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Survival Equipment
Has It Really Changed?

The opinions expressed and recommendations included in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed in whole or part by Equipped To Survive. ETS presents this information as a public service, but has not verified any of the information contained herein.


James M. Johnson

Washington Pilots Association
Southwest Chapter President - 1995-1996
10018 NE 128th Avenue
Vancouver, WA 98682-1688

Presented at the 34th Annual SAFE Symposium


Over the years new survival kits have been designed for the general aviation pilot, the military and for aircraft flying under applicable parts of Federal Aviation Administration regulations. These kits have amazing similarities to kits that have been in use for thirty or more years.

We will examine the old kits, the new kits and proposed components for new kits. These components range from first aid, signaling, radios, fishing kits, weapons, fire starting, shelter, food, water and instruction books. What is new?

We will look at the training of pilots, both civilian and military, and how efficient their training is. The military can demand the training of their aircrew members. The civilian pilot has no requirement for training. However, many general aviation organizations are now focusing on making this training available for civilian pilots. Sometimes they even are able to use military survival training personnel who make themselves available.

We look at the possibility of cooperation between civilian pilots and the military survival schools for more complete training of civilian pilots. This training is offered to the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force Auxiliary, who are general aviation pilots. Can this training be used as a blueprint for reaching more civilian pilots?


Perhaps the first survival kits consisted of a good horse, a rifle and pistol, lots of ammunition, a hat, a poncho, bedroll, matches and enough beans & bacon for the trip. As our modes of transportation improved and became faster, the kits had to improve. For World War I, we looked at a parachute and whatever the pilot wanted to carry. Usually his helmet, scarf, boots, sheepskin jacket, a pocket knife, pistol and some beef jerky in his pocket. World War II brought about the sophistication of our kits. Inflatable life rafts, Mae West life preservers, Gibson girl transmitters, solar stills, dye marker, shark repellant, fishing kits and all of the above.

Subsequent development of survival kits (or should they now be called recovery kits) has brought about improvements and new state of the art equipment (SOA). But, have things really changed? I think not!


At the 33rd Annual SAFE Symposium, RaNae Contarino, SOA Integrated Program Leader (and friends) presented a paper entitled, "Priority One: Survival!" The Navy's State-of-the-Art Survival Item Update. As I read the paper, it became apparent that most of the items were for the most part, exactly the same as they had been for thirty (or more) years. Yes, my experience goes back that far. From service to service, there was very little difference when you got past the description of the various items. With USAF Captain Scott O'Grady's book "Return with Honor," you had the feeling that, yes there were some new items out there. The Global Position System (GPS) receiver and improved radios (?).

Other than these items, the survival kits have been very similar. Kits put together by general aviation pilots are not that different. The components are virtually the same. Why, because they emulate the military kits and in some cases, even have military components. My further research in books such as, The SAS Survival Manual, Backpacker Magazine, "Longshot" by Dick Francis, and numerous others, all come up with the same basic items. But then, is that any surprise with the wide distribution of military manuals and training books? And, maybe these components are all we require. Until someone invents the one item that we just can't get along without. Some examples are shown here. Do you recognize the components?


Originated by SAFE Members in the early 1960's (Prices have changed)
Survival Manual Pocket Knife (multi purpose) Waterproof Matches
SAFE Fire starters Whistle Mirror
Flash/Penlight Spare Batteries Aluminum Foil
Nylon Cord (100' 200# test) Space Blanket Water (Bottle)
First Aid Kit (Minimum)(Contents: Instruction Book, Antibiotic First Aid Creme, Chapstick, APC Tablets, 1" Band Aids, Tape & Gauze, Iodine Tablets, Eye Ointment, Ammonia Inhalants & Sunburn Protection)

by Mazamas, Portland, OR
Whistle Map Compass
Flashlight plus extra Bulbs & Batteries Extra Food
Extra Clothing Fire Starter First Aid Kit
Pocket Knife Sunburn Protection Waterproof Matches

