Pilot’s Guide to Aviation Life Vests [Part 2: Survival Equipment Series]

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A long, peaceful flight over a placid blue ocean takes some extra planning and preparation compared to flights over land.

Consider the need for life rafts and life vests. On extended overwater flights, you’ll want to carry one life vest per person and a raft (or rafts) with enough room and buoyancy to fit everyone on board.

In Part 1 of our guide we covered life rafts, check that article out if you haven't read it. In Part 2 of our survival equipment series, we will demystify life vests and guide you through the process of selecting and using a vest.

First, let’s review the FAA’s position on survival and safety gear.

A life vest on a wooden background

What equipment does the FAA require for overwater flights?

Before you set off on that extended overwater flight, remember that the FAA mandates specific safety and survival gear onboard certain types of aircraft. The gear that you must have on board depends on what FAA FAR part you are operating under as well as how far offshore you are flying.

You will notice that general aviation pilots with small, not-for-hire aircraft don’t have the same requirements as larger commercial planes, however if you will be spending a lot of time over the water, it is still only prudent to outfit your aircraft appropriately.

Since you already know what to look for in a life raft, let’s turn our attention to the vests.

What you must know about life vests

If you are new to having a life vest in the cockpit, two questions you probably have are: #1 – Do I really have to wear this thing during the flight? And #2 – What are the chances of the vest inflating in the cockpit?

Good questions – now let’s get you some answers.

Close Up of a Blue life Vest

What type of life vest should I get?

Who knows more about life vests, or personal flotation devices (PFDs), than boaters? Ask a boater what PFD you should get and if that boater is wise and experienced, their answer will be, “The one that you will wear.”

That’s right: the most effective life jacket is the one that you are actually willing to put on and keep on. You can buy the most expensive life jacket with all of the high-tech gadgets, but the harsh reality is that if you don’t wear it, it does you no good.

After all, if you get into trouble overwater, do you really have precious seconds to waste locating and putting on a life vest? You want to be free to focus your attention on troubleshooting and dealing with the problem.

So, to answer your earlier question, yes – for maximum safety you should make it a standard practice to wear your life vest for the duration of all extended overwater flights.

Not sure what type of life vest to get? Don’t worry. It’s easier than you think to narrow down your choices and pick a vest that works for you. We promise you don’t have to get stuck with a bulky, claustrophobia-inducing straight-jacket style life vest.

Woman Demonstrating How to use a Life VestHow does a life vest work?

Assuming you don’t intend to wear a bulky foam life jacket, you will be choosing an inflatable style. Our inflatable life vests are manually activated.

Manual vests work by the wearer pulling a cord to puncture a compressed carbon dioxide gas canister and release the gas which inflates the vest.

Redundancies keep us alive and the life vest manufacturers have built in a backup system. If for some reason your vest fails to inflate when you pull the tab, don’t worry. Your vest is also equipped with a blow tube. Simply blow into the tube to inflate the vest.

If you’re worried about accidental inflation in the cockpit, know that it’s not very likely with a manually inflating vest.

For the vest to inflate accidentally, you would have to catch the pull tab on something. Since the tab has a very low-profile design and hangs flat against the vest, the odds of this happening are negligible.

What life vest options are available?

Manually inflatable life vest options are available in both harness and belt styles.

Revere ComfortMax Inflatable Life Vest

Revere Survival produces some of the best and most comfortable extended-wear life vests in the industry.

Their stole manual inflating vests are designed to allow ultimate freedom of movement while meeting safety requirements. They are worn comfortably over the shoulders and belt at the waist

Alert rescuers to your position with reflective tape and an attached whistle. This vest also comes with a holder that can be used to house an add-on LED lifejacket light.

The ComfortMax is available in your choice of a red life vest or blue life vest.

Revere ComfortMax Life Vest & Adventure Medical Kits SOL Origin

You need both a life vest and survival gear, right? Check both boxes at a discounted price with our ComfortMax vest and Adventure Medical Kit’s SOL Origin combo pack.

In addition to the ComfortMax vest, you will also get a palm-size waterproof kit that holds important survival items like fire starters, a compass, a folding knife, signal mirror, braided nylon cord and more.

Revere ComfortMax Life Vest & Adventure Medical Kits SOL Origin

Revere ComfortMax Belt Pack

Even if you – or one of your passengers – is particularly reluctant to put a vest on, Revere has you covered with a low-profile belt pack model so at least your vest is on your person and not stowed under the seat.

Like the regular harness vests, the Revere ComfortMax belt pack comes with a signal whistle and has integrated reflective tape. If you need to deploy the vest, you will just have one extra step of putting the vest on, but at least you won’t waste valuable time searching the cockpit for it.

EAM KSE-35L8E Lightweight TSO

You’ve chosen your own vest and some for passengers, but maybe you just want a lightweight spare backup that you can store with your life raft gear.

EAM KSE-35L8E LIGHTWEIGHT TSO-C13e Approved Life Vest

The EAM twin-cell vest comes in bright, easy to see yellow or orange colors and features a water-activated survivor locator light. The vest is folded up in a bag and, unlike the other vests on this list, is not designed to be donned unless there is an emergency. Add one to your kit for additional peace of mind.

How do I use a life vest?

Now that you have your vests, of course you want to know how to use them.

The basics are:

  • Do a pre-flight inspection to ensure the vest (or waist pouch) appears to be in good condition.
  • Check the CO2 canister’s status and make sure the indicator is green. You can view the indicator through the clear plastic window on the vest or belt pack. If the indicator is red, the canister needs to be re-armed so it will inflate correctly when you pull the cord.
  • Locate the yellow pull tab labeled “JERK,” and be sure it is hanging just below the bottom of the vest or is pulled through the cutout hole on the belt pack.
  • For the harness style, put on the vest just like you would any other vest and buckle in the front. The belt pack style is worn around your waist and buckled on your left side.
  • Tighten the waist straps as needed and tuck in the ends.

If you need to inflate the vest:

  • Only inflate the vest after you have exited the aircraft.
  • Pull down sharply on the yellow “JERK” handle to inflate. If using the belt style, pulling the handle will cause the vest to pop out of its storage pouch. Once the vest inflates, put it on over your head then tighten the center strap and tie the neck straps.
  • To add air, flip the black cap off the red tube and blow into the tub. Recap when you’re done.

To deflate:

  • Remove black cap and turn it around so that the small end goes into the tube.
  • Hold cap in place and squeeze air out of vest.

Key Takeaways

Life vests are a key component of survival gear and they should be worn throughout extended overwater flights. Stole and belt pack style inflatable vests allow for maximum comfort and freedom of movement while still setting you up to be safe.

It is important to inspect your vest prior to each flight and confirm that the CO2 canister status is “green.” If you ever have a problem with manual inflation, remember that you can simply inflate the vest yourself by blowing into the inflation tube.

Life vests, like life rafts, are pieces of gear that you hope you never have to use. Buy both, learn how to use them, put them on board, then go enjoy your overwater flight knowing you have done your part to maximize your safety.

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Do you think we missed anything important? Let us know in the comments below!

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