Signaling Techniques

One of your first concerns when you find yourself in a survival situation is to
communicate with your friends or allies. Generally, communication is the
giving and receiving of information. As a survivor, you must get your rescuer’s
attention first, and second, send a message your rescuer understands. Some
attention-getters are man-made geometric patterns such as straight lines,
circles, triangles, or X’s displayed in uninhabited areas; a large fire or flash of
light; a large, bright object moving slowly; or contrast, whether from color or
shadows. The type of signal used will depend on your environment and the
enemy situation.

If in a noncombat situation, you need to find the largest available clear and flat area on the
highest possible terrain. Use as obvious a signal as you can create. On the other hand, you
will have to be more discreet in combat situations. You do not want to signal and attract the
enemy. Pick an area that is visible from the air, but ensure there are hiding places nearby.
Try to have a hill or other object between the signal site and the enemy to mask your signal
from the enemy. Perform a thorough reconnaissance of the area to ensure there are no
enemy forces nearby.
Whatever signaling technique or device you plan to use, know how to use it and be ready to
put it into operation on short notice. If possible, avoid using signals or signaling techniques
that can physically endanger you. Keep in mind that signals to your friends may alert the
enemy of your presence and location. Before signaling, carefully weigh your rescue chances
by friends against the danger of capture by the enemy.
A radio is probably the surest and quickest way to let others know where you are and to let
you receive their messages. Become familiar with the radios in your unit. Learn how to
operate them and how to send and receive messages.
You will find descriptions of other signaling techniques, devices, and articles you can use.
Learn how to use them. Think of ways in which you can adapt or change them for different
environments. Practice using these signaling techniques, devices, and articles before you
need them. Planned, prearranged signaling techniques may improve your chance of rescue.

There are two main ways to get attention or to communicate–visual and audio. The means
you use will depend on your situation and the material you have available. Whatever the
means, always have visual and audio signals ready for use.

Visual Signals
These signals are materials or equipment you use to make your presence known to

During darkness, fire is the most effective visual means for signaling. Build three fires in a
triangle (the international distress signal) or in a straight line with about 25 meters between
the fires. Build them as soon as time and the situation permit and protect them until you
need them. If you are alone, maintaining three fires may be difficult. If so, maintain one
signal fire.
When constructing signal fires, consider your geographic location. If in a jungle, find a
natural clearing or the edge of a stream where you can build fires that the jungle foliage
will not hide. You may even have to clear an area. If in a snow-covered area, you may have
to clear the ground of snow or make a platform on which to build the fire so that melting
snow will not extinguish it.
A burning tree (tree torch) is another way to attract attention (Figure 19-1). You can set
pitch-bearing trees afire, even when green. You can get other types of trees to burn by
placing dry wood in the lower branches and igniting it so that the flames flare up and ignite
the foliage. Before the primary tree is consumed, cut and add more small green trees to the
fire to produce more smoke. Always select an isolated tree so that you do not start a forest
fire and endanger yourself.

During daylight, build a smoke generator and use smoke to gain attention (Figure 19-2).
The international distress signal is three columns of smoke. Try to create a color of smoke
that contrasts with the background; dark smoke against a light background and vice versa.
If you practically smother a large fire with green leaves, moss, or a little water, the fire will
produce white smoke. If you add rubber or oil-soaked rags to a fire, you will get black

In a desert environment, smoke hangs close to the ground, but a pilot can spot it in open
desert terrain.
Smoke signals are effective only on comparatively calm, clear days. High winds, rain, or
snow disperse smoke, lessening its chances of being seen.

Smoke Grenades
If you have smoke grenades with you, use them in the same pattern as described for fires.
Keep them dry so that they will work when you need them. Take care not to ignite the
vegetation in the area when you use them.

