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Aviation Life Raft Review
Manually Erected Canopies - Do it Yourself Shelter

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Life Raft Test 2000: Summary 2

Manufacturer/Model Rated Capacity Canopy Style* Weather Rating** Floor Style*** Comfort Rating
Air Cruisers 4 SE Failed Foam Fair
Air Cruisers 13 SE Failed Foam Poor
BFGoodrich 4 SE/S Good INF Fair
BFGoodrich 12 SE/S Good INF VGood
Hoover FR-6 6 ME Failed UIF VPoor
Survival Products RAF1104-101 4 NI NA UIF
Survival Products RAF1104-105 4 ME Poor UIF VPoor
Survival Products RAF1206-105 6 ME Poor UIF VPoor
Winslow Island Flyer GAST 4 SE/S Excellent Opt. INF Fair
Winslow Ultima FAAV 4 SE/S Excellent INF VGood
Winslow Ultima FAAV 12 SE/S VGood INF VGood
Winslow Ultra-Light FAUL 4 SE/S Excellent INF Good
Winslow Ultra-Light FAUL 12 SE/S Excellent INF Good
* Canopy Types: ME=Manually erected, SE=Self-erecting, SE/S=Self-erecting, Stay Erect, NI=not included
** Includes storm testing (see text), NA=Not applicable, no canopy
*** Floor Style: UIF=uninsulated floor, Foam=foam insulated floor, INF=manually inflated insulated floor

Canopies - Do it Yourself Shelter

A canopy to provide shelter from the weather is required by the TSO (TSO C70a 4.4). A good canopy is essential in adverse weather conditions. Even a light breeze on a relatively warm day can cause a thoroughly soaked individual to develop hypothermia. The canopy can also provide additional security for survivors and their equipment, if properly designed.

Canopies come in two basic styles, erectable and self-erecting. The former means the survivors have to set up the canopy themselves, the latter automatically goes up when the raft is inflated. Most maritime regulations, as well as the CAA (Britain's FAA), require a self-erecting canopy. Let's examine the manually erected styles first and what is involved in setting up these canopies.


Setting up the Hoover canopyThe Hoover canopy is a traditional manually erected design based on one first developed for the military decades ago. It uses telescoping aluminum canopy rods to hold up the edges and center of the orange coated ripstop nylon sewn canopy. There are four outer masts on smaller rafts, eight in the 6 person and larger rafts, spaced equidistant around the inside periphery of the raft. Despite instructions printed on the inside of the raft tube, the volunteers improperly installed the rod bases which must pass through a loop and then are snapped onto a small retainer with a metal snap. This is a common mistake we have seen often in exercises and training.

For a long time we thought that this was more an indictment of the difficulty in finding the instructions on the side of the crowded raft than on the text itself since the instructions seem quite clear. On the other hand, in experiments we carried out, many who were given a rod and allowed to read the instructions could still not figure it out.

The canopy has metal snaps which mate with snaps at the top of the rods. The bottom skirt is elastic and is forced down around the outside of the tube to hold it in place. It proved difficult to impossible to accomplish this with plenty of hands, hard to imagine how it meets the TSO requirement that the canopy must be able to be erected by a single person.

In the first test, from the point that they retrieved the canopy and rods from the survival equipment pack to completion of erection, it took 19 minutes, with a fair amount of bitching and moaning from the volunteers. However, the outer rods were, as noted, not installed correctly and the center mast was not extended all the way. My experience is that they would have eventually figured it out, if they had the time and conditions permitted.

In the 2000 test it took just as long and then only because one of our survival instructors, who had been told not to assist, misinterpreted a comment for on of the others in the raft, assumed they had figured it out and then installed his rod correctly, The others followed suit. It would likely have taken a good deal longer otherwise.

The Hoover canopy has two entries, what they call "ventilation windows" on opposite sides which are closed with metal snaps, but do not seal tight. They can be rolled up and secured with cloth ties. At the seating position there is approximately 24 - 29 inches of headroom, depending on whether you measure at the rods or between them, with 39 inches in the center of the single tube raft.

On the Type I raft there is 33 - 38 inches of headroom around the periphery, and theoretically 68 inches in the center. The problem is that this results in a raft floor that is steeply sloped down to the center, making sitting in the raft most difficult. The center rod was also very difficult to erect fully. If left only partly erected the floor was "loose" and the canopy sagged It ended up cutting a hole in the bottom of the floor, not a good thing for a life raft. When the raft was capsized, the canopy tore in a number of places and some of the rods were bent, making re-erecting the canopy that much more difficult.

