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May 6, 2009

Canada Backs Off on 406 MHz ELT Rule

Filed in Gear , News

AVweb reported today that according to Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) President Kevin Psutka, the Canadian Minister of Transport, John Baird, has suspened implimentation of a proposed rule that would have required most aircraft flying in and into Canada to have a 406 Mhz ELT (emergency locator transmitter) installed by February, 2011. The original rule was due to be issued in March and had been held up with Canada’s change in government earlier this year.

See AVweb story here

This is good news for U.S. pilots planning to fly into or through Canada who have been at loose ends about what to do. Regardles, I’d urge all pilots to make sure they carry a 406 MHz PLB, at a minimum. From my perspective the unreliable ELT, even a 406, is back-up to a PLB, not the other way around.

I am attending the RTCM SC110 committee meeting and NOAA Beacon Manufacturers Workshop the end of this week and expect to recieve a report from the Canadian Search and Rescue Secretariat on this matter.

Stand by for more.

See latest update here.

May 5, 2009

UST Resumes Shipping StarFlash Ultra

Filed in Gear , News

UST StarFlash UltraUltimate Survival Technologies has resumed production of the StarFlash Ultra signal mirror after originally ceasing production back in October, 2008, based on concerns we had expressed after testing, primarily regarding the effects of immersion in water. When initially presented with our test results, they did some months of preliminary testing before they concurred with our concerns and ceased production. (Read the original article.) I think they deserve kudos for acting responsibly in this regard, once they became convinced that something odd was occurring.

They now claim that subsequent testing indicated that our collective assumptions as to the severity of the problem were not substantiated and that, “the Ultra mirror will do what it is intended to do under all reasonably encountered circumstances for the end user – it will perform as an emergency signal mirror – wet or dry.”

You can read their short announcement posted on their Web site and the full text of the announcement can be read here.

There were two issues we originally identified as concerns. One was the effects of immersion, the other the apparent variability in production quality. They produced a 26-page report on their investigation into the immersion issue, a preliminary version of which was shared with me subject to my signing a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

To summarize the following information (though I urge you to read through for important details) for us the current bottom line for the StarFlash Ultra is that it is probably a good to very good signal mirror for use where it is unlikely to be immersed for a significant period of time. Rain, splash or a quick dunking are not an issue, only longer term immersion (see our initial report for details). That covers the majority of those looking for a signal mirror. This assumes that they have solved their production issues. In my opinion, it is probably okay in wet conditions if it is packaged in a sealed waterproof manner so that it stays dry until needed, for example, inside their Aqua Survival Kit.

Production Variability

Let me first address the production variability issue. While I was told I would receive a report on how they solved that issue, it was never provided, so all I can go on is the reference in their posted document:

A notable phenomena was observed in our initial run of a few hundred parts that caused a measure of variation in reflective surface dispersion separate from temperature shock or water absorption. This occurred during the manufacturing operation and was immediately recognized and corrected. UST went to the added expense of installing custom machining bits that allowed alternate manufacturing methods to be used to reduce to a minimum the heat build up during the fabrication of the mirror.

In our small sample of mirrors we experienced a wide range of reflectivity from better than the 90% of glass they claimed to as low as 60%. That’s not grossly poor, as plastic signal mirrors go, but hardly the performance promised (and more on par with the best of the previous generation StarFlash that we had tested, in our experience). If they have, indeed, solved the production issue, then that is good news for consumers. A high quality (90%), low cost mirror would be a great find. Whether they have actually solved the problem we are not in a position to say and won’t be until we are able to get some mirrors to test. That will take a while since they have to get this new production into the retail distribution chain first before we can obtain truly representative samples. Then we have to schedule testing and perform the tests. Hopefully, they will mark the new production in some clear manner so that consumers will be assured they are getting the improved production mirror.

