Don’t deflate the value of an onboard life raft

 - March 29, 2007, 1:31 PM

For Michael Smith, the trip from Japan back to the states in a Pilatus PC-12 was intended as simply a little moonlighting, a job he took to make a few extra dollars and garner a little more international experience. But when the PT6 driving the big single-engine aircraft quit over the water some 100 miles from the Japanese shoreline, Smith and his three passengers quickly realized they were going for a swim in water with temperatures hovering in the low 50s. By Smith’s estimate, the swells when they hit that day were seven to 10 feet, with 25 knots of wind blowing.

“Despite having logged 23,000 hours and many years flying a DC-3 in Africa, I’ve never had any survival training,” Smith admitted. “We had a small four-man raft on board on the PC-12, but almost no supplies except for some cans of [soda], a little food and a basic survival kit. We actually didn’t know what equipment our rented raft had on board until we ditched.” The four men were afloat for 15 hours before a passing Russian freighter picked them up. “I honestly don’t think we could have survived much longer anyway,” Smith said.

Ken Burton, president of Stark Survival Training in Panama City, Fla., thinks Smith’s expectations for his over-water flight ring pretty true with many of his other clients. “Many pilots, and even many passengers, don’t see the point of spending a lot of money on a raft and equipment because they don’t believe they’ll ever need it. Ditching is what happens to someone else.”

Burton mentioned something to consider when flying here in the states as well: “Some people believe the only reason to carry a raft is for over-water flights. I could put you down in a dozen places around the continental U.S., though, where a raft would help you survive because it could be used as shelter.”

Winslow LifeRaft senior technical representative David Williams thinks “professional flight crews are becoming much more aware of the need for solid survival training and good equipment as the number of long, over-water flights increases.” Winslow has been in the raft business since World War II and competes with Air Cruiser, BF Goodrich, Eastern Air Marine and Switlik, to mention a few.

Once you realize next time might just be your time in the drink, Williams believes a few key components to look for in a good raft include dual tube design, with enough of the right equipment on board. But just which components are required by the FAA depends on whether the raft is certified for Part 91, or for Part 121 or 135 use. “Commercial versions require considerably more gear than a Part 91 version. Part 91 does not even require food or water on board. I think key elements in good raft equipment begin with a source of water and a good signaling device.”

As a serious sailor, Fred Shoaff– who acquired Winslow in 1989–also knew weight and manageability were the Achilles’ Heel of even the best-available life rafts. Many capable life rafts simply weighed too much to be easily handled in an extreme emergency. From Shoaff’s understanding of this critical flaw was born the concept of a life raft that was strong and durable, yet extremely light and very compact.

Winslow’s rafts run anywhere from 42 pounds for a four-person version, which includes an overload capability of six, to 82 pounds for a 13-person raft that offers overload capability for 20. The overload concept refers only to an emergency capacity should one raft fail to inflate. Most large aircraft carry at least two rafts.

Comments from people who have used rafts often focus on other details such as the craft’s buoyancy related to the amount of ballast on board and the ease of entry to the device once it is in the water. Winslow rafts use a round, two-tube design with extra ballast and a simple yet sturdy water ladder to ease entry from the sea. Burton also recommends a raft with an inflatable floor that can be used to protect people from whatever surface they are sitting atop.

A popular Winslow option is the Survivor 06, a reverse-osmosis machine that generates a half pint of fresh water every few hours. The device is manually powered to save weight and requires 40 strokes per minute to keep operating. This effort to make fresh water is also considered a positive psychological benefit since it gives raft passengers something to keep their mind off the situation.

“A good ELT is critical as well,” said Williams. “Aviation is actually about 10 years behind the marine industry when it comes to electronics. Most ELTs in use today are the older two-frequency units, transmitting on both 121.5 and 243.0 MHz. The best piece of gear around today is the triple-frequency ELT since its individual hexadecimal code allows for instantaneous identification almost anywhere on Earth, much like a Lojack does for an automobile. The 406-MHz version has been TSO’d only for two years, though. Until 2009 these radios will be options, and they cost three times as much as the dual-frequency units.”

Winslow does not offer survival training for customers, preferring to refer clients to providers such as Stark and Facts AirCare. “We have a deal,” said Williams. “We don’t train crews and they don’t build rafts. It works out pretty well.” Bombardier’s recent Safety Standdown offered crews and passengers who attended an opportunity to get into the water with the raft, although they did not actually inflate the device.

Burton thinks the cost of a survival raft is irrelevant. “You’re carrying the life of your company on board that airplane. What are those people’s lives worth?”

Smith said what he learned from almost a day adrift in the North Pacific could fill a good size book. “I would never buy a raft that was not self-inflating, including the canopy. We spent hours trying to put the canopy together on ours and we never did make it work properly. I would also buy the dual-tube versions, which offer much more stability in high seas, and I’d have a waterproof VHF transceiver on board with a GPS unit. Finally, I would learn what equipment was on my raft before I needed it.
I think we were pretty lucky.

“Incidentally, while we were floating around at sea I found what I thought would be a valuable survival manual in the pocket of the raft, except it turned out to be for desert survival.”