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Aviation Life Vests

Aviation Life Vests
Vests For Kids Care and Feeding of Vests
Tips To Stay Alive Additional Survival Equipment
Aviation Life Vest Comparison Chart

Aviation Life Vests

Some pilots just cannot be convinced of the wisdom of spending close to a thousand dollars for a life raft, let alone the few thousand it takes to get a truly capable one. It doesn't matter where they are flying, but even more so when they are only flying over a relatively small body of water like Long Island Sound, Puget Sound or the like. OK, fine, be that way. It's your life after all. Perhaps we could convince you to at least carry or wear a life vest?

Even with a raft on board, a life vest is a vital necessity. There's no absolute guarantee the raft will actually make it out of the plane and even then, a life vest insures you will stay afloat long enough to get into the raft, no matter what condition you are in once you exit the aircraft. No matter how physically fit you may be, you cannot rely upon your personal ability to survive in the water without some form of additional floatation, especially so if the water is cold or you are injured. Shock alone can have such a deleterious effect that a person can be rendered nearly helpless. As for your passengers, they deserve consideration as well.

When considering a life vest for use in light aircraft, a number of factors need be taken into account. Foremost among them is that it must be available for use when needed. For the pilot and the front seat passenger or co-pilot this means it must either be worn at all times while over water or be able to be donned quickly in the event a dip in the drink is imminent, without interfering with the critical piloting tasks while dealing with the emergency or ditching. This is not the time to be struggling to get into a life vest. It's time to fly the aircraft.

Depending upon the size of the cabin, passengers may be able to make due with a more conventional packaged vest as used by the airlines, but that needs very deliberate consideration. Quickly donning a life vest in the tight confines of the typical light plane is, at best, an awkward endeavor. Add in a dose of panic as the water gets closer and you might want to seriously consider a quick donning or wearable style for all occupants. At low altitude there is simply no way anyone will get into a conventional airline style vest in time.

Like rafts, inflatable life vests come in a variety of styles. And, like rafts, one of the most obvious differences is whether they have a single inflation cell or a double cell for redundancy. Part 91 operations in light aircraft can legally be conducted with a single cell life preserver, or none at all for that matter. For flights less than 50 miles from land even commercial operators are allowed to make do with a lowly single cell vest (technically it is called an "Individual Floatation Device," not a "Life Preserver which is the term used by the FAA for life vests), though few actually do. Part 135 and other commercial operations require an approved unit (TSO C13) for extended overwater flights. The TSO used to require at least two separate inflation cells. That was relatively recently changed to allow single-cell vests, in line with European regulations.

Because we believe that redundancy is an extremely important attribute for any inflatable life saving device, we're partial to double cell designs. Having said that, single cell designs are standard for marine inflatable vests and have proved reliable. These tend to be constructed of heavier and more robust material. Given the sometimes large difference in price between compareable double cell vests and single cell vests, sometimes a trade-off must be made for economic reasons and a marine based desgin may be a good compromise.

For Part 91 ops in light aircraft pilots have a wider variety of options since the vests don't have to be TSO'd. We looked at a number of marine vests which might be appropriate and which are, in fact, quite popular with pilots. We tested a total of 39 different inflatable life preservers of various designs using both male and female volunteers of various heights and weights (95 - 235 lbs., 4'11" - 6'2"). We tried them out while sitting in a variety of aircraft and in a pool. Selected top rated models were also tested in the ocean to see if it made any difference. It didn't.

We tested vests from the following companies:

Let's get the least expensive "vests" out of the way first, and we do mean out of the way! Eastern Aero Marine (EAM), Hoover Industries and Switlik Parachute Company all make a single cell vest, more correctly called an "Individual Floatation Device" (Model GA-12, FD-18 and AV-8, respectively). The EAM is considerably smaller and offers much less buoyancy than the others (12, 18 and 21 lbs., respectively), but none are acceptable in our opinion.

These individual floatation devices are approved under TSO C72c, which also covers the seat cushion flotation device mentioned by airline flight attendants in their safety briefing. As noted earlier, real life vests (or life preservers as the FAA calls them) are approved under TSO C13, a much more stringent TSO. However, these devices are regularly advertised as "life vests" by most retailers, including Sporty's, so it's not unexpected that the vast majority of pilots don't recognize the difference or realize that they really are not approved life vests.