FAA FAR Part 91(Current) - Aviation Life Raft Survival Equipment Kit*
Canopy with mast Equipment Container Signal Flag
Signal Flares (3) Flashlight (2 Alkaline Batteries) First Aid Kit
Raft Repair Kit Sea Dye Marker Signal Mirror
Food Rations Water Rations Signal Whistle

FAA FAR Part 121(Current) - Aviation Life Raft Survival Equipment Kit*
All of the above, plus:
Utility Knife Survival Manual Sponge

FAA FAR Part 135(Current) - Aviation Life Raft Survival Equipment Kit*
All of the above, plus:
Magnetic Compass Desalters (8 pint) Fishing Kit
75' Retaining Line Paddles (2) Radar Reflector

* Food/Water Rations and First Aid Kit quantities appropriate for raft capacity occupants

(Military Kits)

Booklet, "How to Use your Parachute"
Fire Starter Matches Compass (Button)
Wire (snare) Safety Pins Fish Hooks
Water Bag (collecting) Pocket Knife (multi-blade)(small)

First Aid Book Aspirin Anti-Diarrhea Tablets
Anti-Malaria Gauze Insect Netting (head)
Razor Knife Wound Closure Band Aids
Matches Ophthalmic Ointment Tape
Soap Antiseptic 

Strobe Light IR Filter Magnesium Fire Starter
Chapstick Matches Whistle
Pocket Knife Insect Repellant Rocket Flares/Gun
Day/Night Flare Hand Saw Mirror
Compass Pen Light Camouflage Stick
Tourniquet 9mm Pistol GPS Receiver

Transceiver Spare Battery Day/Night Flares (2)
Rocket Flares/Gun F/Aid Kit (above) Compass
Mirror Space Blanket Whistle
Matches Tourniquet Water Bag
Reflective Tape Aluminum Foil Chapstick

Water Packets (6) Raft Repair Plug Wool Socks
Survival Manual Mittens Sponge
Snare Wire Sea Dye Marker Fishing Kit
Ski Mask Sheath Knife (5") 


From "Longshot" by Dick Francis

On the belt:
Knife (9" open - 4" blade - 5" closed)
Survival Knife Tool (w/blades, scissors, bottle & can openers, screwdrivers, magnifying glass and mirror surface)

In shirt pocket: Compass

Kit #1:
Small Flat Tin Box (4" X 7" X 1" prox)
Black Insulating Tape (closure) Two Matchbooks
Thin Wire (coil) Small Candle
Wire Saw Fish Hooks
Pencil & Paper Needles & Thread
Bandages (2) Plastic Bag (w/paper clip)
Instruction Book 

Kit #2 (2 kilos):
Waterproof Pouch - Fanny Pack
Twenty Matchbooks Cotton balls
Candle Kevlar Fiber (spool-600 yards)
Paint, Luminous Small powerful magnet
Film Case (6 - clear)(contents below)
Fish Hooks Needles & Thread
Safety pins Aspirin
Water purification tablets 
Small telescope 8X20 Flashlight Pen
Whistle Post-It Pad
Aluminum Foil Butane Blowtorch, miniature
Leather gloves 

Author acknowledgments to:

The SAS Survival Handbook, by John Wiseman
No Need to Die, by Eddie McGee


Let's take a critical look at radios, beacons, transceivers, GPS and the use of satellite systems. This is the one area that seems to be advancing technologically at the fastest pace. Today's general aviation aircraft are required to carry Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT). Yet many pilots don't even know how they work. Much less how the satellite system that searches for the ELT's and reports their signals and positions to the rescue centers.

Many general aviation pilots are unaware of the squawking "7700" on their transponders and the action that is caused. All it takes is one hit on radar to establish position and altitude. Have radios come as far as they can? No, O'Grady's experience prompted General John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to recommend wider distribution of the GPS equipment and a push to accelerate the procurement schedule of an improved survival radio. Maybe, if funding is found, our pilots could be carrying a satellite-based radio with secure channels and virtually unlimited range, he said. I thought the special operation folks had been using those for years. Is the key, the funding? Or should it be the pilot's life?