Attached to the top surface of the single tube raft's canopy is a metalisized covering reinforced with a backing material (as found in the heavier "Space Blanket" products), which serves as a radar reflector. I have concerns that Hoover's radar reflector might be easily lost in high winds as it is secured only on the corners. At best it would create a horrible racket flapping in the wind. The joke is that it probably won't do much good anyway since it isn't retro-reflective.

A fabric water collection tube is fitted to the canopies. No retro-reflective tape is fitted.


Setting up the EAM canopyEAM uses a very similar canopy design (actually the Hoover is a refinement of the EAM design), but with significant differences. They use eight outer canopy rods on all rafts, one at each juncture of the octagon. On the four man this keeps the canopy sides from intruding into the raft as much as on the Hoover. The rods themselves provided considerable frustrations for our volunteers, evidenced by the pejorative emanating from the raft.

Unlike the Hoover rods, EAM's will pull all the way out and apart, held together only by an internal nylon string. A Mickey Mouse arrangement is provided to line up the ball locks, two arrows marked on the two sections of rod. It really doesn't work very well, to be generous. The snaps at the bottom are screwed into wooden plugs which came loose and fell out in a number of instances. The spring loaded locking buttons often didn't work at first so the rods couldn't be locked in the extended position. Only after soaking for about 15 minutes did all the locking buttons work. These problems are very common, in my experience.

The center mast can use either the provided three section rod or one of the oars. Misplacing the center mast, the volunteers tried one of the oars and couldn't get it to easily fit and then when they finally got it into position they discovered the snap was broken. The instructions on the floor of the raft, once noticed between everyone's feet, are poorly written and confusing. The elastic bottom of the canopy was so tight that it proved impossible to get into place. In the end it, they gave up attempting to erect the EAM canopy by themselves after 33 very frustrating minutes.

By this time, the coated ripstop nylon sewn canopy itself was already coming apart in one place at a seam where it snaps onto a support rod. At the seating position there is approximately 29 inches of headroom with 39 inches in the center. There is only a single opening which is secured with fabric ties. A fabric water collection tube is fitted to the canopy. No retro-reflective tape is fitted.

These erectable canopies are downright dangerous when the raft capsizes, and these rafts will capsize in anything but relatively calm seas. The canopy comes loose and can wrap around survivors trying to get out from under the raft, causing panic, at best. The poles come loose and can rip clothing, skin or poke out an eye.

Survival Products

Erecting the Survival Products Canopy - Type II RaftThe Survival Products raft were all equipped with their unique teepee style canopy. It's optional except when you get the Part 135 kit, which includes the canopy. After retrieving the orange/pink coated ripstop nylon sewn canopy and attached inflatable mast from the survival equipment pack, the volunteers figured out how to set it up in a few minutes of fumbling around. Actually getting it erected took somewhat longer, typically about 12-15 minutes the first time around. Instructions are stenciled onto the floor of the raft in the center, but it was self evident how to do it and nobody noticed them until later. That's typical of such instructions stenciled on all the rafts' floors and tubes, they are difficult to see and often overlooked.

Survival Products Canopy Before ErectionThe center mast inflates by mouth through a mil-spec oral style inflation valve. The mil-spec valve stymied many testers, it took the volunteers a while to figure out that you had to depress the valve to inflate the mast. Once inflated, the loose end was secured to a loop in the center of the raft using a short piece of provided nylon line attached to that end of the mast. The four corners are secured with provided nylon ties around the mounting points of the lifeline on the outside of the raft tube. A plastic tab and loop system to secure the bottom of the canopy at the tube made that task both easier and quicker on the TSO'd rafts. We are at a loss to comprehend how Survival Products can refer to their canopy in their sales presentations as "self-inflating," unless the "self" is yourself.

A Velcro closure allows the single split entry, non-TSO'd rafts, and double entry, TSO'd rafts, to be sealed and ties or tabs at the bottom of this split can be used secured to the sides of the opening to the lifeline.

Survival Products Canopy - openThe consensus was that sitting inside the canopy was extremely uncomfortable. Because it slants steeply inward from the top of the tube, the only way to sit is hunched over and in contact with the material. On the single tube rafts there is only 14 inches of headroom at the seating position which increases to 40 inches in the center. Things are appreciably better, if not good, in the Type I raft because of the double tubes with 21-25 inches at the sides, 50 inches in the center. There is no provision for collection of rainwater. No retro-reflective tape is fitted.