No mater what you call them, they provide too little buoyancy, don't keep your head far enough out of the water or protect it in the least, are not required to right an unconscious person, and do not offer any redundancy. If you are relying on one of these, we respectfully suggest you consider replacing it with something better.

The airline style vests are the least expensive double cell vests and the most widely advertised and most readily available, so lets look at them next. They do a very respectable job of keeping you afloat, which is what you want, after all. These are also manufactured by EAM, Hoover and Switlik. Survival Products also offer such a vest, but declined to send us a sample. However, they admitted that it is just a standard Hoover vest with their name printed upon it, so we won't consider it separately.

All these vests are similar in design and appearance. The vests are reversible and slip over the head in a closed yoke configuration. The two separate buoyancy cells, one on top of the other, are constructed of a flame resistant urethane coated woven nylon cloth with heat sealed seams and give 35 lbs. minimum buoyancy with the exception of Hoover who offer 38 lbs. buoyancy, a noteworthy advantage (Note: Switlik offers a 40 lb. buoyancy vest as a special order option.) Each cell has its own manually operated inflation valve with a small CO2 cartridge operated via a pull cord hanging down at the bottom of the vest. Each cell is also fitted with an oral inflation tube with an accessible check valve in the end which can be used to deflate the chamber as needed by depressing it with your finger nail. An adjustable waist strap secures the vest at the waist. Each has a TSO'd locator light attached to the vest alongside the head which is powered by a water energized battery attached to the waist strap.

These vests are covered by TSO-C13 which has been through a number of revisions over the years, the latest being version TSO-C13f. Vests meeting earlier versions of the TSO are still available. One of the most readily distinguishable differences between those which meet the latest TSO and earlier versions is the waist strap arrangement. Earlier vests were equipped with a back panel to which were attached two straps which must be connected in the front. To adjust, you must pull on both straps. Designs meeting the latest TSO eliminate the back panel and have but a single strap with a plastic quick connect closure in front and a single adjustment. These are much easier to don. However, the older style with back panels and double straps are slightly more effective at maintaining the proper alignment of the body in the water and probably a superior choice. Avoid those with metal clips and metal adjusting buckles as they can sometimes be a problem after getting wet and are more difficult to use in any case, particularly when in a hurry or in the water.

Between the manufacturers, the differences are quite subtle and generally relate to manufacturing, assembly and construction techniques which, with a single exception, don't really seem to affect the functionality of the vests. The one area which serves to differentiate these vests is the neck where the two individual cells are joined. EAM and Hoover, in Hoover's standard models, use a design which creates an uncomfortable, potentially injurious, neckline. While comfort may not be at the top of one's list of desirable life vest attributes, more comfortable is far better than less. Besides, you certainly don't want a design which could make a difficult situation worse.

The neck lines of these vests are scalloped with sharp die cut edges to the scallops which can irritate and eventually might scrape, rub raw or cut into the skin. Not the best of situations, especially if you are floating in salt water. The Hoover also has two tiny holes in each scallop as a result of their proprietary manufacturing process which are themselves fairly sharp and a source of irritation.

If you wear a collared shirt with these vests and make sure the collar is up after donning, to protect your neck, then these scalloped necklines are no factor. If, on the other hand, you are likely to be wearing a tee shirt when you are wearing these vests, this is certainly a factor to consider. More so if you plan on wearing the vest while flying, as they can be truly annoying and uncomfortable under those circumstances.

Switlik's vests are fitted with a neck gusset which solves the problem. This piece of material covers up the offending neckline area, presenting a smooth surface to the skin. It wrinkles somewhat upon inflation, but that doesn't seem to negatively affect the comfort level. The Switlik also places the locator light higher on the yoke which seems to be a bit more visible location.

We discovered by chance that Hoover manufactures a vest especially for JAL Airlines that also has a neck gusset and some other special options. It is the older style with a back panel and dual adjustable straps with metal fittings. We asked for a sample and were favorably impressed. It was even more comfortable than the Switlik. As a result of my prodding, Hoover is now making a series of vests with this gusset including a version of their latest airline vest (model 3505-401). All other things being equal, and they pretty much are, the neck gusset is one way to tip the scales in the direction of the Switlik or the Hoover model 3505-401. Add in the Hoover's greater buoyancy and it comes out on top. The special order Switlik 40 lb. vest should be even better, but it may be difficult to order just one.