Pen Flares
These flares are part of an aviator’s survival vest. The device consists of a pen-shaped gun
with a flare attached by a nylon cord. When fired, the pen flare sounds like a pistol shot and
fires the flare about 150 meters high. It is about 3 centimeters in diameter.
To have the pen flare ready for immediate use, take it out of its wrapper, attach the flare,
leave the gun uncocked, and wear it on a cord or chain around your neck. Be ready to fire it
in front of search aircraft and be ready with a secondary signal. Also, be ready to take cover
in case the pilot mistakes the flare for enemy fire.

Tracer Ammunition
You may use rifle or pistol tracer ammunition to signal search aircraft. Do not fire the
ammunition in front of the aircraft. As with pen flares, be ready to take cover if the pilot
mistakes your tracers for enemy fire.

Star Clusters
Red is the international distress color; therefore, use a red star cluster whenever possible.
Any color, however, will let your rescuers know where you are. Star clusters reach a height
of 200 to 215 meters, burn an average of 6 to 10 seconds, and descend at a rate of 14
meters per second.

Star Parachute Flares
These flares reach a height of 200 to 215 meters and descend at a rate of 2.1 meters per
second. The M126 (red) burns about 50 seconds and the M127 (white) about 25 seconds. At
night you can see these flares at 48 to 56 kilometers.

Mirrors or Shiny Objects
On a sunny day, a mirror is your best signaling device. If you don’t have a mirror, polish
your canteen cup, your belt buckle, or a similar object that will reflect the sun’s rays. Direct
the flashes in one area so that they are secure from enemy observation. Practice using a
mirror or shiny object for signaling now; do not wait until you need it. If you have an MK-3
signal mirror, follow the instructions on its back (Figure 19-3).

Wear the signal mirror on a cord or chain around your neck so that it is ready for immediate
use. However, be sure the glass side is against your body so that it will not flash; the enemy
can see the flash.

Do not flash a signal mirror rapidly because a pilot may mistake the flashes for enemy fire.
Do not direct the beam in the aircraft’s cockpit for more than a few seconds as it may blind
the pilot.

Haze, ground fog, and mirages may make it hard for a pilot to spot signals from a flashing
object. So, if possible, get to the highest point in your area when signaling. If you can’t
determine the aircraft’s location, flash your signal in the direction of the aircraft noise.
Note: Pilots have reported seeing mirror flashes up to 160 kilometers away
under ideal conditions.
Figures 19-4 and 19-5 show methods of aiming a signal mirror for signaling.

Flashlight or Strobe Light
At night you can use a flashlight or a strobe light to send an SOS to an aircraft. When using
a strobe light, take care to prevent the pilot from mistaking it for incoming ground fire. The
strobe light flashes 60 times per minute. Some strobe lights have infrared covers and
lenses. Blue flash collimators are also available for strobe lights.

VS-17 Panel
During daylight you can use a VS-17 panel to signal. Place the orange side up as it is easier
to see from the air than the violet side. Flashing the panel will make it easier for the aircrew
to spot. You can use any bright orange or violet cloth as a substitute for the VS-17.

Spreading clothing on the ground or in the top of a tree is another way to signal. Select
articles whose color will contrast with the natural surroundings. Arrange them in a large
geometric pattern to make them more likely to attract attention.

Natural Material
If you lack other means, you can use natural materials to form a symbol or message that
can be seen from the air. Build mounds that cast shadows; you can use brush, foliage of
any type, rocks, or snow blocks.
In snow-covered areas, tramp the snow to form letters or symbols and fill the depression
with contrasting material (twigs or branches). In sand, use boulders, vegetation, or
seaweed to form a symbol or message. In brush-covered areas, cut out patterns in the
vegetation or sear the ground. In tundra, dig trenches or turn the sod upside down.
In any terrain, use contrasting materials that will make the symbols visible to the aircrews.

