Surviving a plane crash

More details have emerged about what happened to the four children (aged 13, nine, four, and 11 months) who were rescued 40 days after the plane they were in crashed on May 1 in the Colombian Amazon jungle, killing their mother and two other people.

The mother of the four young Colombian siblings who managed to survive for almost six weeks in the Amazon jungle clung to life for four days after their plane crashed before telling her children to leave her in the hope of improving their chances of being rescued.

A search team found the plane on 16 May in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults on board but the children were nowhere to be found.

I was reminded about something I used to do with faculty to make them aware of the benefits of using cooperative learning techniques with their students. It consisted of an exercise called Survival in the Desert and involved giving everyone the following scenario. (This exercise was developed by the US military and there were several different scenarios for crashes, the desert being just one.)

It is approximately 10:00 am in mid-August and you have just landed in the Sonora Desert in southwestern United States. The light twin-engine plane, containing the bodies of the pilot and the co-pilot, has completely burned. Only the air frame remains. None of the rest of you has been injured.

The pilot was unable to notify anyone of your position before the crash. However, he had indicated before impact that you were 70 miles south-southwest from a mining camp which is the nearest known habitation, and that you were approximately 65 miles off the course that was filed in your VFR flight plan.
The immediate area is quite flat and except for occasional barrel and saguaro cacti appears to be rather barren. The last weather report indicated the temperature would reach 110F that day, which means that the temperature at ground level will be 130F. You are dressed in light-weight clothing – short sleeved shirts, pants, socks and street shoes. Everyone has a handkerchief. Collectively, your pockets contain $2.83 in change, $85.00 in bills, a pack of cigarettes, and a ballpoint pen.

Before the plane caught fire, your group was able to salvage 15 items. Assume that the group has decided to stick together and that all items are in good condition. Your task is to rank these items according to their importance to your survival, starting with “1” as the most important, to “15” as the least important.

The items in the list were the following:

  1. flashlight (4 battery size)
  2. jack knife
  3. sectional air map of the area
  4. plastic raincoat (large size)
  5. magnetic compass
  6. compress kit with gauze
  7. .45 caliber pistol (loaded)
  8. parachute (red and white)
  9. bottle of salt tablets (1000 tablets)
  10. 1 quart of water per person
  11. a book entitled Edible Animals of the Desert
  12. a pair of sunglasses per person
  13. 2 quarts of 180 proof vodka
  14. 1 top coat per person
  15. a cosmetic mirror

The exercise involved having each faculty member first work on their own and rank the items in order of importance (#1 being most important and #15 the least). They were then put into groups of three or four and asked to arrive at a consensus ranking for each group. The two scores (individual and group) were then compared with the ranking of survival experts. It is consistently found that in about 80% of the cases, the group scores were better than the individual scores, suggesting that discussing problems with others led to better solutions. (For those interested, stop reading at this point and try making your own ordering. I will give the survival expert ranking at the bottom of this post.)

What I found interesting when running this exercise was listening to the members of each small group negotiating what the group ordering should be. It revealed the different personalities of the individuals. But what was most interesting was that in most of the groups, they did not explicitly discuss the most important question first, and that was whether the group should stay at the crash site or whether they should try and go for help, although clearly that choice would strongly influence the ordering. For example, the map might be high in importance if you decide to go for help but would be of no value of you decide to stay. Most implicitly seemed to assume that they would try and go for help but since some did not, that led to wide divergences in their rankings. This illustrated the importance of being aware of hidden assumptions in one’s thinking.

One can understand the temptation that one must do something. Staying put seems like a defeatist attitude. But the expert opinion was that it is almost always better to stay at the location of the crash site and to save one’s energy and water and other supplies as much as possible. This is because search parties will be able to find the crash site more easily than individuals wandering around. Furthermore, by moving around, the people might end up in regions that search parties have already covered and thus miss being found.

And in the case of the children, that is what happened because they moved away from the crash site.

A search team found the plane on 16 May in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults on board but the children were nowhere to be found.

Gen Pedro Sánchez, who was in charge of the rescue effort, said the children were found 5km (3 miles) away from the crash site in a small forest clearing. He said rescue teams had passed within 20 to 50 metres (66 to 165ft) of where the children were found on a couple of occasions but had missed them.

I recall a tragic situation a few years ago when a family of three got lost and stuck in a snow drift in a remote part of the country. The father went to get help while the mother and their small child stayed in the car. Search parties later found the mother and child alive but by the time they found the father, he had died.

In this case the children’s dying mother mistakenly told them to go away in order to improve their chances of survival and they obeyed. Also, you can understand how it would have been traumatic for them to hang around in the area with the corpses of their mother and two others. But if they had not done so, they would have been found much earlier.


