Know the Ground-To-Air Emergency Code for Rescue Signaling

Helicopter rescue
Use emergency signals that rescuers can see and understand from the air. Photo © Flickr® user bossco.

When you’re in distress in the outdoors and you need to call for help, you may choose to use a number of different rescue signal techniques. But if you believe that an airplane, helicopter, or other airborne rescue parties may be searching for you, then you can use the five-symbol ground-to-air emergency code to signal a specific message in advance of the aircraft’s landing.

Most importantly, the ground-to-air emergency code can help let rescuers know whether of not anyone in your party is injured, and it can guide them more effectively towards your location.

The five ground-to-air emergency code symbols and their meanings are as follows:

Require Assistance: V

A V-shaped signal communicates that you need assistance, in general, but it doesn’t imply that you or someone in your party is injured.

Require Medical Assistance: X

Use the letter X to communicate that you or someone in your party needs medical attention. Whereas the V symbol communicates a call for help, the X symbol communicates a more urgent request for assistance.

No or Negative: N

The N symbol can be used to communicate your negative response to a question that the aircraft or rescue organization has asked.

Yes or Affirmative: Y

The Y symbol can be used to communicate your affirmative response to a question that the aircraft or rescue organization has asked.

Proceed in This Direction: Arrow, Pointing Towards the Location

Place an arrow-shaped symbol with the head, or point, of the arrow indicating the direction of your location.

This symbol is a good one to use when rescuers may need additional information about how to reach your location after they have identified another ground-to-air signal, such as a group of X symbols in an open area indicating a need for medical assistance. Place the arrow in a position that will guide rescuers from the open area towards your location.

Tips for Using the Air-To-Ground Emergency Code

Signal using the air-to-ground emergency code as you would signal with other methods, such as a smoke rescue fire. Remember these key ideas when arranging signals and communicating with rescue crews:

  • As with other visual signals, signaling in threes communicates and confirms distress.
  • Choose a large, open area as close as possible to your location for the signal location.
  • Choose to place signals on the highest, flattest terrain you can find near your location.
  • Choose a signal that will contrast with the underlying terrain. Choose dark-colored branches, for example, on top of the white snow.
  • Go big! Use several rows of rocks or debris to build each part of a signal letter so that it is thick enough and big enough to be seen clearly from above.
  • Be prepared to use a backup signal, such as a signal mirror, to confirm your location as soon as you see aircraft in the area.