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Aviation Life Raft Review
The Testers and Assumptions

The Testers

To perform our initial in-water evaluation I talked six unsuspecting volunteers into being guinea pigs, three each, men and women. All were average build (and averaged out to about typical FAA standard 170 lbs.) and in generally better than average physical condition. None had any previous water survival training or experience with life rafts. All but one had flown in general aviation aircraft as pilots or passengers. We wanted "life raft virgins" because, generally speaking, the pilots and passengers who might use these rafts have no former experience or training to rely on either.

For the second series of in-water evaluations there were a few important changes. Besides our "life raft virgins," I also invited a few experienced "survivors" who had previous training or background in water survival and life rafts, either from the military or commercial aviation, to add their perspective to our evaluation. If anything, they were more critical of design deficiencies and more appreciative of good features than our virgins. I also had a wider range of body types, sizes and weights, which served to show up some deficiencies we might have otherwise not noticed. All were in generally better than average physical condition. None of the virgins had any previous water survival training or experience with life rafts. All but one had flown in general aviation aircraft as pilots or passengers.

For the third evaluation, we stuck pretty much to the same criteria as last time, but with a few important additions. Instead of relying primarily on locals for our volunteer testers, we advertised on the ETS Web site for volunteers. Out of the many who applied, we selected 36, most of whom actually made it to the test. These volunteers came from throughout the U.S and one survival instructor even came from Norway. As we were testing both aviation and marine life rafts, we had people from both areas of interest, but a number were both pilots and sailors. The volunteers had to pay their own way to the test and put themselves up in a hotel. We provided food during the test itself and each received a special tee-shirt.

Obviously, given the expense they incurred, we had testers who were very interested in this subject. Many of our life raft virgins were well-educated on the subject and had done their homework. They took their duties seriously and provided very valuable input and lots of well-thought-out written evaluations for us to pour through. Two couples who attended did so expressly to finalize their decision for a life raft purchase.

NOTE: For a report from the volunteer tester's perspective, read this brief article by Nancy Hattaway Miller (opens a new browser window).

USCG SAR logo Also new this year was the official participation of the United States Coast Guard who agreed to get officially involved only after reviewing our test protocols and procedures. The Coast Guard sent two representatives, the Coast Guard's senior rescue swimmer, Master Chief Keith Jensen, and Lieutenant Commander Paul Steward from the Office of Search And Rescue at USCG Headquarters, both to participate and observe. LCDR Steward noted that "these tests offer a unique opportunity to further our knowledge of recreational marine and general aviation life raft features and performance which can be extremely valuable information when conducting search and rescue operations."

Both Coasties provided extremely useful feedback. Jensen, because of his many years of practical on-the-scene experience with the sorts of conditions and situations users of these life rafts might face, provided extraordinarily valuable references and feedback throughout the event. His experience helped to identify numerous deficiencies that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, as well as identifying those features which enhance survivability.

In 1996 members of the Arizona Wing of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) provided logistical support and testing volunteers. In 2000 the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Division 10 provided logistical support and testing volunteers for the initial in-water tests and later assisted in other testing, including use of a member's boat. We could not have done it without their able and enthusiastic help.

Criteria For Evaluations

In evaluating the rafts we were concerned with a number of things including; ease of deployment and operation, stability, ease of entry, protection from the sea and elements, functionality, livability, comfort, equipment selection, and quality of both the raft and its included equipment. Some aspects of these areas are more critical than others, but all have a bearing when making a choice.

Some might question the inclusion of livability and comfort in our criteria. After all, they will contend, the issue is survival. It's not supposed to be a cruise. Survival experts and actual survivors counter that these factors are of far greater importance than most people recognize.

Survival literature, and this Web site as well, is replete with admonitions that the most important survival tool you have is your brain. The ability to make clear, rational decisions is of utmost importance. Particularly in a water survival situation, the capability of the survival equipment to mitigate the deleterious effects of hypothermia, seasickness, dehydration, hunger and cramped, wet and often cold living conditions will have a significant impact upon your state of mind. This, in turn, effects your ability to make sound survival decisions. One shouldn't underestimate the importance of these factors.


In conducting my evaluations and establishing my ratings of the rafts and equipment, I make a few important assumptions, based on my field experience and talks with actual survivors. First and foremost, I assume absolutely no familiarity with the equipment on the part of the potential user.

If you ask most commercial pilots what type raft the have on board their aircraft, those who do actually have one, five times out of ten you will get a response something along the lines of, "a yellow one." Three times out of ten you will simply get a shrug of the shoulders or something like, "I don't know." Even fewer cabin crew on Part 91 equipment know what's on board or how to use it. Even Part 135 pilots and crew are mainly ignorant. As for passengers, very, very few passengers have any knowledge whatsoever or are briefed on the raft's operation before the flight. Those crew who are trained may not have the best of training or it may not even be on the type equipment actually carried. Even if the crew is well trained, they may not survive the ditching or the survival experience, the untrained passengers may be on their own.

Essentially, a raft and its included equipment must be idiot proof. As much as possible, everything should be obvious and intuitive to the average non-mechanically inclined person. The raft must be designed and equipped to take care of the survivor; it should demand little or nothing of the survivor who may be unable to do much on their behalf.

I also took a look at a worst case scenario, a single survivor, possibly injured. How well does the raft and its included equipment work for just one person or one injured person? We cannot assume that there will always be more than one survivor or that they will be uninjured. It is a potentially deadly trap to believe that.

Nor can we assume the survivors will be of average size or strength. Pilots and passengers come all sizes and shapes and conditions of health and strength. While no raft of reasonable size, weight or cost will ever be able to deal with every possible sort of situation, we must recognize that a significantly large minority of people are not average. Moreover, in today's population even average doesn't represent a particularly healthy or capable person. Years of experience watching all sorts of people struggle to get into life rafts has driven this point home. Heavy individuals, especially those who are bottom heavy, and those without a lot of upper body strength are often at a serious, potentially life-threatening disadvantage.

To those who scoff and suggest that adrenaline will solve all these problems, I can only answer that other things can mitigate the influence of this performance enhancing hormone that sometimes allows for superhuman effort. Shock, injuries and exhaustion can still leave a person wanting. Adrenaline also cannot overcome the laws of physics. Passengers may also have to cope with the influence of alcohol or drugs, prescription and otherwise, on their capabilities. Moreover, good design of life saving equipment does not assume extraordinary effort or fortuitous circumstances, if anything is should assume less than normal available resources.

Bottom line, a good life raft takes these potential problems into account, it is designed to serve the survivor.

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