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Aviation Life Raft Review
Self-Erecting Canopies - Instant Shelter

Self-Erecting Canopies - Instant Shelter

A measure of the level of frustration and dissatisfaction with the manually erected canopies was the spontaneous applause and cheering from the volunteers in our first test which greeted the deployment of the first raft with a self erecting canopy. On rafts with self erecting canopies there are tubes that inflate with the raft which arch over the raft in various configurations to support the canopy. Thus, when the raft inflates the canopy is erected at the same time. Viola, instant shelter from the wind, waves, rain, sleet, sun, salt spray, what have you.

The simplest versions have a single arch tube which crosses the center of the raft. This is the design used by the BFGoodrich 4-person rafts, Air Cruisers and Winslow's Island Flyer. Nobody had much good to say about the single arch canopies, except in comparison with the manually erectable ones. "Better than nothing" about summed up the sentiment. Particularly with single tube rafts, but even with double tubes, headroom is seriously compromised for the most part--sitting hunched over gets extremely uncomfortable. Fighting over the few good seating positions might be a distraction, but probably not the best situation for survivors.

BFGoodrich 4-Person

BFG's old design had a single six inch tube arching in a big hoop over the center of the raft supporting a single layer yellow coated ripstop nylon canopy. On initial inflation the tube is restrained by a Velcro tab attached to the center of arch and the bottom of the main tube. When released by a survivor, the arch pops up with about 3/5 of the canopy permanently attached. In our raft the survival equipment pack was caught up in the canopy and was dropped on the head of the volunteer who released the arch tube, dazing him for a few moments and raising a lump.

The other portion of the canopy is furled down on the main tube. A zipper arching from one side to the other closes the two halves to seal the canopy. At its peak the arch is 43 inches above the floor and you can add another six inches to the canopy fabric itself. Sitting under the arch there is plenty of headroom. Sitting at right angles to the arch you experience a similar problem to that of the Survival Products canopy, though not quite as bad since the top of the arch is nine inches higher and the tube is an inch higher itself. Still, it gets a bit uncomfortable before much time passes and survivors will bunch together towards the arch tube. There is no provision for water collection. No retro-reflective tape is fitted.

The new style BFGoodrich 4-person raft is equipped with a four inch stay-erect single arch located on the eight inch straight center section of the buoyancy tube. The arch incorporates square corners for improved headroom. The canopy is constructed of orange coated ripstop nylon. This appears to be the same material as used by Hoover and EAM in their manually erectable canopies. It is translucent and orange inside as well. The sun shining through it gives everything a most unappealing orange tinge.

The material is glued to the canopy arch. The two sides are both able to be fully open or closed. When open, there is effectively no coverage, the raft is wide open. Upon inflation, the two flaps are rolled down on the tube and secured by Velcro straps. A large plastic one piece zipper is used on each of the flaps. This makes is somewhat difficult to adjust the opening or rig up shade. There is good headroom in the center rectangular section of the raft, 36 1/2 inches, 40 1/2 inches to the top of the tube, less headroom at the ends and sides, 29 inches, where the canopy slopes down to the top tube.

BFG Larger Rafts

The old 7 person BFGoodrich uses two separate somewhat rectangular self-erecting arches which cross the raft at the corners of the raft just where the rounded ends begin. The tubes support a double walled orange canopy constructed of a coated glued and taped fabric. The inside layer is blue for a calming effect. The two layers offer a dead airspace for insulation. The inner layer is attached to the "inside" of the arch tubes. There is a rectangular entry at each end. Headroom is 33 inches between the canopy supports and then tapers down to the tube at the ends with similar effect as on the 4 person raft, exacerbated somewhat because of the lower arch supports, but mitigated just a bit since the twin tube raises the minimum height. Volunteers remarked that the inside was somewhat claustrophobic.

