By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“The most important factor in survival is neither intelligence nor strength, but adaptability.”
— Charles Darwin, English naturalist and biologist.
On November 11, 2020, Gunpowder Magazine published my article on “Road-Trip Survival Gear,” making specific recommendations for basic, civilian, survival equipment that you may want to consider carrying during your travels. Virtually anyone, anywhere, can potentially skid off the road, hit a tree, and be stranded in a remote area for several hours, or even several days. For example, I’ve had a few tire-related incidents on various vacations, including a slow leak in New Hampshire this year due to a nail puncture, and a total blowout in Scotland, near Loch Ness, in 2014, all of which fortunately ended fairly well, but what if you’re far away from help?
What if you’re away from any cell-phone signal, high in the Rocky Mountains, or the Adirondacks, the Mojave Desert, the North Dakota prairie, the Florida Everglades, or the Louisiana bayous? It’s always best to be prepared for a possible, survival incident, no matter how unlikely it may seem initially.
As a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Combat Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, and as a former, intelligence specialist who taught refresher, survival skills to American fighter pilots (in case of being shot down) in Germany for four years, I’ve never seen a better, more-comprehensive, survival kit than those issued to Air Force pilots in their ejection-seat kits.
The Collins Aerospace ACES II (Advanced-Concept, Ejection Seat II) is currently used aboard all A-10C Warthog attack aircraft, F-15C Eagle fighters, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16CM/V Fighting Falcons, F-22A Raptor stealth fighters, B-1B Lancer bombers, and B-52H Stratofortress bombers, although it is due to be replaced in the near future by the advanced, Collins Aerospace ACES 5 Next-Generation system, incorporating an improved, multi-color, GR7000 parachute, in a $700-million contract awarded in November 2020. “The (new) parachute has been designed to handle the greater weight ranges for pilots, and to provide a slower rate of descent and oscillation,” according to the manufacturer.
While my “Road-Trip Survival Gear” article covers the basics of what you might need for a typical, vacation trip, let’s now take a deeper look at exactly what our military fighter and bomber pilots have available for survival in the event of a combat shootdown, or even a simple, mechanical failure requiring an ejection sequence. What can we learn from this very specific list to improve our own, personal survival kits?
Whenever a pilot has to eject, their survival gear is available in three separate components: First, the C-9 parachute canopy itself is 28 feet wide, and made of ripstop nylon in four different colors. There are 28 panels, or “gores,” of which 10 are white, 10 are International Orange, four or sand-colored (tan), and four are olive green. There are also 14 shroud lines, comprised of 550-pound-test paracord. Whenever possible, the pilot will save this canopy for constructing a shelter roof, using certain panels for camouflage, the orange panels for signaling his location, and the paracord is extremely useful for tying all sorts of things together, or making a survival tent from the canopy sections.
You can have some of these same options by bringing a simple, inexpensive tarpaulin on your trip, and about 100 feet of Paracord 550 that can be purchased online, or at Walmart for about $10. I also have various lengths of camo rope, camo cord, and paracord available, for different types of situations.
Next, the pilot is usually, but not always, wearing an Aircrew Survival Vest, which contains key, survival items that he (or she) may need instantly upon reaching the ground, without the luxury of time to sort through a larger, survival kit. These items are:
1. PRC-112G or PRQ-7Asurvival radio, with GPS-location feature.
2. ProFIND SLB2000 Personnel Locator Beacon, with GPS-location feature.
3. Mk. 3 signal mirror, 2.5 x 3.5.”
4. 2 x Mk. 124 day/night smoke flares.
5. G.I.-issue, lensatic compass.
6. Small, aircrew first-aid kit, #3671.
7. USAF survival knife (Ontario 499), with 5-inch blade (designed in 1958.)
8. SIG M18 compact, service pistol in 9mm, with two loaded, 15-round magazines.
9. In addition, a self-inflating, LPU-37 floatation collar is worn over the survival vest for long flights over water.
For most of us, a good cell phone or i-phone with a GPS application fills the communication, location, and navigation requirements, and some type of signal mirror, modern compass, and commercial, first-aid kit (Walmart’s are fine) are certainly very useful. There’s also an old saying, that, “You cannot have too many guns, knives, matches, or water in a survival situation.” This is certainly true, so a good-quality, rugged, survival knife is a must, and if you’re permitted to be carrying a handgun in your state, you never know when you may need it in the wilderness for protection from bears, wolves, snakes, or mountain lions, depending upon your breakdown location.
I’ll usually bring one very rugged, high-quality, survival knife, such as my CRKT/Ruger Powder-Keg ($100, but discontinued), together with a decent, lower-cost knife, such as a Camillus Titanium (from Walmart), so we always have two available, and even Ozark Trail (Chinese-made) produces some good, usable knives for just $10. I also own a superb, Cold Steel SRK (Survival-Rescue Knife), but I don’t carry it that often, and the Glock FM81 survival knife is another rugged and affordable choice.
