In late 1993 and early 1994 I undertook the first ever comparative evaluation of aviation life rafts by a consumer oriented publication (article published in the April 1, 1994 issue of The Aviation Consumer). The unexpected results were disturbing. In my opinion, not a single approved raft met the current TSO (Technical Standard Order or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) specification for production, performance and certifiability). The best approved raft, from BFGoodrich Aerospace - Aircraft Evacuation Systems, was certified under the previous and less stringent TSO and achieved only a "fair" rating, and that was probably generous in retrospect. The less expensive unapproved rafts, commonly purchased for Part 91 light plane use, seemed little more than potential death traps, though assuredly much better than nothing. A new raft on the market, from Winslow LifeRaft Co., was the only raft of which I thought much. Unfortunately, it wasn't yet TSO'd, so couldn't be used by many operations which require an approved raft in accordance with the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations or rules under which manufacturers, pilots, and operators must build and fly aircraft).
In early 1996 I undertook a follow-up evaluation (article published in the August, 1996 issue of The Aviation Consumer). Two years later, much had changed, but unfortunately, much hadn't.
Winslow received TSO approval for its previously top rated FA-AV model rafts and had expanded its line considerably to offer a range of rafts. Winslow supplied five different approved and unapproved rafts, including the prototype for a new TSO'd design that we rated highly, but never ended up introduction due to excessive costs associated with manufacturing it. BFGoodrich supplied a prototype for their new TSO'd raft, then still in development and undergoing testing for TSO approval and I later had the opportunity to test another advanced prototype in an open water evaluation and review the final TSO'd version. There was also a new entrant in the market, "RFD/Revere" (RFD). Revere Aerospace Products (a division of Revere Supply Company) started importing rafts manufactured by RFD Ltd. of Belfast, Northern Ireland and marketing them as RFD/Revere. They supplied two models, one unapproved raft and one a uniquely designed TSO'd raft.
In mid-1999 I started in on what eventually developed into the most comprehensive tests of marine and aviation life rafts ever done by consumer publications. These tests were conducted in collaboration with Belvoir Publications' Practical Sailor, Powerboat Reports and The Aviation Consumer publications. The Belvoir publications are entirely subscriber supported and do not accept advertising. Belvoir underwrote the considerable five-figure expense of conducting these tests. This project was announced on September 26, 1999 as "The Great Life Raft Test," later referred to as "Life Raft Test 2000." The in-water testing was conducted January 20-22, 2000. (Article published in the July 2000 issue of The Aviation Consumer.)
Since we had last looked at life rafts four years ago there have been a number of new rafts introduced and some significant improvements made to others. The light aircraft pilot has been the beneficiary of the big dollar Part 135 (charter) and big iron General Aviation (corporate turboprops and jets) markets, which is what drives these developments, for better and worse. We invited all the manufacturers to supply rafts for the evaluation.
This time around we were sent evaluation rafts from Air Cruisers, new in the market but a longtime producer of slide-rafts for transport category aircraft, BFGoodrich, Hoover Industries, who sent their one new TSO'd raft, and Winslow LifeRaft Co. who sent six rafts, five of them TSO'd models. We also obtained EAM and Survival Products rafts.
This review is a compilation of the three raft evaluations we have conducted. The information in this review is current as of February 28, 2000.
Finally, while I owe a lot of people thanks for their help, support and assistance in producing these reviews, this would never have been possible without the support, hard work, long hours, forbearance and patience of my wife Sue. Anyone who finds value here owes her a debt of gratitude. I could never have done it without her
-- Doug Ritter
October 5, 2000
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