The canopy on both rafts tore at the peak when the raft was capsized. Testers also commented that with the canopy fully closed up it was difficult to egress from the overturned raft, and a scary situation for some.


The RFD "R" series canopy is a mixed blessing. It was fairly spacious and the most weatherproof. While it is an auto-inflating stay-erect design (in other words, will not collapse if main buoyancy tube is deflated), it is not automatically erected. RFD claims this serves to allow survivors a 360 degree view of their surroundings, looking for others in the water and also allows entry into the raft from anywhere on its periphery. None of the approved rafts I reviewed here significantly impeded either viewing of the area or entry into the raft. Dry shod entry will be done from the mooring point which is at the main entry. Wet entry to double tube rafts will very nearly always be done via the entry aids. Most survivors do not have the capability to readily enter the raft without the aids.

RFD also claims that in an aerial rescue, rescuers would slice the canopy and tubes to access the raft and the survivors in auto-erecting designs. In my discussions with U.S. Coast Guard SAR helicopter crews, this was not a significant issue for them. (In any case, on the Winslow rafts the canopy can be opened completely and the arch tubes can be held down out of the way for a rescue. The BFGoodrich 10 person might present more of a problem, but it's not a significant concern.)

Upon inflation, the two parallel 6 inch canopy arches are inflated, each laid down around the outside of the two main buoyancy tubes. They are each shaped to conform to the outside of the octagonal raft. They are held in place by a sewn and Velcro'd cover and serve as a sort of bumper (or fender, to use the nautical term), protecting the main tubes. The cover has a layer of black heavy duty fabric on the part that is outermost, for increased abrasion and puncture protection.

RFD told us that these two canopy arches are intended to be two of the four buoyancy chambers required by the Helicopter Liferaft Amendment to CAA Specification No.2, para. 2.2, "The liferaft shall incorporate a minimum of four independent primary buoyancy chambers." As the rafts is inflated, secured at the sides, they will serve that purpose, albeit with considerably less buoyancy than the main tubes. However, once erected, in my opinion they cease being able to serve as a "primary buoyancy chamber" On the other hand, from the FAA TSO C70a point of view, it is not an issue. The arches are each equipped with a topping valve.

Note that if, perchance, the canopy tube is damaged while acting as a bumper, despite the protective cover, the canopy cannot be fully or very easily erected until the arch tube is repaired and reinflated. This may be preferable to having a main tube damaged, but on the other hand, the reason for double tubes is to provide redundancy, while still having a viable raft. In many circumstances, delay in erecting the canopy could have more serious consequences than failure of one tube (on the other hand, failure of two tubes would definitely put you in a world of hurt). It's a matter of perspective and we're not certain there is a perfect answer to this question or if it is even an important consideration, in the overall picture.

Unfortunately, even if there are no problems, erecting the canopy is not at all obvious, nor intuitive. Moreover, the instructions, while they include both drawings and text (a very readable black on white placard), are apparently less than perfectly clear, though my initial impression was favorable. Only about half of our virgins were able to figure out, in less than three minutes, how exactly to go about erecting the canopy. In addition, being on the interior side of the tube, the instructions can be easily hidden by the survivors, who may not notice them, particularly in the dark or in adverse weather conditions. This is a problem I have found in all rafts where placards are placed where survivors would normally have their bodies.

In fact, some volunteers were completely unaware that there was a canopy on the raft and made no attempt to find and erect it, even though there were canopies on all the other rafts, some of which required manual erection. They had to be instructed to read the instructions and erect the canopy. When all who might have to use the raft have been trained, this isn't a problem. Unfortunately, in normal general aviation operations that is the exception rather than the rule. It might be better to put the instructions on the floor in the center of the raft where they would more likely be noticed.

The canopy itself is bright yellow polyurethane coated fabric that is somewhat translucent. The bright yellow interior was cause for negative comment by some volunteers. It does give everyone a somewhat yellow tinge in bright sunlight. A "calming" color is recommended by SOLAS regulations for canopy interiors and this is generally a medium shade of blue. The canopy fabric is attached permanently to the arches and to the raft from the point outward of the canopy arch attachment points. The canopy arches are attached to opposite sides of the raft, leaving two opposing segments of the octagon clear.