15, 14, 10, 1, 8, 2, 4, 7, 12, 6, 5, 3, 11, 13, 9

You will see that the cosmetic mirror is #1. This is because by using it to reflect sunlight, you can attract attention to one’s location to any plane flying overhead. The top coat is #2 to keep warm because the desert can get cold in the night. Water is #3. The flashlight is #4, again to signal because even a small amount of light can be seen at great distances. And so on.

But the main lesson is to stay at the location of the crash and conserve energy.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I’d have placed the vodka higher because it could be used as an antiseptic in the event of minor injuries. I’m curious what conceivable use they can think of for a loaded pistol, but then it’s Americans trying to survive, so they may presumably want/need at some point to shoot each other.
    Survival priorities I was taught were the rule of three: you will struggle to survive three weeks without food. Without water, three days. Without shelter, somewhat depending on conditions, three hours. Without air, three minutes. This very crude ordering should inform your immediate priorities -- get OFF the sinking boat and get to land, prioritise shelter (whether from sun or cold), locate a source of water, and don’t obsess about food right away, you should be fine at least for a while.
    Every survival kit should have the words “STAY WHERE YOU ARE” written next to “DON’T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the cover.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I used to play this kind of game a lot, and I grew up in the Sonoran desert. The PBS system in Utah made a series of survival TV episodes with park rangers back in the ’70s or ’80s that was fantastic. I should try to search YouTube for those.
    I agree that staying with the plane is the best option. I would open the parachute and drape it over the plane to make a shelter and a brighter target for search planes. I’m not quite sold that a small mirror is the best signaling device, but it can’t hurt.
    Salt tablets are worse than useless, they just make you thirstier. I would consider pouring out the vodka, while it can cleanse wounds, the temptation of bored people to drink it and further dehydrate themselves is to be avoided. The gun is practically useless. There’s nothing in the desert that wants to mess with you if you don’t mess with it first, and handguns have too poor accuracy to try to shoot some food with it. They do make a lot of noise, so they are a good signaling device while the ammo holds out.
    Once we had a decent shelter with the parachute, I would get everyone busy gathering wood or herbivore poop for a fire, and I would use the flashlight battery to make sparks into the gauze from the medical kit. Even if we fail, it keeps everyone busy and it won’t drain the battery if we are careful.

  3. seachange says

    Perhaps I am thinking of PZs post today 13th June 23 about ‘how having people matter’. It’s making me feel more cynical than usual. This exercise doesn’t include how people actually behave.

    Gun safety rule very first action # 1 unload the gun, especially since it’s likely nobody else knows how to safely use it and tempers will rise. Or the loud foolish guy who takes it will fire it into the air because he’s bored. There always is one in a group like this. (actually this is why the vodka is most important: feed it to him because dehydration will also reduce how much of his energy he unproductively directs towards people because for sure he isn’t listening. The likelihood of the vodka actually surviving to be used as antiseptic is zero anyways) People are imperfect.

    I thought that this exercise was weird? Stay with the plane it’s quite likely someone will find something else or remember to mention something they found. This will result in more than fifteen items. Because people are imperfect.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I would place the jackknife pretty high on the list. Not only it it a very versatile tool in its own right, the steel blade can have sparks struck off it with a hard igneous rock for fire starting. (Flint is not required, it is the steel that provides the spark, not the rock.)
    Additionally, there is mention of barrel and saguaro cactus being available. There is much desert survival lore that mentions cutting the top off a barrel cactus, slashing the interior and getting drinking water, but more scientific investigation has determined that what you really get is cactus juice that may be more harmful than beneficial. Also, cactus are very slow growing, so you may cause a lot of damage to the desert ecosystem with no benefit to yourself. If I was stranded for many days, I would use the plastic raincoat to make a solar still. If it could not provide enough water from the soil, I would put chunks of cactus under the raincoat to distill water out of the cactus juice.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I would have mentioned unloading the pistol, but I don’t have training in that so I am worried someone would get hurt. As for letting the asshole get drunk, a drunk asshole is always harder to deal with than a sober one. Pour the vodka on the ground first thing.
    As for the exercise being “weird”, well sure, it’s an unlikely scenario, but the original post was based on an actual event, so it’s not completely useless. Plus, these kinds of mental puzzles help you if you are ever in even slightly similar situations, such as your car breaking down on a rural road. It may not be a life threatening situation, but even just knowing that you have options and choices can be very reassuring.

  6. flex says


    Yeah. My first thought about the raincoat was how it would be great to make a solar still, and also possibly collect moisture at night too. I was surprised how high the gun ranked until I remembered that it could be a signaling device. If the book “Edible Animals of the Desert” included insects, it may be more useful. But if it just listed things like mice or snakes, the odds are you’d never even see them. I guess the mirror is useful if people don’t know you are lost, but it’s probably less useful than the parachute if people are actively looking for you.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    Yeah, I was surprised that the parachute was not #1. A shelter AND a big signal? How could you not see that as the best?