Now, we come to the ACES II seat survival kit itself, which hangs down 30 feet below the pilot while parachuting, and contains most of the essential gear for longer-term survival. Not every kit is exactly identical, but in general, these are the contents:
1. GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon (ASDW) in 5.56mm, with 12.5-inch barrel and four loaded, 30-round magazines. Please see my Gunpowder Magazine article on the GAU-5A, from January 10, 2020. This is packed on top of the other items, so it’s the first thing that the pilot grabs, and can be fully assembled in about one minute.
2. AFP 36-2246 Aircrew Survival Manual, waterproof. Extremely valuable item!
3. A/P25S-5A gyrojet, pen-gun flare kit (These are fine over the desert or over water, but have the potential to start a forest fire in woodland terrain, if the flares burn for too long.)
4. SDU-5E IR strobe light, for signaling rescue aircraft.
5. LRU-16/P black rubber life raft, with repair kit.
6. Three ounces of sea-marker dye.
7. GPS receiver for land navigation: Garmin, Trimble, or Magellan brands.
8. Signal whistle. I personally carry a small, inexpensive, Coughlan’s Four-Function Whistle ($8) during hunting season, which combines a signal whistle, tiny compass, magnifying glass (for helping to start fires on sunny days), and thermometer into one handy unit with a neck cord. It’s actually better than the Air Force whistle. Also, the Fox-40 sports whistle is especially loud and piercing for survival purposes, with no rattling ball inside the mouthpiece.
9. 18 matches in a waterproof container.
10. Camouflage stick, for covering face and hands.
11. Eight four-ounce, flex bags of water.
12. Empty, three-pint, plastic, water bag.
13. Water-purification tablets.
14. X-pack water-filtration system.
15. OD green, plastic, pilot flask.
16. Zip-lock bags.
17. Two sponges.
18. 20 feet of brass, snare wire (for snaring rabbits or other small game.)
19. Magnesium fire-starter tool, in case the matches get wet.
20. Mylar space blanket.
21. Two sun-block containers, SPF-15.
22. Long-burning candle.
23. Two green chem lights, 12-hour.
24. Insect repellent.
25. Leatherman Juice KF4 multitool.
26. Streamlight Sidewinder 14516 Compact II military flashlight.
27. Sometimes there is a penlight flashlight, as well, with red, blue, and IR filters.
28. Camouflaged, nylon poncho (useful for making a tiny tent or shelter cover.)
This is quite an extensive list, and some of these items may not be applicable for civilians on a simple, road trip, such as the GAU-5A assault carbine, the life raft, sea dye, strobe light, or camo stick. However, some type of takedown, survival rifle is never a bad idea, and in the past, I’ve owned a Charter Arms/U.S. Survival AR-7 Explorer rifle (now made by Henry Repeating Arms, for about $270) in .22 LR, and a Springfield Armory M6 Scout (no longer in production, although Chiappa still makes a similar model) survival rifle in .22 Hornet and .410, but seldom actually carried them on road trips. They’re nice to have in a serious, survival situation, however, because a .22 rifle can harvest small game to eat, such as birds or rabbits.
When I was temporarily stationed in northern Italy in 2000 and 2001, the Italian Officer’s Club at my air base served pasta with rabbit meat every Wednesday. That’s all. There was no menu, and no choice. You ate what they served, period. But, I never missed lunch on Wednesdays! Rabbit meat is much better than you might think, and you can even get pizza with rabbit meat in Italy. Yes, rabbits are cute, but they’re also a potential food source for hungry humans.
In Air Force Combat Survival School, we were told about a transport aircraft crew that crash-landed in a remote part of Greenland sometime in the past, and set out on foot to find help. They had a few survival rifles, and kept a written diary of their experiences. On Day 2 of their journey, they saw several small, blue foxes within easy rifle range, but did not shoot them, because they were “cute.” The entire crew died of starvation within the next two to three weeks, and their unfired rifles and grim diary were recovered from the frozen bodies. The moral of this story is: “Shoot the fox (or rabbit, or whatever), and eat it. You never know when you may get another meal.”
Try a lot of different foods: I’ve eaten alligator tail (delicious!) in Louisiana and Alabama, ants, baby octopus, bison/buffalo meat in South Dakota, caviar (fish eggs), crawfish, deer venison (absolutely delicious!), dolphin, duck meat, eels, elk venison in Pennsylvania, escargot (cooked, French snails), fish heads (small) in Japan, fried rattlesnake in New Mexico, frog legs (they taste like chicken), goose, grasshoppers, a horse burger (not so tasty) in Germany, marlin (big fish), moose meat, ox tail in Germany, pheasant in Hungary, quail, and rabbit meat in Italy.
I’ve also eaten raw oysters in Maryland, raw salmon in Scotland, small scorpion, shark meat in Iceland, some unidentified sushi in Japan, squid, squirrel meat, swordfish, turtle, unidentified, “mystery meat” (it wasn’t polite to ask) in Romania, and wild turkey (the best I’ve ever had; shot it myself), among other unusual, specialty items. And, I’d still like to try wild boar meat sometime in the future. It was all pretty good (definitely better than bland, Brussels sprouts), and no edible food source is going to hurt you. You can eat it, and survive.