All these vests had similar pluses and minuses. On the plus side the double independent bladders with the upper one high in relation to the head help to shield the survivor's face from spray and water, when properly worn. On the down side, the oral inflation tubes are adequate, but just barely. They were all difficult to use because they are too short.

The biggest drawback to these vests, no matter which one you choose, is that they are not designed to be worn continuously. They are really one shot designs, made to be used once and discarded. The material really doesn't stand up very well to abrasion or rough use and is relatively easily damaged or punctured. While many do don them for flights over water, they aren't designed to be used this way, particularly on a regular basis. In warm weather they can also get pretty uncomfortable since they pretty much cover your upper torso and prevent any air circulation.

Still sticking with this same basic TSO'd airline style vest, there is an alternative for those who don't want to wear them while flying over water but do want or have them available for quick donning. The quick donning style vest, also sometimes referred to by their makers as a "helicopter vest," is contained in a pouch strapped to your waist. These are offered by EAM and Hoover. The waist strap used to secure the pouch is just the normal waist strap used on the regular vests. The vest itself is the standard vest simply folded up into the pouch which is closed around it. The sturdy pouch protects the vest from damage. Hoover's pouch is made of more sturdy material than is EAM's. To use, you grab the brightly colored pull tab, yank and then pull the vest over your head. This can be easily done in a few seconds with one hand with the seat belt and harness fastened.

Again, at my prodding, Hoover has packed their top rated 3505-401 life vest into their quick donning waist pouch. Model 3505-501 is available alone ($62.00) or packed with a top rated 2 x 3 inch acrylic SOS Survival, Inc. signal mirror and an ACR survival whistle. These are attached with tethers to an oral inflation tube. Model 3505-501-WM is $72.00. These vests set a new standard, especially the -WM model, for the pouch style vests. Hoover has also improved the snap closure on these pouches to make it more difficult to inadvertently open the vest.

EAM has much better, explicit instructions than does Hoover which has but a couple of pictorial representations. The pouch is a bit bulky sitting in your crotch and you're not likely to forget it is there, but it isn't too uncomfortable. In any case, it definitely beats wearing the vest. The Hoover pouch configuration is the more comfortable of the two even though the material is stiffer.

While the EAM instructions suggest unbuckling the safety harness first (they don't remind you to buckle back up), this isn't really necessary. If you have a single strap shoulder harness, you can pull the vest up under the harness. But, you have to remember to do this and passengers will need to be briefed and reminded. It is almost too easy to just don it with the shoulder strap underneath and we wanted to see what would happen in that case. Trying them out a number of times in different aircraft we found that as long as the shoulder strap was disconnected before releasing the seat belt, the strap would slip out while exiting the aircraft. However, it is too likely something will go wrong during a hasty emergency egress, so don't do it. With a double safety harness there is no problem, though the pouch does tend to get in the way of the quick release. Just be very careful in all cases that the life vest waist strap and pouch are worn so that they don't trap the seat belts or release.

Another alternative are vest styles designed to be worn everyday. Switlik offers two versions of their vest designed expressly for constant wear and worn around the neck. The Helicopter Crew ($248.00) and Helicopter Passenger ($166.00) Vests are similar in design. Both feature a ballistic nylon cloth covering which encapsulates the standard dual floatation cells which are folded up inside, protecting them from damage. Velcro and snaps hold the covering in place until the vest is inflated. The oral inflation tube for the upper cell is mounted on the exterior under a cloth guard where it is accessible in case the CO2 inflation fails. Using this to inflate the cell will open the coverings and allow access to the other oral inflation tube.

The vests open in the front, making them easy to take on or off and have a plastic quick connect buckle in front to close the yoke. A seam caused some chafing without a shirt collar for protection which could be annoying. The Crew Vest is the most robust of the two with a nylon mesh vest to support the chambers, a hefty zipper in front to more securely close the yoke, a wide dual adjustable waist strap and two equipment pouches with two compartments each to hold emergency gear, a very useful feature. It is short enough so that it doesn't create any problems while sitting down. The seams on the inflatable cells are lined with retro-reflective material, an excellent concept. This is the vest I use, packed with survival equipment.

The Passenger Vest is less cumbersome, no mesh vest or zipper and no equipment pouches as well as narrower encapsulation configuration which isn't as bulky feeling on the chest. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to fit any of our volunteers nearly as well. The straps are configured so that no matter how you adjust them, they dig into the armpits uncomfortably. As a result we cannot recommend this otherwise acceptable vest.