Back in October, I was told that once they had resolved the issues, they would offer existing owners an exchange. There’s nothing about that in their release or posting, but I sincerely hope they follow through with that. Existing owners of the initial production StarFlash Ultra mirrors (sold both independently and as part of various UST survival kits, most notably their Aqua Survival Kit) have no way of knowing if they have a good or poorer performing mirror. Most consumers never even try out their signal mirror; it is stored in their survival kit until needed in an emergency. I’m not sure that there is any simple test that a consumer can do to determine how good a performer their mirror is. We use a test set-up that requires a sophisticated light meter. Lacking a simple test, replacement seems the only practical solution. If there are only “few hundred parts,” that shouldn’t be an undo burden in UST.

In case there’s any question about the variability in the performance of those initial production mirrors, just this past week there waa s signal mirror test conducted for an upcoming magazine article. A short summary was posted on KnifeForums.com Outdoor Survival Forum in which the Ultra was at the bottom of the tester’s “acceptable” group, instead of at the top where it should have been if it actually delivered consistent 90% performance. Since production is only just resuming and the mirror was obtained at an earlier date, the conclusion is that this is an initial production mirror. This would appear to bear out the fact that some owners of the initial production Ultra mirrors didn’t get what they paid for. We also have no way of knowing if this mirror is representative of the worst, or just somewhere in the middle.

Immersion Issue

With regards to the immersion issue, they claim that the warping of the mirror does not significantly alter its performance, even though the short range indications suggest otherwise. Mind you that the initial warning of poor short range reflectivity being representative of poor long range performance was based on many years of signal mirror testing that has proven to provide a direct link between the two. A poor quality short range reflection has always correlated with poor long range performance. Of particular note, when we consider long range performance we are talking about ranges in the 10-20 mile range for smaller mirrors such as this.

It is the “range” issue that becomes the crux of the matter, in many respects. Their long range tests were conducted at 3 and 6 miles, based on prior email correspondence, and showed what they estimated to be a 10% deficit at 6 miles. That actually correlates reasonably well with our own testing where we saw no noticeable difference between dry and wet at 1 mile and about 20% deficit at 5 miles. So, it is fair to say that at those ranges, the warping of the mirror probably doesn’t have any terribly significant effect.

According to our email correspondence, their local conditions in the Northwest precluded testing at greater ranges and weather issues made testing difficult. Easy enough to understand. I invited them to join us in the Phoenix area numerous times where the weather is more conducive to signal mirror testing and we have a good location for testing at longer ranges. UST did not take me up on the invitations.

Our tests were conducted on March 3, 2009, from 10:15 – 11:40 AM MST with the signaler on top of South Mountain at the base of the antennas (for those familiar with the area) signaling south from there. This provides near ideal geometry. Myself and one ETS volunteer each judged the strength of the flashes independently and without prior knowledge of which mirror was being flashed with the dry mirror being deemed a 10 on a scale of 1-10 at each location. The results of our tests were shared with UST.

We also performed tests at 10 and 15 miles and to our eyes there was a significant fall-off in performance at these greater ranges. At 10 miles we estimated a 50% reduction and at 15 miles an 80+% reduction, wet compared to dry. We have no way to know if our samples were representative of all the StarFlash Ultra mirrors, but they both tested better than 90% when dry.

It is worth noting another perspective on the performance degradation when wet. Assuming a 90% mirror, it could lose approximately 30% to 40% of its performance and still be no worse than the previous generation StarFlash. Somewhere in the middle distance, beyond the 5-6 mile point and before the 10 mile point, based on our testing, there will be a balance point beyond which the wet Ultra mirror would likely perform worse.

Bottom Line

For us the current bottom line for the StarFlash Ultra is that it is probably a good to very good signal mirror for use where it is unlikely to be immersed for a significant period of time. Rain, splash or a quick dunking are not an issue, only immersion (see our initial report for details). That covers the majority of those looking for a signal mirror. This assumes that they have solved their production issues and are consistently delivering the promised 90% performance. In my opinion, it is probably okay in wet conditions if it is packaged in a sealed waterproof manner so that it stays dry until needed, for example, inside their Aqua Survival Kit. I wouldn’t consider that ideal, but useable if you work to keep it from being immersed after removal from the waterproof packaging.

Since UST make a big deal out of the fact that their mirror is inherently buoyant (floats without additional floatation attached), I think I might as well voice my opinion on the matter. While a buoyant mirror may have some small advantage over one that does not float, the bottom line is that the mirror should always be tethered to you for security in any situation where it is likely to be lost in the water.