In order to erect the canopy, the survivor must first release the canopy cover by pulling on a tab placarded, "PULL FOR CANOPY RELEASE," one on each side of the raft for each arch. Again, these placards were on the interior side of the raft and went unnoticed. The tabs are Velcro'd to the buoyancy tube. When pulled, they rip open the top seam on the canopy cover. On our raft, one side was stitched, the reverse side was held with Velcro. I could not assess how difficult ripping open the sewn seam was, as I was requested not to do so by Revere. The Velcro'd side requires some effort, but not beyond most people. I wonder how easy it would be with cold hands, the grip area is not large or easy to grasp. A loop instead of a plain tab would facilitate this. The pull strip is two pieces of hook Velcro sewn back to back to create a double sided hook strip with the canopy cover and the raft tube having the loop Velcro. Revere advised us they are planning on replacing the sewn side with Velcro as well, but gave no timetable.

Having uncovered the canopy, you are supposed to take one 2 inch nylon webbing strap from one side to the other and connect it with the plastic quick connect buckle. Then, pulling the loose end of the strap is supposed to raise the canopy. I found it easier to raise the canopy arches manually than to pull on that strap to raise it. That would not be possible for a single survivor. We had to pull vary hard to get the arches to raise up the arches using the strap, the working leverage is initially not good. Pulling up at least one arch a little ways makes it much easier. Once semi-erect, you must buckle up another 11 quick release buckles to fully erect and secure the canopy. This took some considerable strength at the side opposite where the first buckle had been drawn up tight.

I doubt that a lone injured survivor with only a single usable hand, could completely erect the canopy and seal it from the weather. I would prefer to see at least one other pull type connection, on the side opposite the existing one, to help draw that side closed as is now done on the other side. This would make is easier to buckle up the straps on that side and more likely that an injured survivor might accomplish it. I should also note that quick exit in case of overturning could also be seriously hampered by the canopy design. The theory is, and it does work to a degree, that survivors would right the raft by crawling "up" the interior of the canopy until their weight causes the raft to right.

The buckles are attached to the canopy fabric, not the tubes. The arch tubes are erected by pulling together the canopy to a point where they are at an angle of about 50 degrees from horizontal and then the canopy is stretched between them which also serves to hold the arch tubes up. The connecting point is off center with the bulk of the canopy coming from one side, only a few inches from the other. Once connected, there is about a 6 to 8 inch gap between the two (we didn't measure this when I had the raft and I was asked to return the raft only a couple days after our pool tests, well before completing this report, so it wasn't available to check such things.).

Two flaps of canopy material, one inside, the other outside, serve to seal the canopy weather tight. The inside flap tucks up between the canopy tube and the canopy, with Velcro helping to insure it stays, though it was a very tight fit even without that. In our tests, this alone serves to make a completely waterproof seal. The outside flap, which would normally be sealed first, but is harder to get at or even notice initially, goes over the canopy and connects to the arch tube with Velcro. When it is all buttoned up, it is extremely weather tight and very sturdy, the best in this regard of all I have tested. There is 32 inches of headroom at the center portion of the raft, 22 inches at the doors and sides.

The entire process of erecting the canopy was reminiscent of a "Chinese fire drill." Admittedly, not nearly as bad as the manually erected canopies on the EAM and Hoover rafts, especially the EAM, but still much more trouble than it should be.

For more moderate conditions, the canopy is not as flexible as others. It is virtually an all or nothing situation. While the canopy would give nearly full shade it would have very little ventilation through the small gap. The gap can be widened somewhat by releasing some of the lower buckles, but this still only provides a minimal amount of ventilation because there is only one tie at each entry provided to tie back the flap and make best use of all the potential additional ventilation. Additional ventilation, not normally a concern in the North Sea, would be most welcome in more moderate or hot conditions. It would be nice if the interior and exterior flaps could be retained in some manner when not closed. The interior flap, especially, was very annoying hanging down when open and it also impeded what little ventilation is provided by leaving the narrow gap open.

If the canopy is put down after erection, it will fill with water and be very difficult to erect and almost impossible to do so without soaking the interior of the raft or by a single injured survivor. It is possible to avoid this, if the survivor is aware of the problem beforehand, by ensuring the canopy fabric is bunched up on the top tube rather than just dropping the canopy arches down which tends to immerse the canopy in the water. However, there are no facilities, straps or anything, to keep it there and something might have to be improvised. Nor is this mentioned in any instructions. It ought to be noted in the raft manual, but it likely wouldn't be a concern on the North Sea.

A single small reversible water collection tube is installed off center in the flat top of the canopy. It has a reversible rubber plug and worked very well, though we had some very minor water leaks from the seam where it was sewn to the canopy, the only leaks whatsoever in the otherwise weathertight canopy. A large "X" of retro-reflective tape is also affixed on the flat top of the canopy (strips are also located around the perimeter of the raft buoyancy tubes).

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