With a single exception, all the single tube rafts were very disappointing and many of the double tube rafts were also questionable. In fact, we quickly came to the conclusion that the TSO (TSO C70a) appears to be inadequate, and perhaps more to the point, even many TSO'd rafts appear to fall short of meeting even the inadequate TSO in various areas. In this case, the TSO simply doesn't guarantee either safety or performance.
All the less than satisfactory rafts could be easily improved by the manufacturers, often with relatively little impact on weight or size. While the conventional single tube designs still have that basic failing, improved ballast and better entry aids would make a big difference. EAM's move to real rations is a case in point. They could make their canopy easier to use very easily by simply going to support rods similar to Hoover's and improving construction details. It wouldn't be self-erecting, but it would be a vast improvement. Better, more clear and easily identified instructions would help in may cases. There are myriad opportunities for improvement, many of which are noted here. Each of these rafts can be made better, safer and more capable without a great deal of trouble, if the manufacturers choose to do so.
In conclusion, we cannot recommend the Survivor Products non TSO'd rafts because of the single cell design. This is a serious design deficiency in our opinion. The Survival Products rafts also have many other drawbacks, as noted in the article. While this keeps cost and size down, they combine to significantly reduce the performance and safety of the raft, with or without its extra equipment pack. This raft was unanimously derided and disliked by the volunteers, "beneath consideration" said one volunteer. As another noted, "I wouldn't want my life to depend on it, even if it was free." The Survival Products rafts are rated "unacceptable."
Many pilots will choose an Survival Products raft with the expectation that their mission doesn't require a raft that offers more capability. In doing so, however, it is important to understand the SPI product's significant limitations. Rarely has a product crossed our paths that has so severely tested the notion of caveat emptor.
With Survival Products "you get what you pay for" noted one tester. While not necessarily always the case, you rarely get more than you pay for and such is the case with the Survival Products TSO'd rafts. They meet the letter of the regulations, and if that is your sole concern, they are the least expensive way to get an approved raft. Comparing them to their low-end competition from EAM and Hoover is not a pleasant task, all are sorely lacking. While the canopy isn't very good, at least it won't poke your eye out when the raft capsizes and it is much quicker to set up. All other things being relatively equally bad, the lower weight and price gets the nod, they are the best of the worst. We rate this raft as "marginal."
The base version of the TSO'd single-tube raft, sans canopy and SEP, is an affordable option for those traveling over warmer waters in good weather and within range of quick rescue. The dual chambers are a huge plus over its single-cell unapproved sibling and the $330 additional is worth it in our opinion. We rate this raft "marginal."
Hoover and EAM make similar rafts with similar capabilities - and many similar shortcomings. Both have some serious problems as noted here. We don't think a lot of either company's rafts. The erectable canopies are disasters, particularly when you need them the most.
Of the two, the Hoover edges the EAM, for what that's worth. In the first place, EAM's manual pump failure and deployment problems, in our opinion, render their rafts "unacceptable" from the get-go. Their attitude towards that problem also doesn't inspire confidence that safety is a priority for EAM. The loss of the survival equipment out of the kits was also not exactly confidence building. In addition, the Hoover had some noticeable design advantages including the somewhat easier to erect canopy with better support rods and the included radar reflector, the ballast, minimal though it may be, and the boarding ladder. Because these rafts are not "user friendly," some prior training in use of these rafts becomes critically important. Neither raft would be our first choice for our own use and we consider even the Hoover to be only marginally acceptable, certainly not for use in any but warm waters and fair weather. We're not confident you can generally guarantee the latter. The volunteers weren't impressed either, placing them above the Survival Products raft, but still in the "wouldn't want to trust my life to them" category. The Hoover single tube rafts receive a " marginal" rating.
EAM's lower priced, non-TSO'd rafts, its "EAM" series, are also a single cell design in the smaller sizes and lack some of the features of their TSO'd brethren. These EAM series rafts with single cell construction, like SPI's, are also not recommended and are rated "unacceptable."
BFGoodrich have long been considered the top of the line in aviation rafts. They offer a limited selection of TSO'd rafts at high prices. While we only lightly covered the older designs in passing, I'll include our conclusions about those rafts for those who still have them or might be offered some used ones for sale. We have concerns about our difficulty deploying both old design BFG rafts. The automatically deploying ELT is an advantage. The 4-man single tube, single cell raft is rated "unacceptable" for the same reasons all single cell rafts are, no redundancy. The single tube, double cell four person raft has the advantage over the Hoover of a self erecting canopy. But, it has other drawbacks, like no entry aids, for all practical purposes, minimal or no ballast for example, and a separate Part 135 kit which mitigate that advantage somewhat. The ELT is a major point in its favor. Our volunteers appreciated the self erecting canopy and ELT, but were otherwise unimpressed. We rate it "mediocre."
