Signaling for Help in an Emergency

Imagine you are driving across the country and your car breaks down in the middle of the drive. What are you going to do? If you're prepared and know how to signal for help, you can create signs and signal aircrafts for help. Most people know the SOS sign, but here are other things that emergency personal will recognize as messages.

Three Fires

Building three separate fires is an international signal for distress. Ideally, they should be placed in a triangle at equal distances. However, if you are injured or fuel isn't available, you might only be able to build one fire which is a great start to signaling for help.

Many people have even built small rafts that they build fires on. This allows them to float their three-fire triangle in the middle of a lake or in a river where a passing aircraft is more likely to see them.

Single Fires

Smoking fires are a great way to signal for help from long distances. Be sure to set up your fire in a visible location so that people can see the flames or smoke before they dissipate. Typically, planes will fly from a high ridge to a low one

Ground-to-Air Codes

There are a few symbols that you can use to signify that you are in need. Typically, you’ll want to make these large and as noticeable as possible - usually a color that is contrasted with its surroundings.

Serious Injury, Evacuation Required Am Proceeding in This Direction
Need Medical Supplies Probably Safe to Land Here
Unable to Move Require Food and Water

Body Signaling

There are a series of signals that pilots and other airmen will understand and use. Make all of these signals in a clear and exaggerated manner.

Need Medical Attention Do Not Attempt to Land Here
Land Here (Indicate Direction) Affirmative
Pick Us Up Here Negative

If the pilot understands the message, he or she will continue flying the plane and tipping the wings in a rocking motion from side to side. If the pilot did not understand, they will begin flying the plane in a right-handed circle. At night time, the plane will either flash a green (affirmative) or red (negative) light to communicate.

~ Brandon Garrett

Brandon Garrett is a preparedness consultant and team member of The Ready Store.  He writes informative articles and information for the ReadyBlog, the Ready Store's blog and educational section pertaining to topics of the economy, resiliency, and preparedness issues. 

Full disclosure: Based on our existing relationship with The Ready Store, will receive a small commission as an affiliate for purchases made through the Ready Store. This will not impact the price you pay and the proceeds we received will be immediately invested to fund new features and functionality for this site.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As a pilot I'm not so sure about this list.  My training is a little hazy as I haven't been up in a few years, but none of this is familiar.  Specifically the ground to air codes.  It's likely that these are trained to coast guard responders, but if I saw a giant X on the ground my first instinct would be "runway closed, unsafe to land". The other symbols wouldn't mean anything to me either unless I was specifically looking for a sign in which case anything human made would get my attention.  I agree that three fires are helpful and the more smoke the better.  Smoke is visible even on a clear day.  Add leaves or pine/fir branches to get more smoke.  If I wanted to send a signal to someone in the air, I would go with SOS or HELP spelled out in at least 10' letters.  The bigger the better.  A pilot will communicate an affirmative by rocking their wings, but I wouldn't know to fly in a right circle to communicate that I didn't understand the message.  A left turn would likely afford the pilot a better look at the area.  Most likely the pilot would do a couple of circles, note their position using GPS or proximity and heading from some other ground-based navigation system and radio it into air traffic control for them to follow up with authorities.  As a non-pilot, I would never make a suggestion from the ground as to an appropriate spot to land.  It's impossible to know how much runway a pilot needs without knowing their equipment, weight, landing gear capabilities etc.  Wind direction also plays a huge part.  If they want to land and think it's safe, they have a better perspective from up there than you would have from the ground.  The exception would be if you're an experienced aviator on the ground and you understand the conditions required.  Best to assume the pilot is an idiot like me and make your message unmistakable. :slight_smile: