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Aviation Survival Equipment Buyers Guide

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It's easy to fill your plane with a plethora of survival gear -- first aid kits, food, tools, water, rescue beacons, a lift raft and life preservers -- throwing the aircraft out of weight and balance in the process. Rather than buying every possible product you can, this buyer's guide will help you pick what you need to increase your odds of surviving a crash.

What you need in your survival kit depends on what kind of flying you do most often. Rescue lights and a personal locator beacon (PLB) are useful in any cockpit, showing rescuers nearing your location exactly where you are. A first aid kit is also vital -- the kind you get will depend on how long you may need to survive in the wilderness. If you regularly fly over mountaineous or remote terrain, expand your kit to include space blankets, a water supply and high-energy food bars. Pilots who routinely fly over water should definitely pack personal floatation devices; the farther offshore you go, the more important a life raft will be.

Locator Beacons
Governments worldwide have stopped satellite monitoring of 121.5 MHz for the tones from older emergency locator transmitters still installed in the vast majority of general aviation planes. That makes finding and rescuing you a harder and longer process, since fewer people are monitoring for the signals and they're now harder to detect. A new generation of PLBs uses different technologies to transmit your precise location to search and rescue teams -- and often let your friends and family track your progress on routine flights.

If you regularly fly a plane that has an older 121.5 MHz ELT, or if most of your flying is over sparsely populated and rugged areas, a PLB can be a smart investment that only adds a few ounces to your pocket or flight bag. Since PLBs don't have an accelerometer built into them to automatically activate in a crash, they're only useful in survivable crashes. That means you need to be conscious and able to physically pull the PLB out of your pocket, place it in the open and activate it.

At a minimum, consider a PLB that has a built-in GPS antenna. That increases the accuracy of the location that's sent to SAR teams to within 100 feet or better. The ACR ResQLink+ has that feature. There are no annual subscription costs with these two PLBs -- pay once for the added peace of mind.

If you want added features, like flight tracking for your friends, consider the Spot X Satellite Messenger. While the Spot X is more economical than the cost of a PLB, you will need to pay about $200per year for the service. It provides emergency location features like other PLBs, but also offers peace of mind by allowing friends and relatives to track your progress online during normal flights. Because of the yearly fee, the total cost of a Spot device will surpass the upfront cost of most 406 MHz rescue beacons by the second year of use. But that may be worth it for the added features the Spot has, like sending a message that you need help in a non-life-threatening situation or that you've arrived safely at your destination.

Formerly a Delorme Brand, the Garmin InReach series offers tracking, messaging, and SOS on the Iridium Satellite Network. Weighing only 3.5oz, and measuring under 4" tall, the inReach can be packed anywhere.

Rescue Lights
Small and lightweight, these lights are a different breed from the LED flashlight you keep in your flight bag for reading charts at night. The Rescue Laser Light shines a narrow red laser beam that can be seen up to 20 miles away. When rescuers are in the air looking for you, this leaves no doubt exactly where you are. Plus, it's waterproof to 80 feet, can shine for 40 hours on a single battery, and doesn't present a fire hazard like rescue flares do.

Fire Starters
Think you'll be roughing it for a day or more while you wait for rescue? You'll need a way to start a fire to keep warm and prepare food. An emergency lighter is the surest way to start a flame. The basic Stormproof Match Kit is windproof, and waterproof, and comes in a water tight case. In more extreme conditions, the Klipp Lighter will will work at altitudes up to 8,000 feet, while the TekFire features a lithium-ion battery that is charged via an included USB cable.

But what good is a lighter if you don't have kindling to get a larger fire going? We offer ParaTinder Cord in 30ft Lengths, as Bracelets and Zipper pulls.

The Compact Rescue Tool with Seatbelt Cutter and Window Breaker has a razor sharp blade. It also includes a window breaking tool and a seat belt cutter.

Already have a knife? The SparkForce and the SparkLite Glo combine the striker and a small piece of steel on one lanyard to start fires; the SparkMax 1.0 also has a compass for bare bones navigation.

Life Rafts & Life Vests
Pilots who regularly fly over water on personal flights should consider investing in life vests and a life raft. Foam-filled vests may have been all the rage when you went tubing on a river, but their bulk takes up space in the back of an aircraft and restricts movement getting out of the cockpit. Keep in mind that the type of equipment you carry may be mandated by the FARs, particularly if you are conducting overwater flights for hire.

Vests like the EAM KSE-35L8E are similar to those on airliners, storing in a small pouch until they're needed. It inflates with a small CO2 cartridge. This vest is most effective when you can grab one immediately; if you go down over water, you likely won't have time to hunt around the back of the plane.

For added security on long over-water flights, consider the Revere Comfort Max life vest, available in red or blue. Its low profile and nylon exterior make it comfortable to wear throughout the flight, saving precious seconds in a water landing, since you can exit immediately without having to secure the life vest. When needed, a CO2 cartridge will inflate the vest to its full size in about one second. The vest also features an attached safety whistle to help draw attention to your location in the water. If you want those features in a smaller and lighter PFD, look at the Revere Comfort Max Belt Pack, also available in red or blue.

All lift vests are designed to keep your head above water. But that can still be dangerous in rough seas, shark-infested waters or when rescue is some time away, putting you at risk of hypothermia. For flights close to shore, an inflatable life raft will keep you dry and provide some protection from choppy water. The basic Revere Aero Compact seats 4 and inflates in less than 30 seconds (a CO2 cylinder is attached). It includes stabilizing underwater ballast pockets and a water anchor. Because it doesn't have a protective canopy and has just one inflatable tube around the outside, it's recommended for use within three miles of shore.

There are several other versions of the Aero Compact depending on your needs: Add a protective bright orange canopy for an extra $200, providing vital shielding from the elements.The Aero Compact with Standard Kit includes food, water, a first aid kit and other basic signalling gear. The raft with Deluxe Kit includes a thermal blanket, paddles and fishing equipment, as well as everything else in the other kits. All three versions include canopies.

For greater durability and larger crews, Revere's Aero Elite rafts all include an inflatable canopy and floor, double-cell flotation tubes, a boarding ladder and four water ballasts for stability. The 4-person model weights 45 pounds; or choose the 6-person model or the 8-person model. All models include signalling and rescue kits.

Adventure Medical Kits
The size and features you need in a survival pack or first aid kit depend on the type of missions you do and how many people you may need to treat. Do you only want the capability to handle simple wounds, or do you also want to be able to secure fractures and close larger wounds as well? How long do you think you might be stuck in the wilderness before help arrives? Think about these questions to help you choose which of Adventure Medical's products to add to your flight bag.

Adventure Medical's Survival Paks give you a variety of tools in compact packages -- but by themselves, they aren't first aid kits. The Pocket Survival Pak Plus, at 4 ounces, stuffs the bare essentials into a very small pouch. You'll find equipment to start a fire, go fishing and signal for help. Plus, it includes small amounts of duct tape, wire, nylon thread, nylon cord and other materials that can be used for a variety of repairs and other uses. Waterproof instructions that fit in the pouch detail how to use everything. The new SOL Origin may look like a multipurpose tool on the outside, but an inner compartment packs in gear to start fires and catch fish. The case integrates signalling gear and a compass as well.

Combining an array of survival gear with first aid equipment, the SOL Survival, Medical, & Gear Aid gathers most of what you'd need in an emergency into a zippered 20-ounce pouch. The medical pouch includes latex gloves, bandages, dressings, moleskin, small amounts of basic medications and safety shears. The survival pouch features many of the same tools as in the Pocket Survival Pak but in larger quantities, plus cable ties, a survival blanket and an LED headlamp.

If you just need to supplement your existing supplies, consider adding a thermal blanket, which is extremely compact and lightweight, using a metallic liner to reflect your body heat back onto yourself. The large Two-Person Survival Blanket lets you share body heat in an economical package.

Leatherman Tools
A Leatherman multitool can be invaluable for the everyday and in emergency situations. Five different tools have you covered.

Step up to the Skeletool and gain an outside-access blade so you don't have to open the tool first. A bit driver and four included bits let you tighten down any kind of screw.

If you need everything in one tool, the Wave with Nylon Sheath is the one for the job. It includes three blades: one straight, one serrated, and a saw. Several types of cutters, a crimper, two bit drivers (bits included) and two files let you tackle any repair situation.

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  • Neil Glazer