What do you actually need in an aviation life vest?

Airport-Proof-048.jpgThe FAA requires all extended overwater flights carry  life preservers and other approved safety flotation devices for passengers and crew for Parts 121, 125 and 135. Extended overwater flight is defined as one over water at a distance of more than 50 nautical miles from the nearest shoreline. A life preserver, with an approved survivor locator light, is required for each occupant of the plane.

When a life vest is required, FAA TSO C13 outlines the minimum design and performance requirements life preservers must meet, comprising design, materials, and construction practices deemed necessary for safety, durability, functionality, and usability.

However, for all aircraft, including Part 91 General, a life vest provides buoyancy in case of emergency when going further than gliding distance from land. If you are purchasing a life vest 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 vest; you can opt to purchase a vest that is approved for aviation. We do recommend purchasing an FAA approved life vest though, to ensure you’re purchasing a high-quality, thoroughly tested vest.

Airport-Proof-115.jpgWhen purchasing a life vest for aircraft, a few factors should be considered when selecting the style of vest. First, for the pilot and co-pilot, the life vest should either be worn at all times or be able to be quickly donned, without interfering with flying the aircraft during an emergency. As for the passengers, the style of life vest depends on the situation, in a light plane, donning a life vest might be a tight squeeze and a constant-wear vest might be a better fit. Of course, a packaged life vest, when there’s more room can be a very suitable choice for passengers.

ILV_Baby_in_Chairs.jpgOne solution some aviators take when purchasing a life vest is to opt for an USCG approved, marine style life vest. We recommend against this for a few reasons.

  • FAA approved life preservers are inflatable designs compared to a bulkier USCG life vest. Especially when considering constant-wear vests, a pilot needs to consider comfort as well as unimpaired ability to maneuver the plane. USCG life vests may impede standard operating procedures.
  • FAA vests are manually inflated with independent CO2 cartridges and oral inflation backup tubes with a water activated signal light. While Type V USCG life preservers are also manually inflated, without the signal light it can be difficult to locate survivors in the water.
  • Many water landings unfortunately result in the aircraft coming to rest upside down in the water. This causes water to enter the cabin. When wearing an FAA-approved life vest, the vest will remain uninflated until egress is made. Once safely out of the aircraft, it can be manually inflated. Life vests made under USCG regulations, whether they are made from rigid foam or automatically inflate when submerged, will provide buoyancy to the wearer. This can make egress from the inverted aircraft much more difficult, and increases the risk of drowning.

Now that you’ve narrowed in on an aviation life vest, again we recommend purchasing an FAA approved life vest.  FAA TSO C13 stipulates not just the minimum design elements but also the required testing for raw materials and the final vest.

FAA life vests—what’s required?
FAA life vests are categorized into two types, Type I for inflatable life vests and Type II for noninflatable life vests. Both types are further categorized by size, adult, adult-child, child and infant-small child.

  • Materials and Workmanship
    • Use of materials that meet FAA standards for flammability, tear strength, seam strength, coat adhesion of coated fabrics, permeability, and corrosion resistant material
  • Necessary Design Elements
    • Life vest must function when reversed, unless donning instructions preclude improper donning.
    • Vest can have either one or more separate gas chamber
    • Manual mechanical inflation with gas reservoir and pull cord assembly
    • Oral inflation valve
    • Must contain a means for deflation
    • Vest must operate between -40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, with an operating pressure of no less than 1 psig
    • Minimum buoyancy


Weight of Person

Minimum buoyant force in fresh water at 70 ± 5 degrees F


Above 90


Adult – Child

35 and above



35 to


Infant – Small Child

Up to 35


  • Flotation
    • Adult, adult-child, and child sized vests must self-right within 5 seconds and provide lateral and rear support to the head and neck
    • Infant-small child must prevent the torso from contact with the water
    • The fit of the vest must be so that it can be adjusted in water, without inadvertent release
    • Automatically activated survivor light
    • Constructed from a highly-visible color
    • A package must be provided for storage on the plane
  • Testing
    • Accelerated Age Method
    • Tensile Strength
    • Tear Strength
    • Ply Adhesion Method
    • Coat Adhesion Method
    • Permeability Method
    • Seam Shear Strength
    • Seam Peel Strength Method
    • Flammability
    • Leakage Test
    • Overpressure Test
    • Submersion Test
    • Salt Spray Test
    • Inflator Test
    • Jump Test
    • Donning Test

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