Sea Dye Markers
All Army aircraft involved in operations near or over water will normally carry a water
survival kit that contains sea dye markers. If you are in a water survival situation, use sea
dye markers during daylight to indicate your location. These spots of dye stay conspicuous
for about 3 hours, except in very rough seas. Use them only if you are in a friendly area.
Keep the markers wrapped until you are ready to use them. Use them only when you hear
or sight an aircraft. Sea dye markers are also very effective on snow-covered ground; use
them to write distress code letters.

Audio Signals
Radios, whistles, and gunshots are some of the methods you can use to signal your
presence to rescuers.

Radio Equipment
The AN/PRC-90 survival radio is a part of the Army aviator’s survival vest. The AN/PRC-112
will eventually replace the AN/PRC-90. Both radios can transmit either tone or voice. Any
other type of Army radio can do the same. The ranges of the different radios vary
depending on the altitude of the receiving aircraft, terrain, vegetation density, weather,
battery strength, type of radio, and interference. To obtain maximum performance from
radios, use the following procedures:
• Try to transmit only in clear, unobstructed terrain. Since radios are line-of-sight
communications devices, any terrain between the radio and the receiver will block
the signal.
• Keep the antenna at right angles to the rescuing aircraft. There is no signal from the
tip of the antenna.
• If the radio has tone capability, place it upright on a flat, elevated surface so that you
can perform other survival tasks.
• Never let the antenna touch your clothing, body, foliage, or the ground. Such contact
greatly reduces the range of the signal.
• Conserve battery power. Turn the radio off when you are not using it. Do not transmit
or receive constantly. In hostile territory, keep transmissions short to avoid enemy
radio direction finding.
• In cold weather, keep the battery inside your clothing when not using the radio. Cold
quickly drains the battery’s power. Do not expose the battery to extreme heat such
as desert sun. High heat may cause the battery to explode. Try to keep the radio and
battery as dry as possible, as water may destroy the circuitry.

Whistles provide an excellent way for close up signaling. In some documented cases, they
have been heard up to 1.6 kilometers away. Manufactured whistles have more range than a
human whistle.

In some situations you can use firearms for signaling. Three shots fired at distinct intervals
usually indicate a distress signal. Do not use this technique in enemy territory. The enemy
will surely come to investigate shots.

Now that you know how to let people know where you are, you need to know how to give
them more information. It is easier to form one symbol than to spell out an entire message.
Therefore, learn the codes and symbols that all aircraft pilots understand.

You can use lights or flags to send an SOS–three dots, three dashes, three dots. The SOS is
the internationally recognized distress signal in radio Morse code. A dot is a short, sharp
pulse; a dash is a longer pulse. Keep repeating the signal. When using flags, hold flags on
the left side for dashes and on the right side for dots.

Ground-to-Air Emergency Code
This code (Figure 19-6) is actually five definite, meaningful symbols. Make these symbols a
minimum of 1 meter wide and 6 meters long. If you make them larger, keep the same 1: 6
ratio. Ensure the signal contrasts greatly with the ground it is on. Place it in an open area
easily spotted from the air.

Body Signals
When an aircraft is close enough for the pilot to see you clearly, use body movements or
positions (Figure 19-7) to convey a message.

Panel Signals
If you have a life raft cover or sail, or a suitable substitute, use the symbols shown in Figure
19-8 to convey a message.

Aircraft Acknowledgments
Once the pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft has sighted you, he will normally indicate he has seen
you by flying low, moving the plane, and flashing lights as shown in Figure 19-9. Be ready
to relay other messages to the pilot once he acknowledges that he received and understood
your first message. Use a radio, if possible, to relay further messages. If no radio is
available, use the codes covered in the previous paragraphs.

If you can contact a friendly aircraft with a radio, guide the pilot to your location. Use the
following general format to guide the pilot:
• Mayday, Mayday.
• Call sign (if any).
• Name.
• Location.
• Number of survivors.
• Available landing sites.
• Any remarks such as medical aid or other specific types of help needed immediately.
Simply because you have made contact with rescuers does not mean you are safe. Follow
instructions and continue to use sound survival and evasion techniques until you are
actually rescued.

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