We've all heard the old saw that "you can't put a price on human life." I'd like to think that was true, but my investigation into aviation life rafts shows that may not be the case. There are significant, potentially life and death differences between the various rafts offered, and price certainly seems to have some correlation with life saving capability, though high price alone is no guarantee of performance. We've seen many high priced rafts that we cannot recommend.
Because the differences in price can be significant, and the differences in capability generally not very obvious, pilots and operators often opt for the least expensive, perhaps not realizing the tradeoffs they are making in safety. Often, the only goal is to meet regulatory requirements at the lowest possible price and weight, as short-sighted as that attitude may be. Safety never enters into the equation.
You can't expect a small valise weighing from 12 to 75-odd pounds to afford the luxury of a yacht or cruise ship. Many don't offer the sea faring capability of one either, though some are the option of last resort when the yacht itself sinks and acquit themselves quite well. Many pilots consider rafts to be a necessary nuisance, the majority don't even consider them necessary. Unfortunately, the vast majority of general aviation pilots probably don't realize that most of the rafts they are relying on for their over-water safety are downright deficient in one way or another. Some are seriously deficient in our opinion. Better than nothing, I can't argue that, but a damn sight worse than users have reason to expect.
We also recognize that ultimate safety and performance may not be the sole consideration for a purchaser. Weight, size and price are also legitimate concerns and entirely appropriate as long as the purchaser is cognizant of the compromises that may be involved in overall performance and safety. There will always be a range of products that are acceptable to a range of users who have different priorities.
The effort to reduce weight on some rafts was obvious, sometimes painfully so. We were taken aback by Air Cruisers' Al Wigert's explanation that their number one priority was reduced weight, followed by price. When we asked where performance stood, he told us it came after those. He explained that while that "wouldn't be the priority (ranking) of the crews" who might someday have to depend upon the rafts, that is "clearly the priority of the (corporate aircraft) manufacturers" who are their primary customers. Comments by other industry representatives seemed to validate Wigert's remarks about biz-jet manufacturers' priorities in most cases.
In an industry that is always boasting about their advanced safety equipment and uncompromising safety standards, we are at a loss to understand the biz-jet manufacturers who appear to be forcing the weight issue without regard to resulting decreased safety margins. Hard to fathom on multimillion-dollar jets flying the world's top executives and personalities. One wonders if the people signing the check realize the liberties being taken with their safety to allow those extra few bottles of wine on board?
Let me make it very clear that even the worst raft reviewed here is better than no raft at all. Even those rafts rated "unacceptable" have "saves" they can claim, except for the newer rafts from Air Cruisers and Hoover which haven't been around long enough. In most cases they prove adequate, since most ditchings don't require the advanced features found in better rafts and failures of well-maintained rafts are relatively rare. However, a note of caution, some unacceptable rafts are more unacceptable than others. A raft you cannot easily enter from the water, such as the Hoover FR-6, Survival Products Type I, or Air Cruisers 13-person, has a higher potential for tragedy.
As long as "better than nothing" is an acceptable standard of safety for you and your passengers, you can probably get by with any of the rafts which we otherwise find unacceptable or marginal, with the caveat above noted. The fact remains that in most cases, they will save your life. Most, but not all. It's all a matter of risk management and playing the odds. (See "Appendix #1 - The Equipped To Survive Aviation Life Raft Rating System for an overview of the rating system used to evaluate these life rafts.)
Most pilots don't fly over areas of water which they perceive to be dangerous. So their perceived need for a life raft and their perceived requirements for the capabilities of that raft are minimal. However, it is important to remember that even a body of water as seemingly benign as Chesapeake Bay or Long Island Sound can present significant dangers to a downed pilot and passengers, especially in colder months. Pilots who are considering Caribbean overflights or jumping off from Narsarsuaq for Reykjavik will have more critical requirements as they face more obvious dangers. Yet, even here, many don't appreciate the dangers they might face.
For the rest, "making-do" with a cheap, and likely poor performing raft may be sufficient to satisfy those nagging voices inside our heads. We can rationalize to ourselves that they're better than nothing, they usually work, and that no Part 91 general aviation flyer is about to shell out between $3,500 and $7,000 for a fabrication of cloth that will spend most of the year in the bottom of the closet or in the corner of the hanger. Some, obviously, don't feel that way. In any case, before making that rationalization, pilots do have a right to understand what they are buying, and many, if not most, do not.
Pragmatism aside, personally, I don't think anyone ought to travel over any significant body of water out of gliding distance to land without a life raft of some sort on board. In my opinion, to do so is foolhardy or irresponsible, especially so if you are flying over colder waters. There is no question that the odds are in your favor if you ditch (see "Ditching Myths Torpedoed!"), but carrying survival equipment is all about improving the odds.
Not everyone is quite as paranoid as me. In his sidebar titled "Raft Purchase: Risk vs. Money" my associate Paul Bertorelli, who has also researched this matter extensively, offers up a slightly different philosophy about this subject.
There are plenty of stories of those who have survived a ditching in open water without a raft, just wearing a life vest or sometimes, nothing at all to keep them afloat. Some of their stories are told here on Equipped To Survive: Lessons Learned: True Life Ditching Experiences They were very, very lucky. Ask any of them and most will tell you so. What you don't hear about very often, for obvious reasons, are those few who don't return to tell a tale of survival against the odds.
Any large body of water--like the ocean, or a large lake such as one of the Great Lakes in the U.S.--is a very unforgiving, hostile environment. Hypothermia is a constant deadly specter, even in warmer waters such as in the Caribbean. In colder waters, death from hypothermia can come in a few short hours or even minutes. A raft is your best protection from hypothermia, though as we shall see, the degree of added protection can vary markedly. If you value your own life or those of your passengers or loved ones, you need a life raft of some sort if you're flying much beyond gliding distance from land. A life vest (also referred to as a life preserver or personal flotation device (PFD) just isn't enough in our opinion.
Picking the right raft can be difficult. Rafts come in a variety of flavors: single tube or double tube, single cell and multiple cell, those with and those without self-erecting canopies and insulated floors, FAA TSO approved and those that aren't. Survival equipment provided with the raft varies a lot as well, both in quality and quantity. That's just to name a few areas of differences. Each is important, though some more than others.
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