The RFD Navigator is not an inexpensive raft for what you get. However, the self erecting canopy, ballast, minimum though it may be, and boarding aids are a significant advantage over the rest of the single cell bottom feeders from Survival Products and EAM. Moreover, it is light and small, an overriding criteria for some. Still, the single cell design is a critical deficiency which causes us to rate the raft "unacceptable."
Winslow's RescueRaft is a single-cell version of the RescueRaft II and generally not sold for aviation use, but it is available on special order. While superior to the other single-cell designs by dint of better quality, better boarding aids and more freeboard, it is still rated "unacceptable."
The Winslow RescueRaft II lacks any ballast, but its double cell design and excellent entry aids place it ahead of all the single cell designs and SPI's basic version of their dual-cell TSO'd raft. While it still receives a "marginal" rating, it is a better raft in many respects compared to SPI's equivalent, having higher quality, better entry aids, and much more freeboard. However, it is not significantly more seaworthy and costs a lot more money, unless you can pick one up at a show special price, often hundreds of dollars cheaper. Then the RRII's advantages, for only two or three hundred bucks more, make it worth consideration, unless you feel you must have the optional canopy available from SPI. For little extra cost or weight you can have ballast added which would make it a more capable and safer raft.
What you end up with then is sort of a basic GAST Island Flyer, without a canopy and with only the barest minimum of equipment. This is still rated as "marginal," lacking a canopy, but it is much more seaworthy than the RescueRaft II and the least I could ever comfortably recommend for use in any but the most benign circumstances.
The GAST Island Flyer is simply the best single-tube general aviation raft available. Lack of FAA approval isn't going to matter to the Part 91 operators most likely to use it. The viewing ports are the best idea in life rafts since the self-erecting canopy itself was introduced. We'd strongly recommend the inflatable floor option for use where waters are cooler. As with all Winslow rafts, numerous options are available to upgrade the GAST with more features and equipment to make it even more capable. Still, because of the vertical bulkhead design which won't keep the occupants out of the water if a cell fails, we must rate this raft as "mediocre." While we wouldn't fly trans-oceanic with one, for island hopping and most similar light aircraft use it is a very good compromise. The Island Flyer leads its class by a huge margin in capability, though you're paying for Winslow's quality and its top features.
We continue to question whether the conventional single tube designs with vertical bulkheads actually meet the latest TSO, as claimed. In any case, we are not enamored of conventional single tube designs, offering far too little freeboard and none when a cell is lost. Low price and low weight are their only redeeming qualities.
Despite double tubes and ballast, the best I can rate the FADR DualSafe is "adequate" due to lack of a well equipped SEP and canopy. In this configuration, it really is only acceptable for moderate to warm climates and relatively short distances. Depending upon how it was customized, it could easily be rated as "good" or better Beyond that level, you'd probably be better off economically getting an Ulitma. On the other hand, a nice feature is that over time Winslow can upgrade the FADR for with almost any options except the insulated floor, improving the capability of the raft to meet changing requirements or priorities, a potential value to some buyers.
The Survival Products Type I raft, supposedly for use under more challenging conditions, is a bust. Unseaworthy, in our opinion, it would be a poor choice for any serious overwater flying. Aside from seaworthiness issues, if you can't get in the raft, it doesn't do you much good. Wrote one volunteer, "it may be cheap and it may even meet the regs, but my life is worth more than that." We consider it among the worst approved rafts we've ever tested and rate it "unacceptable."
For a company that has developed some truly innovative life vests, it's hard to fathom why Hoover would introduce a brand new raft based on obsolete technology--except maybe to compete with EAM's equivalent antiquated product. One volunteer summed up the consensus opinion, "save yourself, forget the raft." Without any ballast, and adequate sea anchor and being impossible for some to enter from the he water, we consider it among the worst approved rafts we've ever tested and rate it "unacceptable."
The old style BFGoodrich 7-man has the double tube design we prefer. However, it has some serious problems, particularly with entry aids, or lack thereof, lack of meaningful ballast, poor canopy performance in weather and the rectangular shape. At one time it was the best of the available TSO'd rafts, but no longer. Like the EAM and Hoover, prior training would help overcome some, but not all of the BFGoodrich's shortcomings. We rate it "marginal."
With their new designs, one of BFGoodrich's primary design goals and anticipated competitive advantages was to lower the weight and size of the raft significantly. While I certainly understand and appreciate the efforts made by BFGoodrich (and Winslow and RFD for that matter) to reduce weight and bulk, when such efforts result in significant performance penalties, I draw the line.