Relying upon the mirror’s buoyancy provides a false sense of security, in my opinion. In many, if not most cases, if you do not immediately notice that the mirror has been dropped, it will either float away out of reach or be carried away by the current. If you are likely to need your mirror in a maritime environment, you better secure it, if you don’t want to lose it, buoyant or not. In my opinion I am not convinced that buoyant vs. non-buoyant is a significant differentiator. Buoyancy is nice to have, but not essential. All other things being equal, buoyancy is an advantage, not a critical necessity. Tethering is essential in a maritime environment.

Signaling performance is much more important and if the StarFlash Ultra delivers on its 90% promise, that’s what counts. However, in my opinion, buoyancy doesn’t compensate for the performance degradation after immersion that we saw in our tests at longer ranges.

Where do we go from here? We’ll wait until we can procure a larger selection of the new production StarFlash Ultra mirrors off-the-shelf and we’ll perform another test, likely in conjunction with tests of some other new signal mirrors coming to market. In the meantime, I and my ETS volunteers are working on an improved test set-up that will make signal mirror testing a bit quicker and easier.

DISCLOSURE: Doug Ritter helped design the RescueFlash Signal Mirror produced by Adventure Medical Kits and which is included in the Doug Ritter designed Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak. Ritter and The ETS Foundation receive a royalty on sales of Pocket Survival Paks. No royalties are received on the RescueFlash mirror itself.

March 31, 2009

Visual Distress Signals Tested By BoatU.S. Foundation

Filed in Gear , News

BoatU.S. Foundation Flare TestBoatU.S. Foundation has published results from their recent tests of visual distress signaling devices, primarily pyrotechnic flares, but also including a few non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals (but not signal mirrors).

Click here to go to the BoatU.S. Foundation visual distress signal article.

As you might expect, their tests focused on the marine environment where use of flares for distress alerting originated. They are required by regulation for many boaters and, regardless, should be part of every mariner’s survival equipment.

The tests included SOLAS handheld and parachute flares, SOLAS smoke canister flares, USCG approved gun-style flare launchers, parachute, meteor, handheld and smoke flares, and pocket aerial flares.

By and large BoatU.S. Foundation did a pretty good job and their results pretty much fall in line with my own experience and recommendations. They didn’t test all available pyrotechnic flares, but they did cover the most common ones available to boaters at retail. I’ve used and recommended the Comet SOLAS flares for a number of years and now that Pains Wessex bought Comet and has converted their product line over to that superior one, they are much more readily available to consumers given Pains Wessex’ much broader retail presence.

I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t test the Comet/Pains Wessex MiniFlare, which I have found superior to the Orion Pocket Rocket for a compact pocketable aerial flare, both in terms of ergonomics and the kit container.

Their tests of the Orion Skyblazer covered their aerial and visual performance adequately, but I have to note that our experience has been that we see a significant number of failures as these Skyblazer flares age. That does not seem to have improved since Orion took over production from the original company. If you are going to rely on Skyblazer flares, make sure you carry lots and make sure you replace them every couple years.

Their tests of Greatland Laser’s Laser Flares were disappointing and, in my opinion, a bit misleading. I don’t disagree with their test results, but they only tested them at a quarter-mile range, hardly representative of their likely use in real life. They are far more effective at longer ranges.

The problems they noticed in aiming the lasers at such close range disappear to a great degree at longer ranges as the expanding laser line makes it much easier to hit the target. That’s how they are designed to work. In our experience, the laser flares work very well at longer ranges. I include them in all my survival vests and larger survival kits because we found them so effective. Click here to read our comprehensive review of the Laser Flares.

They also didn’t cover one of the best marine signaling options for use in a life raft, the RescueStreamer. It’s not clear that they really considered what works best for aerial Search and Rescue, vs. sea level SAR. I recommend the RescueStreamer for all my life raft survival equipment pack clients, marine or aviation, and include the smaller version in my overwater vests.

BoatU.S. Foundation’s test results serve to confirm my recommendation that unless space is an issue, such as in a survival vest, boaters will do best to rely upon SOLAS flares for consistently best performance, safety and ease of use and that the best currently available, in my opinion, are the Comet/Pains Wessex MK8 series.