  8. VolcanoMan says

    I had to do a “Survival in the Boreal Forest” exercise once, as part of a school program. It was basically the same deal as the desert example, but the list of items was a little more spare:

    A ball of steel wool
    A small axe
    A loaded pistol
    Can of vegetable oil
    Newspapers (one per person)
    Cigarette lighter (without fluid)
    Extra shirt and pants for each survivor
    20 x 20 ft. piece of heavy-duty canvas
    An air map made of plastic
    A bottle of 80-proof vodka
    A compass
    Family-size chocolate bars (one per person)

    I dunno…as someone who has watched more Bear Grylls and Survivorman than should be legally allowed, I am always ready to use something creatively in a way where it can provide maximal value…so I found the exercise pretty interesting. But most of my classmates thought it was a waste of time (and for what it’s worth, I’m in an x-ray technology program, so the relevance, even in a “team-building” capacity is certainly questionable).

  9. Steven Eyre says

    Ex Canadian Forces SAR guy here. A mirror is a fabulous signal device!
    Assuming you have sunlight…

  10. Mano Singham says

    In exercises such as these, it is not worth worrying too much about minor ranking differences. I would group the 15 items into three major categories: Very useful, useful, and not useful, and then decide which five items go into each box. Then one can try to order them within each group.

  11. John Morales says

    Well, the vodka is the only source of calories at hand.

    90% alcohol, 1.9 litres of it, 7 calories per gram.

    And it’s also an accelerant.

    I note there was a packet of cigarettes which was not a salvaged item, and it would be very very odd for a smoker to carry cigarettes but no lighter. So the group probably has a source of ignition.

    While I’m at it, I note the pistol is explicitly stated as being loaded (’tis the USA, after all) but the torch (sorry, “flashlight”) is only stated to have a capacity of 4 batteries.

    (Is it loaded?)

  12. James Stuby says

    I thought of possibly pouring the vodka into a bowl or something to let the alcohol boil off before all of the water does, but I guess 180 proof is mostly just alcohol and there wouldn’t be much left (and of course you might let it go too long and there would be nothing left). Would it be worth it to do something like that for say 40 proof rum?

    Also, the Apollo astronauts used parachutes for desert clothing in their survival training. They were not expected to necessarily remain at their crash sites I guess. See Michael Collins’ excellent book Carrying the Fire if interested.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    It’s interesting watching Yanks try to justify the gun. Signalling device? Really?

    If it was a FLARE gun, maybe. It’s not. It’s a handgun, a tool specifically designed and manufactured for the purpose of killing humans. In terms of actual things it can do other than it’s designed purpose… it can make a very, very short, very loud noise, six times (more if it’s magazine-fed). In a specifically desert survival situation, if rescue is near enough to you to hear a gunshot -- shout. Whistle. Bang rocks together. Potentially it might be some use in a dense forest/jungle as a signal, but even then, think about it: to whom are you sending the signal? How do you know they are there? You’re certainly not going to just fire randomly and hope someone hears, are you? So you can presumably hear that they are there. If they’re on foot, they’ll hear you shouting. If they’re in a helicopter/plane, car -- they won’t hear the gunshot. As a signalling device, it’s dogshit.

    It could potentially stop something like a cougar, IF that sort of thing hangs out in the desert AND it attacks AND you’re a damn good shot -- an incredibly unlikely set of circumstances.

    I’d put the gun next to the salt tablets as potentially actually worse than useless. Unless there was an American in the party of survivors, in which case I’d suggest the rest of us bury it with them.

  14. flex says


    An old Boy Scout trick is that steel wool can be a great way to start a fire. If you also have a battery, a nine-volt battery worked best. Use the steel wool as tinder because it burns pretty fast, but it also burns hot. Just make a connection between the battery terminals and the steel wool and you are good to go.

    From a quick google, it looks like steel wool would also burn with a spark, which is probably why a lighter without fuel is on the your. But I’ve never tried that.

  15. says

    @No. 1 (and others) Yes. Basic survival training from the Boy Scout handbook. STAY PUT. Move only if there is imminent danger from staying where you are. If that is the case, move only as far as you must to be safe.

  16. Tethys says

    I did learn woodland survival skills as a girlscout, and stay put is the first rule. I think the immediate problem is shade, and creating some sort of shelter from the 130 degree sun.

    I’m sure there are pieces of glass around the wreck which can be used to signal and possibly make a signal fire by igniting some alcohol soaked tinder. A lot of the woody plants in the Sonoran desert are quite combustible.
    Additionally, useful bits of aircraft can be salvaged to create a frame for a shade shelter and something to dig with. I’m sure there is a plentiful supply of rocks for bracing. The overcoats are thus the most useful, and the water being the next thing that is critically needed if you wish to survive long enough to be found by search and rescue.