This style of vest, designed to be worn continuously, is the best way to go, at least for the pilot or anyone who can't afford a moment to even use a quick donning style vest. However, given the expense, we can see why many might choose to look for alternatives which are not TSO'd, but which offer similar capabilities.

Lifesaving Systems Corp. (LSC) offers their Pro-Vest (198.50) which is similar in concept to the Switlik Helicopter Crew vest. This is a civilian version of the vest they produce for the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crews. Instead of two totally separate inflation cells a la the airline style vests, this vest incorporates a single dual chamber design. The single large floatation collar incorporates an internal floating partition which divides it into two self contained cells. If one is lost, the complete buoyancy collar remains inflated, though at one half the buoyancy. Using an oral inflation tube it can then be fully inflated, restoring it to full inflation.

Both inflation cartridges are attached to a single pull on the right side, so inflation couldn't be simpler. One drawback is that this puts a bit more bulk on that side. It didn't seem to be particularly uncomfortable while wearing, but noticeable. The design of the pull handle incorporates a series of plastic balls instead of the traditional aviation double finger pull and is less likely to catch on something and inflate accidentally. Both oral inflation tubes, which feature military style check valves, are on the left chest and easily accessible, but not without opening the cover first. These valves confused our volunteers since they must be awkwardly depressed while blowing into them and no instructions are provided. For general use the simple civilian style are better.

The vest has two equipment pouches with loops to attach lanyard tethers, an important feature as you want to tie items to the vest so they cannot be lost if dropped (and you will drop them). One pouch is specifically designed to accommodate an ACR Mini-B or Litton Micro-B EPIRB rescue beacon in one compartment and other equipment in the remaining compartment. The other pouch will hold additional equipment or an optional "Spare Air" escape breathing device. We found only two points to complain about, one minor, the other a significant one. On the minor side, some felt the wide flat configuration of the vest wasn't as comfortable as the narrow Switlik or some of the other vests. More seriously, the adjusting buckles for the waist strap are located such that they invariably end up in the back where they can get to be annoying and uncomfortable while sitting in the aircraft. A more forward location for these adjusters, like on the Switlik Crew Vest, would solve this problem. As a result of our complaints, LSC has relocated the buckles and it is much better now.

Another alternative are the Airborne SOSpenders marketed exclusively by Garlick Helicopters (NOTE: NO LONGER AVAILABLE). These are an aviation version of the original marine SOSpenders made by Sporting Lives. Originally, there were a number of differences between the marine and aviation versions, but it seemed to us, and was confirmed by the manufacturer, that the only remaining difference of note is that the Airborne units use a more flexible mil. spec. ballistic nylon material for the cover. As a result they are noticeably much more comfortable to wear and this gives them an edge over the marine version. Garlick plans to seek TSO approval, but has none at this time.

Both the original marine and Airborne SOSpenders are available in both single and dual chambered models (marine $119 and $155, Airborne $135 and $195, respectively). The dual chamber design uses a floating internal partition similar to the LSC Pro-Vest. Each chamber can be inflated separately and provides the full 35 lbs. of buoyancy. A pressure release valve (PRV) on one chamber prevents over-inflation. At first, the PRV caused a bit of consternation to our volunteers who initially thought that the preserver was leaking as the excess gas was vented, bubbling into the water. Oral inflation tubes are provided for each chamber, but none are accessible without opening the Velcro'd cover. The waist strap adjustment is very difficult and time consuming and is the units' biggest failing.

Since these units, like all the marine based styles, are designed to be deflated, repacked and reused, they have a cap for the oral inflation valve which incorporates a means to depress the check valve for deflation which can be used to adjust the inflation pressure. This is a nice touch for those who lack fingernails with which to depress the valve, a problem some folks had with the aviation vests. An optional belt pouch fitted with elastic tethers is available for the marine version and works equally with both. The single chamber models are the same size as the dual chamber units and are equally effective at keeping a person afloat, but they do lack any redundancy, a big drawback in our opinion.

One important note for anyone purchasing a marine inflatable vest of any sort for aviation use. Most marine manufactures make both manual operating and automatic operating versions. The automatic versions inflate by themselves after a few seconds' immersion in water. Experts warn: DO NOT USE AUTOMATIC INFLATION VESTS FOR AVIATION USE. If the aircraft cabin goes underwater, which is likely and nearly a certainty in high wing ditchings, the inflated vest will make it more difficult to exit the aircraft while underwater.