In my class at the USAF Survival School, there was a young woman who professed, loudly and repeatedly, to be a strict vegetarian, but after three grueling days of starving in the field during exhausting, evasion exercises in three feet of snow, she willingly ate the beef jerky that we had previously hand-smoked from thin strips of beef. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes in wartime, there are also no vegetarians in a dire, survival situation, not when any form of tasty meat still exists.
On a semi-related note, I recently saw a humorous photograph of a real, black bear sitting at a picnic table, with a computer-generated knife and fork held in his front paws. The caption above him read, “White, black, man, woman, straight, gay, Catholic, Muslim, American, Mexican…they all taste like chicken.”
There’s an important, moral lesson here. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for everyone if we could all look past our differences, if we could all look past the hatred, fear-mongering, divisiveness, and identity politics so aggressively promoted by the current administration, and focus instead on what we have in common as Americans, and as human beings?
After all, it was President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, who reminded us on June 10, 1963, in his commencement speech at American University: “Let us also direct attention to our common interests…And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most-basic, common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Most of the other items in the ACES II survival kit have varying degrees of utility for ordinary, civilian, stranded travelers in a survival situation. Matches, fire-starting tools, knives, multitools, and drinking water are especially vital in almost any extended, survival event, so we can definitely learn from this list, and extract at least a few good ideas for our own personal, survival gear.
I carry an Aircrerw Survival Manual in my vehicle, for example, inside a road-survival kit, and some of my other survival gear includes waterproof matches, a signal whistle, several multitools, knives, and flashlights (packing two flashlights, with spare batteries for both, is the best option, so you always have a backup. I carry a SureFire G2X Pro for serious work, and a smaller, Quantum or Cabela’s penlight for my bedside), a magnesium fire-starter, space blanket, zip-lock bags, and a few chem lights. My wife and I also bring plenty of bottled water on our road trips. You just never know what might happen, and it’s better to have these key items and not need them, than to need them and not have them.
There is also, optional, U.S. Air Force, cold-weather gear, depending upon the specific area of operations. This usually includes the following items:
1. Marmot Helium insulated sleeping bag, Pacifica (Navy Blue), vacuum-packed.
2. Camouflaged boonie hat.
3. Black leather gloves, with green wool inserts.
4. Woolen mittens.
5. Woolen socks.
6. Woolen hood, with face mask.
7. Flexible, 24-inch saw, for obtaining firewood.
We always have an insulated, Coleman sleeping bag rolled up in the trunk of each of our vehicles during cold weather, just large enough to keep the two of us warm all night, if necessary. And certainly, during the winter months, warm clothing is essential for survival. Pack accordingly.
Pilots often add a few personally-owned items for extra safety and security. Some of the more-common items are:
1. Swiss Army Knife multitool/pocket knife (absolutely useful and necessary.)
2. Leatherman or Gerber multitool (likewise, just as useful and essential.)
3. Boot dagger, for self-defense (mine is a Smith and Wesson SWF606GR, full-tang model, with 4.25-inch, double-edged, stonewashed, gray blade and OD green grips.)
4. Wrist compass, such as Suunto M-9 or similar model.
5. Better-quality, survival knife, such as the Cold Steel SRK, or CRKT Powder Keg.
6. British Lifeboat Matches (waterproof), and/or butane lighters.
7. SAS wire saw (takes up almost no space at all, yet very useful.)
8. Vitamins, for strength and energy.
9. Snacks or candy.
10. High-quality, Gore-Tex-lined boots. Some pilots prefer to choose their own, rugged, waterproof boots over the issued boots. As long as the color and material are similar, a personal upgrade is fully authorized. For example, while stationed in Germany, even though I wasn’t a pilot, I wore commercially-manufactured, German paratrooper boots (similar to modern, Rocky 10-inch jump boots), because they were tough, padded, comfortable, top-quality leather, and had a strong, grippy, tread surface. During my very next assignment, to a special operations command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I later wore those very same boots (resoled, with thick, new, Vibram tread) for all of my parachute jumps.
I’ve carried or used most of these 10 optional items at one time or another, and I’m surely never without a Swiss Army Knife and waterproof matches on most of our travels. Even in Great Britain and Ireland, where knives are strictly regulated, Swiss Army Knives with non-locking blades under three inches in length are perfectly legal.
In conclusion, my previous article on “Road-Trip Survival Gear” covers the practical, everyday aspects of survival equipment that you may wish to carry during your travels, but today’s article expands upon that by examining some of the specific, military-issue gear from the world’s best survival kits. Incorporating several of these specialty items into your own emergency gear can literally help you to “survive like a fighter pilot” when the worst occurs, and you’re stranded in the wilderness.
I’ll close with the final recommendation from my first article: “Carry just enough survival gear that you feel fairly safe and comfortable in case of an unexpected breakdown in a remote area, without using excessive trunk space. Your vacation luggage still has top priority, but any survival gear that you can pack will give you peace of mind, and could possibly even save your life under harsh circumstances. It’s a lot like buying a self-defense pistol. You have to ask yourself, ‘How much is my life worth to me?’ A few hundred dollars in vital, survival gear, even when acquired very slowly over time, may someday pay you back in untold benefits if the worst case ever happens.”
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.