Click here to go to the BoatU.S. Foundation visual distress signal article.

March 24, 2009

Satellite Testing of Your 406 MHz Beacon Has Arrived

Filed in Gear , News

SafeLife Beta TestOne of the frustrating parts of owning a 406 MHz EPIRB, PLB or ELT has been that it is nearly impossible for the average consumer to actually test their beacon, at least affordably. We have been pretty much forced to rely on the beacon’s own internal self-test mechanism. It’s not that I don’t trust the manufacturers, but…well, yes, I guess I don’t trust them to a certain extent. I’m a professional cynic. I’m betting my life on this technology and I’d feel a bit more confident if I actually saw it worked, before I need it in an emergency.

Mind you, it’s not that there have been failures and such that leads me to be concerned. 406 MHz beacons have proven extremely reliable and I confidentially bet my life on this technology every time I go into the wilderness, flying or boating. However, it’s just human nature to prefer to really know something works because we can see it work. The more technology involved, the more it helps raise our confidence level.

Part of the problem has been that Beacon Testers, such as we use in our extensive evaluations, are very expensive. The other part of the problem is that the satellite ground systems are almost entirely government owned and run and not accessible by mere mortals. So, even though most 406 MHz beacons send out a single test-coded 406 MHz burst during a self-test which the satellites can pick up, we haven’t been able to take advantage of that. Enter Procon, Inc’s SafeLife Systems. They have established their own ground stations (technically called Local User Terminals or LUTs) to receive those signals from the satellites, the same as do the government’s LUTs. Actually, that’s not exactly correct. Procon’s LUTs actually are more capable in some respects because they aren’t bound by some of the limitations inherent in the government’s somewhat archaic systems and software.

The bottom line for thee and me is most of us will now be able to test our beacons through the satellites at a reasonable cost. I have been working with them to test their system for some time now as it has been under development. They have asked me to invite others to come help wring out their 406 Beacon Test System on a wider scale.

If you live within the continental U.S. you may be eligible to participate in a free Beta Test of the system, and just by applying to participate in the Beta Test, you will be eligible to receive 30% off the cost of the various SafeTrip and beacon testing services SafeLife offers. No downside to this that I can see.

Some older beacons do not send out a test burst, so this will obviously not work with those. Not a big problem, really; just not that many out there like that. On the other hand, it will also not work with newer PLBs such as the McMurdo Fast Find PLBs that store the antenna rolled up or coiled in the case and have no means of erecting the antenna for a test. So all those who own the previous generation FastFind or are buying their new compact and lower cost PLBs are out of luck as far as this test is concerned.

Click here to apply to be part of the Beta Test program.

SafeLife lists the following advantages for a beacon owner who takes advantage of the 406 Beacon Test Service:

  • Confidence that their beacon transmits a signal that can be picked up by the satellites
  • Confidence that the digitally encoded signal can be decoded by the ground stations
  • Confidence that the identification information programmed into the beacon is correct, helping to speed up a rescue should the beacon be used in a real emergency
  • Confidence, in the case of newer beacons that transmit a GPS location in the test signal, that the beacon’s GPS is working correctly
  • Overall confidence in the complete system from end to end in case of an emergency

I’ll have more information in the near future on their SafeTrip programs and 406 Beacon Test Service when they roll it out, but for now I’d urge you to sign up for the Beta Test program, get yourself a free beacon test and help them wring out their system.

March 4, 2009

Hang In There!

Some revealing information being reported today on the recent off-shore boating tragedy (from St. Petersburg Times originally and FOXNews.com). The difficulty is, we cannot verify the facts, but it makes for a plausible explanation and is entirely consistent with reports of others acting in the same manner in similar survival situations, so worthy a discussion for the lessons learned, even if just considering it as one possibility:

As the Coast Guard ended its search for three missing football players whose boat tipped over in high Florida seas, the lone survivor said two of those lost gave up after hours in the frigid water and the third tried to swim to safety.