We looked at a number of other marine vests which were similar in concept to the SOSpenders. These included models made by LSC (Pro-Lite Vest $88.95), Survival Technologies Group (TECHVEST $124.50) and Mustang Engineered Technical Apparel (Crewfit $140.50, Mustang Survival Inflatable Collar MD2000 $152.65). All these units are single cell models. The Crewfit, TECHVEST and Pro-Lite are virtual clones, not surprising since the TECHVEST was originally copied from the Crewfit and LSC originally made it exclusively for Survival Technologies who now manufacture it themselves, leaving LSC to market their own version. One significant difference is that LSC uses a ballistic nylon cover material which is much more flexible making it more comfortable to wear, but none of the three were judged to be as comfortable as the SOSpenders. All were very stiff and unyielding around the neck with the Crewfit the worst of the bunch. The Crewfit also had a unique and unwieldy buckle which everyone had difficulty with. All three worked equally well at keeping our volunteers afloat.

The Mustang Collar is somewhat different. It is longer than the others and this actually works to its advantage in the cockpit. The Collar ends up being pushed up off the neck while sitting which keeps the otherwise uncomfortable neck seam away from the neck. This extra length may contribute to a unique problem all the volunteers had with this preserver. When they inflated the Mustang, every volunteer let out a scream! This design exerted so much pressure on the chest that it actually hurt. The women volunteers especially were affected, but all of us experienced this problem. By loosening the waist strap and deflating the cell slightly the pain was eased, but it is not a welcome attribute. Other than this, the vest performed well in the water.

Another alternative isn't strictly a life vest, but rather a "survival" vest with limited floatation capability made by Stearns.

We also looked at a number of other inflatable marine life vests and preservers. None of the others performed acceptably, generally because they provided insufficient buoyancy or were simply a design which was unsuitable for our intended use. These are listed in the table so you will know to avoid these products.

One upcoming point of interest to take note of is that the United States Coast Guard is getting close to approving inflatable life vests. [Editor's Note: This has in fact occurred] This will stimulate a huge demand and likely result in numerous new designs being developed. This may work to pilots' advantage, widening the choice and maybe, lowering the cost, though the latter is far from a sure thing with the government in the middle of things.

All the vests we have rated acceptable or marginal did an adequate job keeping our volunteers afloat. All quickly righted a simulated unconscious person. We must reiterate our concerns about single cell inflatable survival equipment. We much prefer the redundancy of double cell designs.

The double cell airline style vests are the best value and actually were preferred by our volunteers overall for in-water functionality, but we think you ought to wear your vest when flying over water. As noted, the pouch styles offer a viable compromise between wearer comfort, availability if an emergency arises, and price. The vest or yoke style with an encapsulated bladder(s) are best for those who must fly low or have both hands on the controls at all times. They are a good choice for the pilot in any case. The Switlik Helicopter Crew Vest is the most comfortable, and top rated. The LSC Pro-Vest would also be a good choice. The Airborne SOSpenders would be quite acceptable, followed by the marine version, except for the fact that they are burdened with the very worst adjustment system of the lot which make it impossible to quickly cinch them up tight or loosen them as needed. The others in this genre, of which the LSC Pro-Lite Vest is the best of the rest, are single cell units.

For a complete comparison of features, view the Aviation Life Vest Comparison Chart.

For more information related to this subject see more Ditching and Related Subjects on ETS.

Vests For Kids

The standard airline style life vest designated for an Adult-Child (to use the FAA nomenclature) or the typical marine vest isn't always going to do the job for a smaller child and certainly not for an infant. Even though the FAA says such a vest will work with a child as small as 35 lbs. and up to 90 lbs. (the lower adult limit), the fact is that it is too easy for a small child's head to slip through the opening unless special measures are taken to secure the child into the vest using a non-standard method of fitting the waist strap (flight attendants are trained how to do this). Even then their head is often simply too small to use the standard vest. The TSO provides for a separate category for children over 35 lbs. and for Infant-Small Children under 35 lbs. We tested the infant vests with the cooperation of some parents and there not always quite so cooperative infants.

