PHEnOM Ground School 2 (Land Survival)

I got back from the Florida Panhandle, where I had spent the previous ten days in the PHEnOM Project’s land and sea survival school.

I’ve been caught up since then in work-related stuff. Now’s my first chance to document everything. This post will cover the land survival portion and Part 2 will cover the sea survival portion.

Survival skills are critical for any astronaut. For a suborbital space capsule plummeting back to earth, there is a small but non-zero chance that it will veer off course and land in the wilderness, putting its occupants out of contact for a few days until help arrives. That’s what this survival school was meant to address. It assumed a period of less than forty-eight hours before recovery, but longer periods are possible, especially if it’s an orbital capsule that can land anywhere on Earth.

Forty-eight hours may not sound like much, but with an injured crew member or less than ideal conditions, survival skills could make the difference between life and death.

On October 12, most of us arrived at the Panama City airport or drove in. On the morning of the 13th, we finally met each other after months of online contact.

For the next two days, we were at the Walsingham campsite on Econafina Creek, a 30-minute drive from our hotel in Chipley. Our instructor was a ex-military guy with sniper and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. We weren’t there to learn how to pick off and evade enemy forces, of course, but it was fascinating to listen to him discuss these topics.

October 13

We spent our first evening learning how to start fires the old-fashioned way – with flint and steel. It’s surprisingly difficult for those who are used to matches or lighters. The tinder needs to be very dry for it to catch fire from the sparks. Our area wasn’t exactly the driest, so we had only limited success. Only one of us managed to start a fire that way. Our instructor did it many times in only a few seconds each, but that might have more to do with his practice and huge survival knife, since it made a lot more sparks than our tiny blades!

Just before night fell, we shifted to torch-making. We used the last of the daylight to search for wood that was still green, from living trees that were small enough to cut down with our hatchets. A few of us chose to build their own torches with everyone else looking on or making dinner.

The torches we made were from the branches we brought back, cut down to size and split four ways on one end. Several wood chips were placed down the cracks, and a single large pine cone placed on top so the split wood held it in place. In Washington, where I’m from, pine cones are only the size of chicken eggs. In the Florida Panhandle, they’re the size of ostrich eggs. They are extremely flammable and can last a few hours.

We had our pick of camp food and emergency rations for dinner. The emergency rations in question were the same ones used by the US Army, shipped in by one of our group, who’s ex-Army and wanted us to have a taste. Each square is 400 calories, with 9 in one package for a total of 3600. You could live on one package for a few days without cooking. But the taste is… hit and miss. I liked them, but some of us didn’t. They’re a bit sweet with a chalky texture.

October 14

The next morning, we headed out for practice.

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Most of the posse before we headed out. Yours truly is at far left, with the hat.

Most of us hailed from Northern climates, and were unprepared for the 90-degree heat with high humidity in this area even in October. For me, it was kind of a wake-up call. My last wilderness expedition was with Outward Bound, way back in 2002, and I had forgotten much of what it was like. It was for the best since it put me in the right mental state for survival lessons.

This area is home to several ponds fed from below by warm-water springs. We were sorely tempted to take a dip, but our instructor led us into the hot sun to demonstrate a simple lean-to shelter. It’s quick to set up, but provides only limited protection against sun and wind.

Then we practiced with ground signals for aircraft. The logs in a H-shape you see below is meant to stand out against bare ground if you are deep in the wilderness, where any unnatural shape will attract a pilot’s eye. Our instructor also demonstrated signal mats (seen in the photo below, orange on one side, reflective on the other).

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Our instructor showing us how to set up signals for aircraft

After lunch back at the campsite, we headed out again to demonstrate more advanced shelters, fires, and different ways to purify water.

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Makeshift water purification, without the plastic cover
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One way to purify water, using plastic to funnel evaporated water into the cup
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Stealth fire. Note the air hole at above.

October 15

For the trials, we left camp early in the morning to beat the heat. Chris had us split up into three-person teams to simulate our own spacecraft crash. Each team had to stabilize an “injured” member, build fires and shelter, all within one hour.

I “suffered” femoral artery bleeding, which is pretty severe (think of the poor guy in Black Hawk Down). It was fortunate that my group included a doctor with surgical experience (Shawna Pandya) otherwise I would have “bled” out before they got the tourniquet in place.

Our shelter was a parachute teepee, held up from a tree branch. It’s not the easiest one to set up, but offers plenty of room and protection for the calories you’d burn setting it up. It has a hole up top to let smoke through so you can build a fire inside it without worrying about wind. We managed to start our own pit fire inside with nothing but our new flint-steel skills and dead tinder.

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In front of our parachute teepee shelter. TOP, LEFT-RIGHT: Jamie Guined, Joe Dituri, Kyle Foster, Anima Patil-Sabale, Andreea Radulescu, Doug Campbell, me, David Attig. BOTTOM: Shawna Pandya, Chris (instructor).

We wrapped the session up with a review of what we learned over the past 48 hours, and a small lecture on survival mindsets. Then it was back to the hotel.

Concluding Thoughts

Wilderness survival is a race between your environment and the calories you have to burn. This makes shelter crucial because it can extend the calories you would otherwise spend on  fighting off the cold. A human can live 3 weeks without food and 3 days without water, but can die in as little as 3 hours without shelter if it’s too hot or cold. Prioritizing shelter first allows you to conserve your remaining calories for what you have to do later.

Always be aware of what your environment has to offer. For example, the fallen needles from pine trees make potent fuel for fires. Deadwood makes great firewood, but living wood makes great structural members. The corrollary is that your mental state is crucial for survival.

Besides survival techniques, this session was a good confidence-building exercise for an unlikely scenario. If we were to experience a real-life survival scenario without this familiarization training, we might have frozen up and relied on our more knowledgeable team members to carry us through. That’s not the outcome we want.

Next up will be a post about both sea survival sessions, one in the open water and the other in a pool practicing underwater egress!

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