Switlik Finds Golden Parachute in Life Preservers and Rafts

 - March 29, 2007, 1:33 PM

To anyone who hit the silk more than 30 years ago, the name Switlik Parachute is well known as a preeminent maker of the lifesaving devices. Founded in 1920, Switlik Parachute is still in business in Trenton, N.J. But old habits die hard, and the company whose name still ends with “Parachute” actually hasn’t made one since 1968. The company does, however, still administer the Caterpillar Club, membership of which is open to anyone whose life a parachute saved, and has done so since the end of World War II. Currently the club has 80,000 members, details of whom are stored in the Stanley Switlik Museum (named after the founder) within the factory in Trenton. Director of manufacturing Stanley Switlik (grandson of the founder) said that the Caterpillar Club receives mail almost every day.

It was in the 1960s that the helicopter’s ability to insert troops into a war zone severely reduced the military’s need for parachutes, so Switlik targeted inflatables as the market to pursue.

These days, with third-generation Switliks running the show, Switlik Parachute’s 135 employees spend their time designing, building and marketing life preservers, life rafts and more specialized flight gear such as G suits and dry suits for the military.

The company counts among its customers many airlines, which over the years have bought from Switlik some 125,000 of the underseat life preservers that feature in every pre-takeoff briefing; the U.S. Coast Guard, whose Dauphin helicopters carry air-droppable life rafts sized to carry between 25 and 46 people; the Australian search-and-rescue organization; and, primarily for life vests, operators of corporate aircraft, whose aircraft tend to be on the small side for the size of life raft that Switlik supplies.

Commercial aviation accounts for the largest slice of the inflatables pie, and Switlik is one of the top suppliers in terms of volume. It also lays claim to being one of only two suppliers whose life preservers are approved by both the FAA and UK CAA.

In the old days, the materials of choice for making inflatables were cemented neoprene (synthetic rubber) in the U.S. and, in the UK, rubber. Both materials left something to be desired in terms of longevity. By the 1960s, urethane had become the material of choice, and heat sealing of joints

As director of marketing Richard Switlik recalled, “When we entered the market for airline life preservers, safety officers reigned supreme. Now the bean counters rule, and their credo is to make them as cheaply and as light as possible because they will never be used.” He conceded that the event most likely to generate a need for life preservers to be used is a runway overrun: “If they’re going to get wet, it’ll be at the end of the runway.”

Because of its contracts with the Coast Guard–a customer that expects to get its life rafts and life preservers wet–Switlik prides itself on the quality of its products even if, paying New Jersey taxes and labor rates to its workers, it cannot always compete on cost. Notes Richard, “There are FAA-approved life vests made in China that are cheaper, and yet we sell into China.”

For certification of life vests and rafts, according to Stanley Switlik, the FAA relies on reviewing test reports generated by the manufacturer, but the Coast Guard insists on witnessing tests. FAA/USCG certification is not required for Part 91 operations, but it is required for all for-hire aviation operations; and Coast Guard-certified life vests are required to be aboard every private marine vessel.