    The least useful is the book, as 130 degree heat will kill you in a few days. It would be handy to know which scorpions were edible, and which are lethal to humans, since that is the animal that they are most likely to encounter.

    There isn’t going to be much firewood if the area is covered in saguaro and barrel cactus. There is probably some cactus skeletons and things like sagebrush and various grasses that could be used to build a fire, but again, exerting yourself in the 130 desert sun is a poor survival strategy.

    Making fire would enable you to make smoke signals during the day, a signal fire at night, and cook any scorpions or prickly pear you might gather.

    The gun is less useful than the flashlight for signaling, but it could be very handy when a black bear or pack of coyotes follows their nose to the bodies. Hopefully some vultures find them first, as circling vultures might attract human attention since they are not on the expected flight path.
    I can also see the gun being useful for signaling SOS if you could hear the search party, but were too weak and dehydrated to yell or otherwise respond.

    The parachute can multitask as shade cloth and a signal to any passing aircraft. They could spend the cooler hours piling up any debris and rocks into an arrow or other obvious man made shape to make it bigger and easier to spot.

    The map is fairly useless since you have no idea where you are. Finding water is going to be critical if you aren’t rescued within a few days, so unless there are geographic landmarks within your field of vision, you would hike to the nearest bit of high ground and look for trees or green patches in the landscape that would indicate a water source.

    It’s usually best to stay with the wreckage, but you can also leave a trail and write a note in the ground for anyone that does find it.

  17. Tethys says

    It occurs to me that the book would be most useful for starting a fire or serving as toilet paper.
    You could read it first, but I doubt the Javelinas or deer are going to come anywhere near a crashed airplane that smells of roasted flesh, jet fuel, and humans.

  18. lorn says

    I would rank the knife and water high. Depending on temperature and specifics of the location, some deserts have shade and water is easier to obtain, others … not so much.

    The gun is just a tool, get over it. From that list it looks to be the most reliable source of fire. Use the knife to disassemble a cartridge. Most people familiar with the concept advocate using the gun to fire the empty shell, the primer, into the pile of gunpowder placed on tinder. Personal experience is that you are better off holding the brass with a bent stick or in the magazine and touching off the primer with the point of a knife blade. Fired from the gun, a 1911, the flash from the primer was preceded by a puff of air that dispersed the gunpowder.

    Anyone advocating striking sparks from a random rock has never tried it. Most rocks won’t reliable spark and if you get one it tends to be very small and weak. It also goes in a random direction. After several hours trying nobody in a group of six of us managed to produce fire that way. That’s the benefit of a hands-on survival school.

    I mention the model of the handgun because a 1911 is a large, and heavy, piece of kit. Which makes it a handy hammer. Some deserts simply lack BFRs and simply pounding in a stake can be a major difficulty. Also, if you are going to pound on rocks in the hopes of producing sparks to get a fire the chunky high-carbon steel of the gun barrel might make a better striker than the thin steel of the knife. You are also less likely to break or dull your only knife.

    Don’t want to use the gun. A fire-bow comes to mind. You have a knife. A whole lot depends on exactly what native vegetation there is. Dry wood, if there is wood (As I remember it that desert has long stretches of just sand) shouldn’t be a problem but you want physically hard wood with little sap. Base, bow, grip and spindle. A sturdy shoelace will work for cordage. Steady even strokes and increasing but moderate pressure and, assuming the right type of wood, you get a nice bright coal to drop into your tight little nest of tinder. A little luck and you get fire! FIRE!

    Barrel cactus might help. Large ones store significant amounts of water. Cut the top dome off and mash the insides with a stick. Be careful, those spines hurt and might set you up for an infection. Lacking a ladle you can use a piece of absorbent cloth the get the water up and out of the cactus.

    That parachute catches my eye. Not mentioned but parachutes are cloth and lots, and lots, of very nice cordage. The cloth makes a handy tent that can be guyed out with stakes pounded in with a BFR or handgun. In a few minutes you have a fairly obvious distress signal (40′ of red and white nylon is much better than a stone arrow if you intend to be spotted from the air), landmark and health preserving shade. When the sun goes down the tent holds the heat and deflects the wind. Deserts can be over 100F during the day and below 32F at night. The chute might be profitably used as a lean-to/ reflector/ wind break with a small fire. Make sure you keep the nylon and fire segregated.

    The raincoat might be used to create a solar still. Depends of the details of make and model as the how easy and effective that might be.

    Survival is all about preserving and husbanding resources. A whole lot of methods depend on specifics of the particular location. Some woods are next to useless in starting a fire. Stones are the same way. Some are so easy to flake you can produce a working edge in a thrice. Others useless. Not even usable for pounding in a stake. If you are stranded by a grove of large barrel cactus you might be set for water. Come down in a sand desert and you might have very little to work with.

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