There is an excellent water collection system incorporating rubber channels which funnel water to a collection point on both sides of the canopy. From there a rubber tube drains water to the inside of the raft through the canopy layers. A plug seals the tube.

The new larger BFGoodrich rafts are equipped with an auto-erecting, stay-erect orange coated ripstop nylon canopy. A pair of 4 inch arch tubes are fitted at the corners of the rectangular portion of the raft. A center tube connects the two arches across the center of the raft, adding considerable rigidity. The material is glued to the canopy arches and the central connecting tube. The top of the canopy is approximately 3 ft. feet wide and extends between the two arches. The sides and ends can all be opened up or closed in. The raft is very airy with all the openings fully open.

Upon inflation, all the flaps are rolled down on the tube and secured by Velcro straps. A large plastic one piece zipper is used on each of the four opening flaps. A minimal storm flap is fitted.

There is good headroom in the center rectangular section of the raft, 36 1/2 inches /40 1/2 inches, less headroom at the ends and sides, 29 inches, where the canopy slopes down to the tube.

Winslow Single Tube

Winslow's Island Flyer is fitted with a single, auto-erecting, 5 inch "square arch" tube, centered on the raft. The arch tube is divided into two cells, each comprising one half of the arch, one connected to each buoyancy tube. If a chamber is lost, one half of the arch deflates, the other half remains inflated. This is slightly better than none at all, but not as useful as a stay-erect canopy arch. The rear portion of the convertible canopy is attached to the arch with one inch Velcro on the top and sides and three nylon straps on the top which are secured around the arch tube and closed with metal snaps.

The open half of the canopy is split in two and the flaps rolled up to the arch tube, secured by two piece Velcro straps, three for each flap. Winslow has addressed one of my complaints about these straps by adding a tab to the end of each to ease releasing the the high count Velcro which grips much better than standard Velcro. Now, if they would only make it a different color so it would also be easier to locate the tab portion. This isn't a big problem in most cases, more an annoyance. The tabs ensure that in the cold where fingers don't work as well or gloves may be worn, these straps can still be easily undone.

The canopy flaps have large #10 plastic vertical and horizontal zippers, a feature common to the whole Winslow line. The large zippers have generous pull tabs with a plastic grip attached inside and outside. All three close to the center. Winslow has responded to another complaint of ours and added a generous storm flap covering all the zippers. Velcro on the flaps ensures they seal well and stay sealed.

Winslow has improved ventilation with the canopy closed via the double-acting center zipper, which you can zip open at the top. Velcro tie-backs allow you to tie back the two edges to form a diamond shaped opening for even better ventilation.

A unique Winslow innovation is the view ports they have added to the canopy on the "Plus" model. These clear plastic semicircular ports are a superb feature that was widely lauded, both for contributing to a more comforting environment and as a potential antidote to seasickness, a real problem for life raft occupants. There are two fitted to the entry, one on either side and one to the rear. These view ports may be optionally fitted to any of the rafts. While not cheap for the TSO'd rafts becuause of the special materials needed to meet the FAA's fire resistance standards, $470, they are worthy of serious consideration.

The bottom zippers extend back past the canopy arch a ways and these can be unzipped all the way, the canopy pulled off the arch tube and opened all the way and then rolled up on the main tube at the rear of the raft. It is secured there by a two piece cover with a series of paired braided nylon line ties. The cover is wrapped around the canopy and the ties hold it together. This is excellent for mild weather and for rescue when fuller access is desirable. I am not sure that the cover for the rolled up canopy needs to be quite so elaborate to be effective, though it does serve to make it very tidy.

At the rear and entry the single arch canopy doesn't have quite the roominess of Winslow's tri-arch designs. Headroom under the arch is 32 inches, 37 inches to the canopy. At the front and rear headroom is only 16 inches and 21 inches at the quarters. This can be somewhat uncomfortable as some survivors will have to hunch over, though the large buoyancy tube helps some.