Only EAM make a Child life preserver (Model CHD-25L8 $48.40) which is just a downsized version of the larger standard Adult-Child vest sized for children 35 to 90 lbs. It has a back panel and double straps which must be threaded through the legs by an adult to secure the child in place. Cloth ties at the neck help keep the head from slipping through. This is something parents ought to consider for a child of this size.

EAM also makes a similar, even smaller vest with a special retaining harness for Infants and Children smaller than 35 lbs. (Model INV-20L8 $67.40). A tether is fitted with a loop big enough to go over a wrist, but it has no snap hook. This vest meets the older TSO, not the latest requirements for an infant vest. The infants seemed comfortable enough in the vest while uninflated. After all, it feels little different than a feeding bib. They didn't like it quite as much when it was inflated. They floated comfortably in the water, but it was easy to see why the TSO was changed.

The TSO was upgraded to offer better protection for infants who are particularly susceptible to drowning from inadvertent inhalation of water, something that could easily occur with the standard design. The new TSO requires that the infant be supported so as to "prevent contact of the wearer's upper torso (i.e., from the waist up) with the water." This would serve to place the infant more upright out of the water and in a position less likely to be inundated with water.

Switlik responded to this requirement with their model ILV-20 Infant Life Vest ($58.28). This design incorporates a pair of stacked, square shaped independent flotation cells and a vest like harness to hold and support the infant in the center of the preserver. The "tubes" are held under the infant's arms, a sort of advanced version of the traditional inner tube used for infants and kids before they learn to swim. The tether has no wrist loop, nor a snap hook, just a wooden "T" handle. The pull tab for the locator light is within easy reach of the infant who could activate it inadvertently.

The parents were able to get the kids into the vest with a minimum of fuss, though it took a couple minutes. The kids were a lot less happy with this arrangement and let us know it in no uncertain terms. While it keeps the tot's upper body out of the water we were a little concerned that both infants we tried in the vest pitched forward, leaning towards the water rather than being held completely upright. Still, it is better than the EAM style.

However well it works, or doesn't, this design doesn't address another serious problem for infants. Hypothermia, a serious threat for adults, is even more life threatening to infants.

Hoover took a unique approach to the problem. They developed their model FV-2000 infant life preserver ($185 - $225 depending on packaging) with the goal of isolating the infant from the dangerous water environment as much as possible. The result is an inflatable "survival capsule." This double walled, truncated cone totally encapsulates the kid. Inside the preserver the tot is strapped into a vest of foam material which provides additional thermal protection for the upper torso.

A clear window at the large end of the cone allows those outside to monitor the infant inside. Two filtered ports provide air recirculation while preventing the entrance of any significant amounts of water into the capsule. A hose directed at the ports, a pretty tough test, failed to result in any water passing through. A weep drain at the foot of the unit drains what little water may manage to enter or condense inside from the infant's bodily functions. There is a full length zipper with a storm flap held closed with Velcro. The Velcro closures for the storm flap could use some improvement, more closures and better alignment would help. The tether has a wrist loop, but it wasn't large enough for many of the males we tried it on. There is no pull tab for the locator light and the battery with activator is located out of sight alongside the CO2 cartridge inside the ballast bag with no hint at all that it is there. After deployment this is underwater. A line to a pull tab in a more reasonable location would be a good idea.

The baby is strapped into the bright orange preserver before it is inflated. A single large CO2 cartridge provides for manual inflation. There is a ballast bag to help keep the preserver floating right side up. It is a great concept, but it does result in a rather cumbersome unit. We'd have to say it is a big improvement over anything previously offered and the ultimate in infant preservers.

The primary market for this device is, of course, the airlines. Getting a kid into it within the confines of a small aircraft wouldn't be as easy, but it is doable. Some text instructions, perhaps with photos, to supplement the somewhat cryptic pictorial style instructions provided would be a big help in any case. Practice ahead of time would really help. You would want a fair amount of time, a few minutes at least, to accomplish this task in a small plane. One drawback is that it would be difficult, though not impossible, to put the child into this preserver and still fit them back into a child safety seat. If the infant is being held in the arms of an adult, not the best choice, this wouldn't be a factor.

We can't say the kids liked the idea of being strapped into this thing. But, their cries were nothing to compare to the screams which erupted when the zipper was closed and that was nothing to compare to the shrieks upon inflation of the capsule, which certainly startled them, or worse. A small price to pay for keeping the little tots alive to fly another day, but hard on the nerves. On the positive side, Search and Rescue need only home in on the high pitched wails to find and rescue you in no time at all. In all fairness, eventually the kids will calm down and accept the new situation.