South Florida player Nick Schuyler told investigators that all four of the friends on a fishing excursion were initially wearing life vests and clinging to the 21-foot boat belonging to Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper.

But two to four hours after the boat capsized, one of the NFL players removed his life jacket and let himself be swept out to sea, the St. Petersburg Times reported. A few hours later, the other one followed suit.

“We were told that Nick said the two NFL players took their life jackets off and drifted out to sea,” said Bob Bleakley, whose son Will Bleakley, 25, is also still missing.

After Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29, were carried away, Bleakley and Schuyler hung on until morning — but then Bleakley decided to swim to get help when he thought he saw a distant light, the paper said.

He, too, took his life vest off, 24-year-old Schuyler told the families.

“I think he was delusional to think he could swim someplace,” the Times quoted Bob Bleakley as saying.

Original story: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/accidents/article980972.ece
Follow-up with some additional information: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,504464,00.html

This once again highlights the importance of the critical positive mental attitude (PMA) that I talk about in all my survival presentations. One critical key to survival is to NEVER GIVE UP. The other is Preparation, which goes a long way towards providing that PMA and ensuring you don’t ever reach the point where you are tempted to give up.

The popular dictum, “hang in there,” was never more appropriate than in a survival situation.

March 3, 2009

No Distress Beacon = Tragedy

[sigh!] Here we go again. I am referring, of course, to the latest senseless tragedy involving four fishing buddies, including two NFL players, whose small boat capsized off-shore. Only one survived, clinging to the overturned boat, the other three are presumed dead and as of this evening, the Coast Guard has called off the search. Mind you, we probably wouldn’t even be reading about this at all if it hadn’t involved the NFL players. It would otherwise just be another senseless and mostly non-headline grabbing tragedy, one repeated time and time again. Check latest on the search here.

In this case, it hits a bit closer to home since one of the players, Marquis Cooper, is the son of a local TV sportscaster here where I live, one we often watch. The news reports to this point suggests that they were less than well-prepared to venture off-shore. While they had PFDs (personal floatation devices or life vests) they didn’t wear them and had to dive under the boat after it capsized to get them. Why more boaters and fishermen don’t wear a comfortable inflatable PFD is beyond me, but more do not than do. Why they wouldn’t have at least donned the PFDs they had when the weather was bad is beyond my comprehension, but at least that didn’t result in a tragedy this time. It also doesn’t appear that they carried a life raft.

Most critically, it also doesn’t look like they had any sort of distress beacon. It’s a pretty sure bet that if they had a 406 MHz EPIRB or PLB, they’d all be safe home by now and the headlines would just be about their quick rescue. I find it difficult to believe that they were totally ignorant of their existence. You can’t open a boating magazine, walk into a chandlery or visit a boat show or dealer without seeing them offered for sale. So, at some point my assumption is that they, or at least the supposedly experienced boat owners involved, decided their life wasn’t worth the $600 that a PLB cost (prior to the very recent introduction of the new McMurdo Fast Find for $300). I wonder if their family would agree with that penny wise, pound foolish decision?

What’s your life worth?

February 12, 2009

New McMurdo Fast Find PLBs – Smaller, Lighter & Cheaper

Filed in Gear , News

Read our updated Initial Evaluation of the McMurdo Fast Find.

McMurdo Fast Find PLBIt’s leapfrog time in the PLB business and McMurdo revealed today at Miami International Boat Show their big leap forward, a new FAST FIND range of Personal Locator Beacons. The following information is culled from McMurdo press releases and their Fast Find web site.

UPDATE February 28: The new Fast Find has received FCC approval.

FAST FIND weighs 5.3 oz (150g) with dimensions of 1.34” (34mm) x 1.85” (47mm) x 4.17” (106mm). That’s a major reduction in weight and size over the competition, from 3-5 ounces less, and a couple ounces lighter and more compact even than the SPOT Satellite Messenger. This is small enough to easily fit in a shirt pocket.

McMurdo FAST FIND PLB deploymentThere are two models in the FAST FIND PLB range, the FAST FIND 200 and the FAST FIND 210, both to be priced at $299 or less according to the press release. This would be approximately one third to one half less than the price of competitive PLBs. The 210 model has an integral 50-channel GPS receiver. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a PLB without GPS, but perhaps it’s all about marketing and being to quote lower prices and the like.