With UHF and VHF beacons and transceivers, we have built-in limitations due to the signal strength and line-of-sight. Over the years we have had only minor changes in these two valuable pieces of survival equipment. Having participated in the development of the specifications for the URT-21 Survival Radio in the 60's, I know the specifications haven't changed that much. The answer is different frequencies, for greater range. Perhaps small computer controlled radios that work with very short computer "packets" of information that would be hard to DF on because of the short signal and working with our satellite systems. That should do the trick. GA pilots could benefit from the development of these devices, but don't necessarily have the need for the secrecy of the signal. Really, just the opposite. This is an area that our best minds need to center on. There is room for much more development!


As technology changes, both in mechanical and chemical disciplines, we are going to have minor improvements in survival kit components. Every once in a while someone comes up with a new use for a common item. The most recent that comes to mind, is the use of the flourescent surveyor's tapes to mark positions on the ground. They can even be thrown up through the branches of trees in highly wooded areas. Plastics and polymer items have changed the face of many of our components. And, of course, you can't ignore the Mag-Lite flashlights and the Swiss Army knives.

Can you believe that we are still using the same Mark 13, Mod whatever, day/night flares? How about the same sea dye marker and shark repellant that have been around forever, it seems. And the ever present, fishing kit. Ever heard of someone using the fish hooks to snare land-based birds? Think about it. It makes sense. The MBA GyroJet rocket flares have been around since the 60's. And, of course, we have the ever present mirror and whistle. They are still responsible for many of the rescues. The strobe lights save records are catching up, but the whistle and mirror have had a very lengthy head start..

And the snare wire. How many of our pilots have ever caught anything in the last ten years or so, they haven't been out there long enough to find the small animals. By the way, a clever tip on the snare wire. Make your loop before you have to use the snare wire. Saves time, and sure helps when your fingers are numb or cold.

Then there are the comfort items. Sun screen, caps, gloves, wool socks, ski masks, insect netting, insect repellant and the space blanket. The merits of wool are well known to all campers, hikers, mountain bikers and climbers. Some of the new fabrics are great, but in most cases they just don't do the job that wool does.

The best fire starters are still magnesium. The best supporters of flame are still the wax and beeswax soaked flamibles. Waterproof matches that strike anywhere. Matches with large heads that wind and rain cannot extinguish. They are all essential!

Which brings us to the survival manuals, first aid manuals and parachute use manuals. For GA pilots, the list of how to cannibalize your aircraft to stay alive. Personally, I think that the same artist draws all of the illustrations or they all copy from the Boy Scouts of America's "Field Book." They are all good! That is, if the pilot reads them. Military and GA pilots alike need to read the books and magazine articles regularly. They are all a source of new information. New ideas and techniques. In the September 1996, "Backpacker" magazine, there is an article entitled, What the Animals Know. It relates to food, water and finding shelter where the animals do. Good information. You never know when just one idea will save your life! Or that of a friend! Just don't fight a bear for his cave in the winter. You'll lose every time.


Military pilots are required to complete their survival training. GA pilots aren't required to have any survival training. Members of the USAF's Civil Air Patrol are not only required to be trained, but have recurrent training. Most of them are GA pilots in real life. Some USAF training is made available to CAP pilots. Why not to the rest of the GA pilots.

The courses that could be developed for the average GA pilot would only be a portion of that necessary for the military pilot. Would mixing the two in a survival school be so disastrous? There some very public spirited Life Support Technicians who do this on their off-duty time. In the States of Washington and Oregon, we are fortunate to have such persons in the Air Force, Air National Guard, Coast Guard and Navy life support fields. Just as I do, there are other civilians that have taken an interest in survival training, because of their experience and backgrounds.