We'd like to see a few other additions to the Hoover preserver, which would easily accommodate them. The tether should have a snap hook to easily attach it to an adult's life vest (as should the other infant vests). We'd also like to see a strobe offered as an option to replace the standard locator light. If separated from the adults, that little kid needs all the help possible to attract attention. Not as big a concern with air carrier use, but more for general aviation use.

Care and Feeding of Vests

Once you settle on a vest that isn't the end of it. They need proper care and maintenance just like any other piece of equipment.

All these vests, aviation and marine, should be inspected on a regular basis. Every two years is recommended for the FAA TSO'd vests and required if used as FAA mandated equipment (unless a specific waiver is granted). Most marine vests don't have a recommended service interval, but this serves as a reasonable interval and we wouldn't recommend stretching it out much beyond this. They should be stored away from high heat, petroleum based and caustic fluids and the airline style packed in poly bags should be kept from direct sunlight for longest life. Failures generally come from punctures, abrasion or corrosion of the manual valve. Abrasion failures can even occur while inside the pouch from vibration and rough handling.

We have received numerous reports of failures of airline style vests. In most cases the failed vests have been mistreated or not inspected on a regular basis. One of our associates had a vest blow up during a demonstration, but it was ten years old and had never been serviced. unfortunately, there are a lot of vests like that flying around in general aviation aircraft. Some pilots prefer to carry a spare vest as insurance. Manufacturers say that current design vests should last virtually indefinitely as long as they are treated with due care and are inspected and re-packed regularly. Survival instructors report using the same vests hundreds of times for demonstrations without a failure.

Familiarity with your survival equipment is a distinct advantage when the chips are down. We recommend that you try out the equipment you will be using before an emergency occurs. It is worth the cost of inspection and repacking in our opinion. The marine vests can be used or demonstrated and then repacked by the owner, a nice advantage. However, this isn't a substitute for a proper factory inspection on a regular cycle.

Tips To Stay Alive

A few tips about donning and using your life vest. Always cinch the waist strap down tight - uncomfortably tight. You can always loosen it later in the water. If wearing a vest or pouch style continuously with a loose strap, tighten it down before ditching. If the vest isn't cinched down tight, then in the water it is going to ride up away from your body. With airline style vests, and many others as well, this will create a situation where the vest will funnel water down into your mouth and nose rather than allowing it to drain away.

If it is necessary to undo the seat belt to don a vest, don't forget to put the belt and harness back on before ditching. Pilots should double check this. Lives have been lost because passengers forgot to do so.

Tuck the loose ends of the waist strap into a pocket or otherwise secure them. These long loose ends can easily become entangled during an evacuation, trapping you and perhaps others.

It is difficult to don any of the airline style vests without removing your glasses and in most cases you want them off for the evacuation anyway. Take them off first and place them in a secure place on your person. For those who are blind without their spectacles, yet another reason to consider wearing a vest for the flight as opposed to having to don one in an emergency.

Never inflate the vest until you are completely clear of the aircraft. The reason the pull handle says "jerk to inflate" is because that's what it takes. Simply pulling will usually not do it. It takes a quick jerk and a strong one at that. Most folks with no previous experience don't jerk hard enough, especially if already in the water. Some then panic because it didn't work.

After the vest inflates you will likely want to deflate it somewhat using the check valves in the oral inflation tubes. This won't significantly effect buoyancy, but it will make it much more comfortable, easing the pressure on your head. With temperature changes, from night to daytime for example, you will need to inflate and deflate the cells as appropriate using the oral inflation tubes.

Once in the water, hypothermia is your biggest threat. Water causes a rate of heat exchange approximately 25 times greater than air. Swimming or moving increases the rate of heat exchange, so avoid movement for maximum heat retention. Even warmer water drains your body of warmth, it just takes longer. The more and heavier the clothing you wear, the warmer you will stay in the water. Huddle together if possible. Cross your legs and close down your armpits to retain warmth and expose less surface to the water. If by yourself, you can also pull your knees up close in a fetal position or cross your chest with your arms.

Additional Survival Equipment

A life vest alone is not the complete answer. I recommend you carry some additional survival equipment in case you find yourself floating in the drink watching your plane take a dive.