FAST FIND also includes a SOS LED flashlight facility which is manually activated. I like the concept of it being controllable by the user. It is not buoyant, so you want to be sure it is tethered if use in the water is contemplated. It is rated waterproof to 30 ft. (10 meters) for 5 minutes. I’m not sure what that translates to just floating in the water, but I suspect its probably perfectly adequate for most uses, even on the water. FAST FIND is a Class 2, rated to -20°C, and its integral battery has a storage life of 5 years.

Activation is initiated by first pulling a red tab on the top of the body which pulls off the yellow plastic cap revealing the antenna, which will uncoil, somewhat like their first generation Fastfind models. With the cover gone, the activation button is now accessible. The GPS antenna is identified as being next to the ON button. The FAST FIND antenna extends up from the “face” of the PLB, so deployment is with it laying on the back, again just like the prior generation. We’ll just have to see how well it works one-handed.

There is a full system GPS acquisition self-test, restricted to a maximum of 10 tests throughout the 5 year storage life of the battery.

McMurdo FAST FIND PLB anternna deployedGiven the size, weight and price point, if there are no hidden surprises (I’m a professional cynic), this would be a game changer for PLBs. The size and price also would make it much more enticing for those considering SPOT as an alternative to a PLB.

For further information about FAST FIND visit: www.fastfindplb.com.

UPDATE February 28: The new Fast Find has received FCC approval.

Read our updated Initial Evaluation of the McMurdo Fast Find.

January 17, 2009

ACR Announces Next Generation PLBs

Filed in Gear , News

New ACR PLBs announced at SHOT Show 2009ACR Electronics announced their next generation PLBs at SHOT Show in Orlando, Florida. All the specifications provided below are preliminary and subject to change.

Click on photos for higher resolution images.

This device has not been authorized as required by the Rules of
the FCC. This device is not, and may not be offered for sale or
lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained. In other words, you can’t buy these PLBs yet, so don’t even bother to ask until they are FCC approved

The six PLBs announced are evolutionary designs based on the current MicrOFix/ResQFix designs and form factor. Originally named the same, this was changed to MircoLink about a month later. I’ll focus on the MicroLink version and then explain the notable differences in the marine line.

In quite a surprising move, given the near ubiquity of GPS in PLBs of late, they have dumbed down the basic MicrOfix to create what they are calling the TerraFix2 406 (not to be confused with the existing TerraFix which is a totally different older style PLB) that removes the integral GPS receiver and antenna to save weight and cost. Improved power management combined with better batteries allowed further reduction in battery size so they were able to take a bit of volume out of the back of the case as well, resulting in a weight reduction to 8 ounces. MSRP will be $499 with a MAP of $349.99.

Backs of new PLBsThe MicroLink12 and MicroLink Pro models both have a clear “engineered polycarbonate blend” top cover that showcases all the electronics. They incorporate a flashing LED so-called “strobe light” that flashes through this clear cover. It isn’t yet clear how effective this will be as a omni-directional signal, but we hope to have a test item soon to test at night and compare to the LED used in the GME AccuSat PLB.

The GPS receiver has been upgraded to a 42-channel device which should provide much faster acquisition of location (normally in about 45 seconds according to the ACR representative) and should gain a GPS location under much more demanding, less ideal conditions. Both are key benefits from these upgraded PLBs that sould prompt serious consideration for a owner of the original model to upgrade.

As before, both models incorporate both a basic self-test and a full GPS acquisition self-test. In accordance with the latest revision to the COSPAS-SARSAT standards, a change I helped draft, in GPS self-test mode they will now transmit a test burst with the GPS encoded location. The MicroLink12 has enough battery capability to transmit at least 12 such tests over the rated life of the battery (5 year replacement interval, 11 year storage life). The MicroLink Pro allows for at least 100 such GPS self-tests, and the feeling I got speaking with the ACR representative was that may end up being a very conservative number.

