Depending on your aircraft and its operation, you may be required to have a life raft(s) with rated capacity and buoyancy for all of your passengers. The FAA now requires a life raft on-board for flights over 50 miles overwater operations for Parts 121, 125 and 135 aircraft and for Part 91.501 over 100 miles overwater. And when traveling internationally, different regulations like the ICAO or Canadian regulations may additionally require one. Even if not mandated, large bodies of water, like lakes are an unforgiving environment, with hypothermia being a constant threat. For all aircraft, including Part 91 General, a life raft is the best protection from the elements when going further than gliding distance from land.
Whether required or just to ensure peace of mind, wading through the different regulations for your aviation life raft can be complicated. We want to make it easier for you.
Aviation life rafts are approved per FAA TSO-C70a, separating two life raft groups, Type I—for use in any category aircraft and Type II—for use in non-transport category aircraft. This regulation outlines the minimum standards for a life raft through three categories:
- Materials and Workmanship
- Use of materials that meet FAA standards for flammability, tear strength, seam strength, coat adhesion of coated fabrics, canopy waterproofness, and protection of packed raft.
- Necessary Design Elements
- Be rated for capacity and measured buoyancy
- Inflation system arranged to not interfere with boarding or prevent other chambers from being filled
- Canopy either attached or packed
- Water pockets providing capsize resistance
- Boarding Aids
- Type 1 requires 2 boarding aids at opposing ends
- Type 2 requires 1 boarding aid
- Righting Aid for non-reversible rafts
- Lifeline around the perimeter
- Grasp lines in the raft
- Constructed from a highly-visible color
- Automatically activated survivor light
- Required Equipment
- Mooring line
- Parachute rip cord for inflation
- Sea anchor
- Heaving trailing line
- Manual inflation valves
- Carrying case meeting flammability requirements
- Case tie-downs
FAA TSO-C70a stipulates the bare minimum for a safe life raft, yet there are so many more variables that go into your actual purchase.
What should you look for when shopping for your life raft?
FAA TSO-C70a approval
If you are required to carry a life raft on board due to your aircraft type and operation, your life raft needs to meet FAA TSO-C70a approval. Manufacturers and dealers will note this approval within the life raft description. If you are purchasing a raft entirely for your safety and peace of mind and it’s not required for you, you do not have to purchase an FAA approved life rafts; you can opt to purchase a raft that is approved for aviation. We do recommend purchasing an FAA approved life raft though, to ensure you’re purchasing a high-quality, thoroughly tested raft.
Capacity and Buoyancy
By FAA standards, aviation life rafts are rated based on several factors within the raft including floor area, seating space and buoyancy. Minimum standards are 3.6 feet2 /person, with an overload rate of 2.4 feet2 /person. When determining which life raft is right for you, you should first determine the maximum number of passengers for your aircraft. That number will then dictate the minimum capacity life raft you’ll need.
When comparing buoyancy, it’s important to note the difference between Type I and Type II. Type I life rafts require two independent tubes, both capable of independently supporting the rated buoyancy of the raft. A Type I raft requires a minimum freeboard of 12 inches. The Type II life raft, at minimum, can be a single tube, which must contain two separate chambers capable of independently supporting the rated buoyancy if needed. Type II life rafts require a minimum 6-inch free board. While required in a one tube life raft, best-in-class manufacturers offer the safety and redundancy of two internal sleeves in each tube. In the event of a leak, a hand pump will pump air into the internal sleeve, restoring normal operation pressure and buoyancy.
Construction and Materials
Construction and materials used is arguably the most important factor when considering a life raft. To evaluate a raft’s quality, you want to look at or ask questions about four essential items: What material are the buoyancy tubes made out of? How are the buoyancy tubes attached and assembled? What is the inflation mechanism? What testing does the manufacturer conduct on both raw materials and finished products?
While rubber and neoprene are most common, high-end rafts will have buoyancy tube(s) that are constructed of a double coated nylon fabric. The coating on the fabric is what actually locks the air inside. On high-end rafts, the fabric sections in the buoyancy tubes are actually heat welded and sealed to form a strong fused bond on both sides. Many lower-end brands are using cement (which can even be water soluble in some cases) to connect the sections of their buoyancy tubes. Cementing seams has three major drawbacks: unpleasant odor (think seasickness), shorter overall product life (seams degrade over time), and higher maintenance costs (shorter service intervals needed and more expensive servicing). Traditionally rafts have been inflated with a CO2/nitrogen gas mixture, but the newest wave of high-end rafts are actually being inflated with regular compressed air, which provides a more rapid and stable inflation across a wider array of temperatures and allows for a visible pressure gauge for added peace of mind. Additional survival equipment, including flares, flashlights, whistles and bailers are required, specific to aircraft type—check to make sure your life raft of choice has the standard survival equipment for your situation. Finally, all of this is for naught if the manufacturer does not conduct rigorous testing, beyond FAA standards, of both raw materials and finished products.
Canopies, Floor, Ballast and Boarding Steps
All rafts will come standard with required equipment for TSO-C70a such as the knife, heaving line, sea anchor, light(s), pump, and repair clamps… but that is where the similarities stop. Attached canopies are a must-have on life rafts to keep the sea and elements out. The best-in-class rafts feature “convertible canopies” which deploy separately from the main buoyancy tubes. Once inside the raft, a convertible canopy is separately erected then when the time comes to exit the raft, a convertible canopy can be lowered and stowed for easy exit without the need to get into the water. Flooring is simple: if you’re flying in cold weather; make sure you have an inflatable floor as a hypothermia barrier.
All rafts are required to have some form of water pockets but the best rafts will have bigger weighted ones that rapidly deploy keeping the raft stable during entry. While two boarding points are required per FAA regulations, depending on how and where you bail out of your aircraft; you and your passengers may not approach from the same side. Four boarding points allow for a quicker boarding, from any angle. When boarding, you’ll want rigid steps to stand or kneel on (as opposed to a simple webbing ladder) with higher freeboard to climb over.
Raft storage is an important driver for setting size restrictions on your raft so first, plan out where you will store your raft. A popular option is storing your life raft in the cabin during overwater flights rather than the cargo area for a quick retrieval and launch. The weight of your raft will be added to your payload so it is pertinent to take advantage of lightweight and compact rafts.
The final piece to life raft ownership and purchase consideration is servicing. Trust me, if you plan to buy a raft once and simply leave it on your aircraft un-touched for fifteen years… don’t waste your money. Yes, servicing is expensive, but it is also very necessary for your raft to properly perform when needed instead of giving you false peace of mind. Also, the longer you wait for servicing, the more expensive your service costs will be, or the raft may have degraded to a point where it is unserviceable. If you are in the market for a raft, always ask about expected service costs and intervals, which vary greatly between manufacturers. To make servicing as painless as possible, high-end manufacturers are actually vacuum sealing their rafts inside of a bag before placing them in their valise and offering safe service intervals as long as five years.
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