Two pieces of equipment are essential and indispensable. A signal mirror (glass or acrylic, but make sure it is mil. spec. or equal) and a battery operated emergency strobe or locator light should be carried by EACH person. Like all the emergency equipment listed here, these should be tied off with a lanyard so they cannot be lost. Don't simply stick them in a pouch or pocket. Learn how to use the signal mirror, before you need it.

A personal size ELT or EPIRB is one of the surest ways to be found quickly. Note that the antenna must be held clear of the water (lacking anything better, wedge it into the vest's yoke). Your handheld comm, or even your cell phone, could come in real handy if you've prepared ahead of time. Make sure you pack it inside a waterproof pouch or case. Civilian aviation handhelds are not waterproof. Companies such as West Marine and Aquapac have specially designed cases that you'll want to get; they aren't expensive and they could be lifesavers. They also make such cases for cell phones, GPSes, and other useful gear.

Sea dye marker will make your location much more visible from the air, creating a large fluorescent green (day only, does not glow in the dark) patch on the water. The problem is that is disperses quickly and is a real mess to use. A better solution is the RescueStreamer, a modern replacement for short-lived, problematic, and outmoded sea marker dye. This is a far more effective signaling product, one reason it has been accepted by the military as a replacement for marker dye and also why the U.S. Coast Guard is taking steps to include the RescueStreamer in all their survival vests.

A small container of waterproof sunscreen can be a real asset to have. This can prevent serious, painful and potentially deadly sunburn.

Most of the marine vests come with a pealess survival whistle to attract the attention of the folks still on the boat they fell off of. How useful they are in other situations is debatable, but they weigh so little, why not add one to your kit?

We are leery of recommending flares of any type. They are of limited value to the typical ditching survivor (as opposed to a marine man overboard situation) and can cause more harm than good. The mirror and strobe are a safer bet.

Finally, a simple but very effective piece of equipment is the Burton Bag or LAND/SHARK Thermal Protective Aid. The Burton bag is nothing more exotic than a extra strong, extra large (36 in. flat x 80 in. long) clear plastic bag whose use to combat hypothermia has been promoted by Ken Burton of S.T.A.R.K. Survival. You wiggle your way into this bag once in the water and draw it up about yourself. Within minutes you will notice a perceptible rise in water temperature as the bag acts to retain heat next to your body. This can significantly extend your survival time by slowing the heat loss from your body.

The LAND/SHARK is a high tech improvement of the Burton Bag manufactured by Corporate Air Parts. The bag is constructed of a microthin layer of metalized film laminated to a brightly colored International Safety Orange, composite reinforced, ripstop plastic material. The silver metalized coating reflects up to 80% of radiated body heat (according to the manufacturer). The flame retardant material (exceeds FAA TSO C13f burn requirements) is completely windproof, waterproof and acts as a vapor barrier. The tightly woven ripstop reinforcing adds considerable strength and prevents tears, a frequent critical failure in common unreinforced thermal protective aids. Twin welded seams are double strong and watertight.

For water survival use, the LAND/SHARK is large enough to completely enclose the survivor, including the life vest, up and over the head, without impairing any other functions. The drawstring can be adjusted as necessary. The bag serves to slow the drain of this vital body heat and provides protection from chilling sea spray and breaking waves. This should significantly extend survival times. In warmer waters where the sun is itself a danger to exposed skin above water, the bag can be configured to allow shade and ventilation.

The waterproof construction of the LAND/SHARK functions as a deterrent to shark attacks by preventing body waste and blood from entering the open waters and attracting these deadly predators. In addition, the voluminous bag alters the shape of the survivor and reduces flailing movements, presenting a less attractive appearance to predators such as a sharks or barracuda. The LAND/SHARK also provides complete protection from venomous jellyfish, Portuguese Man-of-wars and sea snakes. A tether is incorporated to ensure survivors stay together. The bag is vacuum packed and available in a Cordura nylon bag designed to attach to a vest.

All of this equipment, save for the handheld and the LAND/SHARK, can fit in one or two small nylon pouches (check your backpacking/military surplus store or catalog) or in the pouch(es) incorporated with some of the vests. Attach them to your belt or life vest waist strap and it will be there for you when you need it.

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For more information related to this subject see more Ditching and Related Subjects on ETS.

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Revision: 09 August 23, 2011

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