New ACR PLB with antenna erectThe only difference between the two beacons is the size of the battery and, of course, weight. The -12 is expected to weigh in at just under 9 ounces and will have the cut-out case like the TerraFix. The -100 will retain the full case of the current MicrOFix and weight in at approximately 10 ounces. Both are rated on the spec sheet for 40 hours transmitting life at -20C. I suspect the -100 may go for longer than that given the large reserve.

With the GPS location being transmitted in the self-test burst, anyone with the proper equipment will be able to check to see if the GPS is working correctly. More likely, an owner could use a service such a Procon’s Safelife Systems new web site service to confirm that the location has been received by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system and that the location was correct, adding to owner confidence. ACR declined to comment on any sort of partnership, but something like that seems like an obvious direction they might take given the added capability they are building into the beacons.

On the marine side, the new AquaFix and ResQFix12 will have inherent buoyancy, meaning they will float by themselves. The ResQfix100 will still require a “float coat” like the current model for buoyancy.

Pricing for the MicroLink12 and MicroLink Pro, respectively, will be $650 and $740 (MSRP), $499.99 and $599.99 (MAP).

ACR anticipates that these new PLBs will not be available until July at the earliest.

This device has not been authorized as required by the Rules of the FCC. This device is not, and may not be offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased, until authorization is obtained. In other words, you can’t buy these PLBs yet, so don’t even bother to ask until they are FCC approved

The existing TerraFix 406 PLBs, now 2.5 generation older, will be retained in the ACR line to provide a -40C certified PLB for those who require that capability. The TerraFix 406 GPS I (without internal GPS) will have an MSRP of $500 and a MAP of $399.99. The TerraFix 406 GPS I/O which includes an internal GPS, will have an MSRP of $650 and a MAP of $499.99.

January 12, 2009

First Look at the NEW Swiss Army Knife

Filed in Gear , News

new issue SAKLast week I received a sample of the new Swiss Army issue Swiss Army Knife from Victorinox and played around with it a bit this weekend. This will be a very brief review, at least in part because there’s nothing earthshaking new here. The decision by the Swiss to upgrade to a more capable pocket knife for their troops became a bit controversial when it was put out to bid, per EU regulations, but in the end, no huge surprise, Victorinox won out (read their official release here).

Click here for higher resolution images and more photos from our brief field test (opens a new window)

Also not a great surprise, though perhaps a disappointment to some, the winning entry turned out to be simply a variation on one of their existing large frame (111mm) SAKs, the One-hand Trekker first introduced back in 2002 (as the One-hand Trailmaster, which is what it is still called in Europe). It incorporates a liner-locking 3.375” blade with a 3-inch edge. There’s also a full length saw blade, locking bottle opener with large screwdriver & wire stripper and can opener with small screwdriver. On the underside is a Phillips screwdriver and reamer. A key ring is included, but no toothpick or tweezers.

new issue SAK vs old SoldierIn concert with the release of the new issue SAK, they have changed the one-hand opening hole on the new lockblades to be a larger symmetrical oval, which is definitely an improvement. While they have finally come out with a non-serrated blade option for the Trekker, this knife retains the partially serrated blade. Like all Victorinox serrations, they are not very aggressive. You’ve probably seen cheap steak knives with more aggressive serrations, and they are on the forward two-thirds of the blade, which actually makes more sense than where most companies put them, at the back.

The liner lock is “backwards” in comparison to most knives. A leftie will find it natural, us righties will find is somewhat awkward to pull the liner to release the lock versus the normal pushing it to release. If this is your normal carry knife you’ll quickly adapt, so it’s not a big thing. The liner lock on the large screwdriver/cap lifter works normally.

new issue SAK lockThe liner lock is also different from most such conventionally constructed locks in that it doesn’t so much lock the blade in place as prevent it from closing. The blade still has a conventional backspring that actually holds the blade open (and makes it more difficult to open). The liner lock simply prevents it from closing inadvertently. It does not have what we in the industry refer to a “solid lock-up.” There is definitely vertical play in the blade when open until the tang contacts the lock. Not so much play as to be a problem, per se, but they certainly approach this concept from a different mindset. Anyway you look at it, however, it’s a whole lot better than the non-locking blade of the standard Soldier, the issue SAK up to now (which, by the way, is being discontinued).