A combination observation port hole and water collector is fitted in one quarter of the rear of the canopy. This "tube," 12 inches in diameter, is fabricated of canopy material and is sufficiently large to allow a person to stick their face or head through for viewing in inclement weather, while protecting most of themselves and the interior of the raft. An attached braided nylon line tie can be wrapped around the tube and cinched tight to make it nearly leakproof or opened somewhat to allow water collection into a container. Winslow has added a Velcro'd flap on both the interior and exterior to secure the tube when not in use, keeping water out and keeping it from hanging down into the he raft. A placard with clear instructions is attached to the flap.

The canopy is "molten orange" exterior and blue interior double coated canopy material with patches of radar reflective material and retro-reflective strips added. Blue interiors are required by SOLAS regulations for their supposed calming effect. Being opaque, it at least doesn't make you look sickly orange like the other canopies. Nobody look very good with an orange complexion.

The StaDry was equipped with a single "square arch" self-erecting, stay-erect canopy which is also unique. It used a "sleeve within a sleeve" design to keep it up. The inner sleeve is connected to one cell, the outer arch tube to the other. Failure of one cell is noticeable by a slight softening of the arch tube, though it is still adequate to keep the canopy erect. This feature also serves to let survivors know that a cell as been lost and needs attention. Because there is no perceptible loss of freeboard with a lost cell, it might possibly not be noticed. The only drawback to this design, as implemented, is that a puncture to the arch tube will deflate the attached cell.

Winslow TSO'd Rafts

The Winslow canopy on the TSO'd rafts is a self-erecting "square tri-arch" design. It shares the basic design features of all the Winslow canopies. The 5 inch primary arch is located forward of the raft centerline such that the canopy covers approximately 3/5ths of the raft when open. The other square arch runs at right angles to the primary arch at the center of the arch back down to the upper main tube in the rear and adds considerable rigidity to the canopy.

For the Ulitma this provides superior headroom over virtually all of the raft with the exception of the center of the entry: 4-person - 37/42 inches at the arch, 18 1/2 inches at entry, 23 inches at the "quarter" sides; 10 and 12-person rafts - 43/48 inches at the arch, 27 inches at the entry, 32 inches at the "quarter" sides. The Ultra-Light suffers a bit its smaller tubes, especially on the larger rafts: 4-person - 34/39 inches at the arch, 18 inches at entry, 23 inches at the "quarter" sides; 10 and 12-person rafts - 33/38 inches at the arch, 19 inches at the entry, 24 inches at the "quarter" sides. Testers commented that they much preferred the Ulitma.

The main entry is the same as on the rest of the Winslow rafts. An alternate entry is located in the left rear "quarter" (opposite the one with the observation port in it) This is a zippered arched entry door that is rolled down and secured by a pair of Velcro straps on the upper main tube upon inflation. The single large plastic zipper goes completely around the sides and top of the entry. A Velcro'd storm flap is fitted.

While the Ulitma uses Winslow's excellent orange and blue heavy duty SOLAS canopy material, the Ultra-Light rafts use the conventional aviation semi-opaque orange ripstop material.

The TSO'd rafts' convertible canopy can also be opened up all the way, as with the single tube rafts. However, the third arch leg and alternate entry prevent the canopy from being completely rolled up and secured as on the single tube rafts and no cover is provided. Instead, it tends to crush in the bottom of the back arch somewhat, which also serves to secure the canopy in the open position. While not as neat as the cover on the single tube rafts, it is acceptable. However, a Velcro strap on either side to hold down and collect the canopy against the tube would be a useful addition.

Winslow's stay-erect arch tubes includes a separate topping valve for the canopy arch, a nice touch.

Some concern has been expressed from time to time about the effects of a helicopter hovering over the Winslow raft during a rescue. I was on board a Winslow 10-person raft off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale and a USAF Special Operations Blackhawk performed rescue hovers over the raft with no problems to the canopy or to the raft. That should settle that question.

