Suppose an emergency landing necessary for a commercial aircraft on a polar route on water or in the unoccupied, secluded Arctic outback (e.g. Siberia, far northern Canada).

  1. What is the time interval for aid to arrive (I write 'interval' because I know that this question depends on the location)?

  2. How likely would the passengers survive in the freezing cold in their cabin clothes? Assume that they are not equipped with clothes or gear for frigidity.

  • #1 depends a lot on location and weather, in Nunavut for example they do a lot of work and they are calling for new SAR bases. TIme can go from hours to days. Jun 24, 2016 at 14:07
  • Wild guess here, but I would think that the amount of fuel the plane has left will be an issue (I'm assuming engines are the ones that power climate control).
    – Roflo
    Jun 24, 2016 at 14:19
  • Time of year plays a big part in the equation as well as temperature and how far north they really are .The polar night occurs when the night lasts for more than 24 hours. This occurs only inside the polar circles.. Petroleum can freeze at −57 °C (90..
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 25, 2016 at 14:19
  • 3
    Just to mention: Such an emergency is much more likely on a flight from/to an arctic destination than one on a polar route. Most flight emergency occur during start/landing, much less happens during flight (and if so, there is not much chance of getting to the ground alive). E.g. ab2's incident was on landing.
    – imsodin
    Jun 27, 2016 at 21:16
  • The darkest time of year at the North Pole is the Winter Solstice, approximately December 21. There has been no sunlight or even twilight since early October. The darkness lasts until the beginning of dawn in early March. Daylight, Darkness and Changing of the Seasons at the North Pole
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 22, 2017 at 11:50

3 Answers 3


See The New York Times, Nov 5, 1991, After a Plane Crash, 30 Deadly Hours in the Arctic.

The four-engine turbo-prop aircraft with a wingspan of nearly 150 feet -- a jack-of-all-trades plane widely used by the Canadian and United States military to haul cargo and troops -- was on its final approach to the Alert airstrip [400 miles from the North Pole] when it slammed into the eerie Arctic wasteland and broke up.

There were only 2 hours of pale light in the morning, and the weather was not good. The crash was only 12 miles from the settlement of Alert.

While most of the 18 aboard the plane suffered cuts and burns and broken bones, all were alive immediately after the crash. But in the 30 hours that it took for the first squad of military paramedics to arrive, five people, including the pilot, Capt. John Couch, a 32-year-old father of two, had frozen to death. The airlift of the survivors did not begin until 40 hours after the crash.

The plane carried extensive arctic survival gear, but much of it was lost in the crash and subsequent fire.

Eleven of the 13 survivors lay in sleeping bags inside the tail section, huddled together for warmth, eating candies from survival rations and answering periodic roll calls. Two were left outside, covered by makeshift pup tents, because it was thought they had spinal injuries and could not be moved.

The first rescue team had to parachute from only 700 feet into a driving wind to reach the survivors, because the overland team faced so many difficulties from the terrain.

The article has much more detail, and possibly rescue techniques have improved in 25 years, but remember this was a fully equipped military aircraft that crashed only 12 miles from its destination.

Limitations of this answer:

(1) it is one anecdote

(2) the crash happened in November. The ending would probably have been happier for a June or July crash.

(3) But not necessarily happier, if the crash was into the increasingly summer-ice-free sea

(4) Although not explicitly stated, the passengers were likely young and fit and accustomed to discipline, not the profile of commercial passengers

(5) Where were the polar bears?

(Bottom line: Pack fleece and power bars in your carryon.)

  • 1
    On a small aircraft in the Arctic there's surely a strong case to pack at least a sleeping bag in your carry-on, plus a down suit if you have one. Good down compresses small, so this should be practical on most flights. If space is tight the best survival food would probably be a bottle of coconut oil, or failing that, olive oil, butter or lard. This gives your body the fuel to keep your core temperature up. You'll be staying with the aircraft so won't need to top up your glucose levels, and protein isn't a priority. Of course if you have the space, you could carry something more palatable! Jun 27, 2016 at 9:07

As a man who has spent a lot of time flying into to and from a camp job in Fort Mcmurray, Canada. I offer my humble opinion.

You are very likely to die very quickly.

Temperatures are deadly, not having the right clothes is pretty much fatal. And that is even before you get above the treeline.

I would say watch the movie alive where this happens, pretty brutal.

  • You write that "You are likely to die very quickly", and back this up with a reference to Alive... but in that film (and in the real incident which it dramatizes), 16 unprepared people survived for over two months, and most of the casualties were from crash injuries rather than subsequent exposure.
    – Pont
    Jul 24, 2017 at 15:56

N Pacific water landing. Summer. 15 min. if in the water. 30 min on the plane raft. On land. 15 min unless you can get a fire going or find a way to stay warm. At -30 below. Longer the warmer it is. Heat is the main thing. With heat for 40 days with water.

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