The plastic handles are matte finish Olive Drab with black smooth rubber inserts and edging molded in. The rubber inserts and matte finish add only a very little grippiness, but the handle is still a big ergonomic improvement over the standard Soldier.

making a feather stick with new issue SAKWe went out and made some feather sticks, sliced branches off and sawed down a small sapling with the ease you’d expect. While Victroinox may not use very high carbon stainless, their relatively thin blade and narrow edge geometry means they do slice well. We had to be careful making feather sticks to stay within the one-inch of plain edge. The serrated portion just doesn’t work well for this and many other tasks. It slices fine, but I’d still prefer a non-serrated blade myself. By the way, there’s also no sharp point to the blade. Not a big thing, but still a bit odd. I guess they figure the reamer will suffice for that.

The reamer is excellent, but it doesn’t lock and you had best be very careful trying to puncture heavy material or leather lest you close it on your fingers, which hurts a lot and will likely draw blood!

new issue SAK sawThe saw performed ably, which is exactly what we expect from a SAK saw. They set the standard on which others are judged. The extra length compared to a standard sized SAK is a plus and the original Soldier didn’t have a saw at all. Having a saw can be a definite advantage and is second only to the knife blade in potential usefulness in the field.

All in all, I think the new issue SAK is a big improvement over the old Soldier. For myself though, I’d take a new Non-Serrated One-hand Trekker myself. In either case, you wouldn’t go far wrong for an inexpensive and reliable large pocket knife for field use.

By the way, for those traditionalists or collectors, Victroinox tells me that there will be a final run of the Soldier which has been the standard issue to the Swiss Army since 1961. There will be 5,000 with special engraving on the large blade, something on the order of “Final Production Run 1 of 5,000.” Those same traditionalist will also be happy to hear that Wenger will continue with production of their Standard Issue SAK.

And, speaking of Wenger, I have heard that they are introducing an upgraded version of their large frame Ranger line at SHOT Show this week, the RangerGrip. These will have rubber inserts like their EvoGrip and will be available in a number of configurations, including one that’s directly comparable to the new Victorinox issue SAK. Imagine that! I’m looking forward to comparing the two in a more involved field test in the very near future. Stay tuned!

January 5, 2009

Better Lucky Than Smart, Sometimes…

Better Lucky Than SmartIt seems that Kirk Ezell and his shipmate on a delivery voyage woke up Christmas day with water ankle deep in the sailboat and rising rapidly, some 200 miles south of Jamaica. The boat was sinking and abandoning ship was their priority now. They apparently had a life raft on board, a good start, and launched it, tossing all their survival gear in the raft. You’ve heard the expression, “look before you leap?” How about, look before you toss all your survival gear in a raft whose floor has disappeared!

You can find more details of the story from this TV station site, including video.

In the end, their 406 EBIRB distress alert resulted in a Coast Guard C-130 being dispatched. They were dropped a Switlik POD-8 life raft by the Coast Guard and were picked up by a merchant vessel diverted by the Coast Guard aircraft. Lucky guys.

Here’s the question. Why the heck don’t people get their life rafts serviced? They invest all that money for a life saving device, and then won’t get it serviced so it’ll work when their life depends upon it. When I talk to manufacturers, they all have the same sad story. They and their service centers see only a small percentage of the rafts that they should be seeing for service. Perhaps they should send out a rabbit’s foot to every life raft owner with the message that they hope this will be of assistance if they ever need their life raft, because that’s essentially what they are depending upon–luck!

For these guys, better lucky than smart, for sure. It doesn’t matter whether its your own boat or you’re crewing for someone else. Make sure the survival gear has been serviced and is good to go. You couldn’t pay me enough to deliver a boat for someone who didn’t keep their survival gear serviced. At this point we don’t know if this life raft belonged to the boat or to Ezell. Either way, a failed floor tells us it either wasn’t serviced or was serviced fraudulently. It’s not worth your life to try and save a few bucks by having your life raft serviced by a “gypsy” who hasn’t the training, tools, or ethics to do it right.

Beyond that, make sure you know what to do in an emergency and think your way through it, don’t just react.