Training is the very basis of every survival kit! Without the knowledge and the inspiration to use their kit, a pilot will fail himself. Pilots have to adopt a "fighter pilot" attitude of invincibility to survive. Training is the only tool that can help give the pilot, military or GA, the will to live. Many GA pilots have survival kits, of one kind or another, and yet most of them have taken no formal training to use their kits. In the development of the Navy's SEEK II kit, most items in the kit were picked for their multi use capabilities. That kit is more than 30 years old. In a recent visit to the Survival Training School at Pensacola NAS, Florida, I found that many of the additional uses of the components had been forgotten about. The Lead Chief and I had a nice long discussion, which I am sure will result in changes to the training syllabus.

Training, or lack thereof, results in situations such as the GA pilot who died just 500 feet from his aircraft because of not staying with the aircraft and not having the strong mental attitude to survive. Had he stayed with his aircraft, he probably would have not died of hypothermia that close to his aircraft. Rescuers found him only several hours after he had died. Had he been with the aircraft, he may have had a chance for survival. Training will also strengthen the discipline for GA pilots of never leaving on a flight without a survival kit and the proper clothing for the area being flown over. It has happened and it has been fatal! How do we assure ourselves that this training is available for all pilots, military or GA? The SAFE Association is the perfect place for this type of interaction to start! Let's all of us appoint ourselves as committees of one to work on this project from many different disciplines.


How many of you have responded to the "Call for Assistance" in last year's papers? Are you doing your job as a member of SAFE? We need to be the heart of the industry. We need to be the leaders!

Here is a challenge to the radio and computer manufacturers. Come up with a transceiver that works in a majority of the survival situations. Work around the limitations of VHF and UHF. Be creative. The technology has to be available. Look at the Sky-Tel pager that works off our satellite system. From your pager, you can even answer the sender of the information. If a pager can do it, why can't a computer controlled satellite radio? We also need to recommend funding help to assist our military pilots!

The members of SAFE are the ideal individuals to foster a program of joint military/GA survival training. We have representatives from all the military organizations and we have them from the GA and civilian side also. All pilots need to have best training available to them. They need our professional help!

SAFE needs to be the clearing house for information such as that being assembled by both military and civilian organizations. A simple database can do most of the work. RaNae's group has a great start. And as our new President, I know she will help us with that project! SAFE needs to be the leaders in the three "C's": COMMUNICATION, COOPERATION & COORDINATION. Let's show the world that we know what we are doing in our field of endeavor.

Oh yes, one other thing. I like the Coast Guards description of our equipment as "Lifesaving Equipment." A good thing we changed our name to the SAFE Association or with the Lifesaving description, we could have been known as LAFE (Laff?).

Please support Equipped To Survive with a tax-deductible donation


Jim Johnson
10018 NE 128th Ave
Vancouver, WA 98682-1688


All military service manuals
"Longshot" by Dick Francis
The SAS Survival Manual
Backpacker Magazine
The AOPA's Airport Directory
Survival Sense by LaValla/Stoffel
The Raft by Robert Trumbull
No Need to Die by Eddie McGee


MSGT Patrick J Tracy
TSGT Carol L Colleen
Oregon Air National Guard Life Support Shop/F-15 Aircraft

My local sources of information!


James M. Johnson (Jim) has been a licensed pilot since 1955. During the 60's and 70's, Jim was associated with several suppliers to the survival equipment field. Starting with ACR Electronics, a major supplier of survival signaling aids. Following that he was associated with Pacific Inflatables Corporation, providing airline, Coast Guard and civil aircraft safety and survival equipment.

Jim was SAFE Association President in 1966. Past President Bob Brazil (deceased) and Jim are credited as being the founders of the SAFE Journal.

In the early 90's, Jim renewed his efforts on behalf of pilots in the civilian sector. He has served as Treasurer of the Washington Pilots Association and continues to serve on its' Board of Directors.

His current position is President of the Southwest Washington Chapter of WPA. He has been honored by WPA with the Bernie Lyman Achievement Award for his statewide and local efforts. He lectures to aviation groups and participates as a presenter for the safety seminars of the FAA's WINGS program.

He has also been active in fighting for land use planning for the preservation of airports, both locally and statewide.

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Article authored by James M. (Jim) Johnson
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