pressure over an open wound to stop bleeding. All that from a single roll! A triangle bandage can be used to support an injured arm or shoulder, also used for bleeding, and weighs virtually nothing.

  10. Pack some very basic emergency rations. Six energy bars can last you many days. Choose something compact that will not spoil easily. My favourite are "Slim Slabs" which are very thin, last long, and contain honey and finely ground nuts (for instant and slow-release energy respectively). Available from any supermarket for approx R2.00 each.

    These Ten items should weigh less than half a kilogram in total and should be compact enough to carry on every flight. You never know when you will need something from this list.

    Note: Though food is important, water is even more important for survival while waiting to be found or rescued. One can survive without food for 3 weeks if you have enough water, but you cannot survive more than 3 days without water. Your flight-suit, wing and parachute make excellent collectors of dew and rain. Use your space-blanket as well. Don't hesitate to lick dew off leaves. Finding grubs, worms and insects provide not only nutrition, but essential water as well. Many roots and plants can be eaten, but some may be poisonous. Observe what the wildlife eat, especially monkeys.

More expensive items you may wish to consider:

  • A strobe light attached to your harness or paramotor. Switch it on early if still airborne 15 to 30 minutes before sunset. These are approx R400 but may be well worth the money. The small compact models run on a single cell or two for many hours.

  • A Signalling Mirror. Not the simple polished metal plate version, but one with a proper built-in sight for aiming. The best models use an optical illusion to project a holographic red-dot when you peer throught he central hole, allowing you to easily and accurately aim at targets many kilometers away to attract attention. These cost approx R120.
    Note: Only works in daylight when the sun is visible (not overcast), and covers a horizontal sweep of approx 160 degrees wide, based on the sun's position.
    See: www.acrelectronics.com/hotshot/hotshot.html

  • A set of pencil flares with a separate launcher (the only safe option for flying), costs approx R330. This set is compact and lightweight. Do not ever carry self-launch flares on a paramotor, make sure the flares need to be individually fitted to the launcher when required.


High Tech gadgets which require more research and a sizable investment, but may be worthwhile getting for serious expedition flights and some serious cross-country flights:

    These fall into Two main groups, those that use the cellular networks (GSM, GPRS, EDGE, 3G, etc) and those that use satellite technology.

    Both are attempts to eliminate the "search" part of a Search and Rescue operation, moving directly to the Rescue part (or Recovery in some cases).

  • Cellular Location Technology usually combines a GPS with a cellphone to send your current location, altitude, speed and direction, to a website that usually overlays your current tracklog on a map and/or satellite image such as Google Earth.

    The simplest is a combo phone/GPS unit which are becoming more popular, or you can use an inexpensive Bluetooth GPS (Currently under R800), coupled with a Bluetooth-capable cellphone. The cellphone must be able to run either Java applets (very common on most modern phones), or Symbian (more expensive phones). See the project we have been working on at: http://track.xplorer.co.za
    This is still in its infancy, but should be up and running within a few months and will be a completely free service.

    There are also dedicated devices designed and built specifically for this application. See one example at www.sportstrack.net

    This is a South African designed and manufactured integrated GPS with cellular transmission of location and tracklogs to their website. Each user can have his own webpage where your friends and family can see where you are whenever the device is switched on (i.e. when you are out flying or partaking in any other outdoors activity). It can receive cellphone calls (if you have the optional headset plugged in), but cannot make outgoing calls. It can send an SMS to a pre-determined number when you activate the emergency mode (crashed or injured), and immediately will start auto-answering any incoming calls in emergency mode.

    The Sportstrack unit costs R5200 including all your data traffic for the first 2 years of usage. Thereafter you pay R600 per two-year cycle (equivalent to R25 per month).

    Many other similar products will be entering the market soon, and many other combinations of hardware/software/web are already available and more coming onstream every month.

    My personal favourite is available for free download and usage at: www.gpsed.com
    Any JAVA capable cellphone connected (via Bluetooth or cable) to any GPS can be tracked live, with historical acrhived tracklogs kept for viewing, plus you can send photo's and/or text notes from your phone to be placed on the map or satellite image (or a combination of both).

    To view my demo I have being playing around with, go to: http://gpsed.com/show.php?username=xplorer&password=xplorer4

    Another excellent free tracking service with many features is www.mologogo.com

    Of course, these only work if you have cellular coverage. When you stray outside the grid (which is often the case with flying), you need satellite technology, which brings us to:

  • PLB, ELT, EPIRB, etc

    All of these and other derivatives, use 406 MHz radio communications with a network of satellites, which are monitored 24/7/365 worldwide. Any activation of such a device scrambles the nearest emergency personnel depending on your location and terrain. The location can be determined within minutes to a high degree of accuracy. No further ground-infrastructure is required to locate (receivers, scanners, etc), as everything is done via a constellation of satellites that cover the entire earth at least once every 46 minutes.

      A quick breakdown of jargon:

    • ELT - Electronic Location Transmitter - usually fixed to a specific aircraft, triggered upon impact (G-switch) or can be manually activated if required. Not suitable for paragliders /paramotors, etc but could be used on some microlights.

    • PLB - Personal Locator Beacon - portable, can be carried on your person, must be manually activated in an emergency. Some, like the new Becker MR109 to be launched soon, are as light as 600g. Can be used for any outdoors activities (flying, climbing, hiking, boating, etc)

    • EPIRB - Electronic Personal Identification Radio Beacon - mostly dedicated for maritime usage, attached to life-rafts, etc

    For our application, the PLB's are most suitable. Some have an integrated GPS to transmit exact co-ordinates for quicker location fixing. Some also have a homing beacon (121.5MHz) to guide rescuers in the last few kilometers to your exact location.
    see this 300gram example: www.acrelectronics.com/microfix/microfix.htm

    Essentially all of these products eliminate the "search" part of any Search and Rescue effort, saving valuable time that could save lives.

    These are not cheap, but may well become more affordable as more brands enter the market. They currently vary in price between R4 000 and R8 000 depending on features, compactness, etc, but expect to see considerable pricing competition in the future.

    The cost of owning and using some of these more expensive options is nothing compared to the cost of a major Search and Rescue effort which quickly runs into the hundreds of thousands Rands.

    More info on the services related to these devices at:
    www.cospas-sarsat.org
    This details the technologies involved, services mobilised, brands and products available, etc

  • There are other possible technologies to look into, such as RFID (though I believe the range required is not __yet__ feasible nor practical, though this may change in the future), and various forms of Transponders which are still in development stages. RADAR transponders are already available off the shelf, however I do not believe they are a viable practical option for us as yet.

I plan to write these ideas into a small survival manual and have already started shopping around for the best products to use. If anyone else is interested in acquiring some of these items, let me know.

The procurement division and the R&D section for the Recce units will be sending me some further ideas, especially relating to recommended survival rations to carry. Gone are the days of the old army Rat Packs, these days they use the most modern commercial products available. I have some excellent contacts in this field and will add to my list over time.

If you have any other ideas to add to the pot, I am open to suggestions. Email or call me at keith@xplorer.co.za or 082 414-8448

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