Air Cruisers

Air Cruisers uses a single arch self-erecting canopy on both 4- and 13-person rafts. It is not a stay-erect design, if the upper tube is deflated, the canopy deflates as well. This makes repairs a bit more difficult just because of the material now cloaking everyone and everything. The 4-person uses a 6-inch arch tube, the 13-person a 7.5-inch tube. Both are squared off, but with inward sloping legs. The material is the usual lightweight semi-opaque orange ripstop nylon with retro-reflective strips attached.

The bottom of the canopy is secured via an elastic hem which seats over the upper tube and attachments around the raft. Plastic quick clips are used for the 4-person, nylon ties for the 13-person. The canopy can be removed with minimal effort. While there is retro-reflective material at the entry on the support tubes and buoyancy tubes, there is none on the arch tube or remainder of the raft.

Headroom under the arch was 41 inches in the center for the 4-person, 18 inches at the sides and 20 - 24 inches elsewhere. The 13-person at 46 inches in the center 36 inches at the sides and 30 - 33 inches elsewhere, which was pretty good, best of the single arch canopies by a significant margin. Those large tubes and the high arch help reduce the inherent interior drawbacks of the single arch canopy. However, the downside of that very high arch is that it is going to catch a lot of wind, which could present more problems for the inadequately ballasted and sea anchored rafts.

Zipper failures,  13-personThe entries are arch shaped and are rolled down and secured with cloth ties. As noted previously, the manner in which this is done can create some problems and resulted in a ripped canopy. The zipper closure used is very lightweight. Cloth pulls are attached to the single-acting zippers. These lightweight zippers proved to be the canopy's Achilles heel. Both zippers on the 13-person raft failed. One was literally ripped off, the other pulled out from one side when testers attempted to close up the raft. Another zipper on the 4-person raft got caught up in the lightweight and flimsy storm flap and jammed so firmly that it proved impossible to get loose. These failures effectively rendered the canopies useless for protection from the elements.

Emergency equipment is inherently subject to abuse due to the conditions under which it is used. Emergency equipment must be designed to function fully under the normal abuse one might expect in use and must be tested thoroughly. These failures are indicative of extremely weak and poorly thought out design and inadequate testing, in our opinion.

RFD Navigator

The RFD Navigator is equipped with a bright yellow-green coated nylon auto-erecting canopy of teepee design. The non-stay-erect arch tube is an inverted "V" which is attached at the midpoint of the side tubes (side being defined in relation to the open front of the square raft). The arch is a single 4 1/2 inch tube, bent in the middle and secured there with a nylon strap in the same manner as the main buoyancy tube corners. The peak of the canopy is tied to the peak of the arch. The canopy is glued to the outer edge of the buoyancy tube on the back and sides.

The paired entry flaps form one side of the teepee are rolled up and secured back with 2 inch fabric tape (similar to "duct" or "gaffers" tape) when the raft is inflated. You must peel off the tape to release the flaps and close the entry. The entry seals with a single strip of one inch Velcro on the vertical seam and two inch Velcro in the horizontal bottom of the flaps. There is no means to tie up the flaps again after removing the tape, unless care was taken to ensure the tape was not made unusable, highly unlikely unless the user had previous experience with the raft.

While there is 31 inches and 36 inches (bottom of arch and canopy surface, respectively) of headroom in the center, there is only 13/17 1/2 inches at the main tube. Volunteers complained of the need to hunch due to the steep angle of the canopy and also of the resultant coldness during the water spray tests from almost having to be in contact with the canopy. These are identical to the complaints received of the similarly configured Survival Products canopy. The self erecting nature of the canopy with the absence of any intrusion into the floor space is a major advantage over the other rafts in this low end category. In relatively calm seas, during a rainstorm, it would be possible to sit in the high center of the raft, facing out, though that would also result in more cramped conditions due to less legroom. There was no way to gain flow-through ventilation or lower the canopy completely if desired.

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