While those flying light general aviation aircraft must often compromise ultimate safety in light of limited payloads, range and budgets, corporate aviation, particularly at the high end, is another matter. Operators of turbo-prop and light jets may have legitimate weight and space constraints. Operators of multimillion dollar jets carrying top executives all over the globe over some of the most hazardous environments on earth should never compromise either performance or safety to save a few pounds or a few bucks. In the unlikely event the equipment is needed, it will be worth its weight in gold. After the ditching is too late. In the grand scheme of things, the added investment in weight and size is minuscule.
The BFGoodrich rafts remain a mixed bag. We like a number of their features and they have fixed a number of the areas we had issues with previously. The entry system this time around proved effective, at least the equal and potentially even better than Winslow's. Once again, in an effort to save weight, they have pushed the limits. The 12-person raft was very comfortable, but we remain concerned about the shape and lack of adequate ballast and the drogue failure was disturbing. The difficulties we had righting the larger raft and minor problems in the storm tests also don't help.
With hand-built products such a life raft it is inevitable that some assembly errors will occasionally occur, but construction quality has never seemed to be a problem with BFGoodrich. The attachment point failure, combined with other less serious indications of poor quality control in the larger raft's construction, leave us wondering.
Whatever BFGoodrich's reasons for retaining that shape, they blew it in our opinion. I give this larger rafts a "fair" rating as a result of the shape and the other failings noted. As long as they stick with the shape and the attendant compromise of stability, it and its larger and smaller clones are always going be at some disadvantage in my opinion, with a single exception.
The four person BFGoodrich addresses the shape problem, though not intentionally, and that makes a significant difference. While not as well equipped or capable as the Winslow, it has a roundish shape, modest ballast, though not adequate in my opinion, and an improved entry. I give this raft a "good" rating and it has the potential to do even better, though there seems little inclination on the part of BFGoodrich to try. The four person BFGoodrich would be acceptable for use in light aircraft or smaller corporate aircraft where space and weight is a concern.
The RFD "R" series is unique and that may appeal to some. They brag that they are generally the most expensive raft available. If so, it doesn't represent a good value in my opinion.
Despite its approvals, I am not convinced this raft meets all the requirements of the TSO, though those issues are minor compared to other concerns. It is the raft's genesis, the optimization for the North Sea's off shore helicopter environment that creates the most serious problems. When all is said and done, I rate the "R" series raft as "fair" for most General Aviation use, cutting it some slack for not having an auto-erecting canopy, but having a semi-manually erected design. The design also defeats many of the advantages of having double tubes, which doesn't help. With appropriate attention to the ballast situation and improvement in other areas, all relatively easy to accomplish, it could be significantly improved.
For off-shore helicopter use, for which it was designed, or elsewhere that full training is available with the prospect of prompt rescue, such as military use, I find the raft acceptable. I do not think it is a good choice when the survival situation might involve those who have not received training in the use of the raft and where rescue may take some considerable time, and that covers most general aviation use.
Air Cruisers' rafts were a big disappointment, we expected better and had high hopes. They appear to have thrown out the baby with the bath water in the quest for their Holy Grail of lighter weight and low cost. Asked one tester, "what use is saving a few pounds if it won't save your life?"
The canopy zipper failures are inexcusable, not something that could not be foreseen given the lightweight hardware. Again, some testers couldn't board, a very serious failure as well. The problem deploying the vacuum packed raft, which obviously couldn't meet the TSO's requirements, was disturbing.
We're also not thrilled about the grossly extended service interval for the raft itself, irrespective of their claims and representations regarding the other services required. Our concern is heightened by the apparent lapses in quality control, the too-short tether on the raft knife and mismatched pump on the 13-person being but two scary examples.
Given these and the many other shortcomings we found we rate the rafts "unacceptable" and cannot recommend the Air Cruisers rafts at this time. Attending to their most obvious and easily remedied deficiencies they could easily move to a fair rating, perhaps even good for the smaller raft, but they have plenty to fix.
Obviously not content to rest on their laurels, Winslow continues to lead the industry in performance and features, and surprisingly, seems to be widening the gap despite increased competition. Their overall quality, performance, and consideration of human factors made a strong impression, as one tester noted, "somebody actually thought about the people who might use this raft." Winslow also seems to understand that the devil is often in the details. Little touches add up to good impressions, things like shrink tubing over knotted ends, for example,
The Winslow Ulitma and Ultra-Light garnered every vote for "Best Aviation Raft" from our testers. Receiving the majority of those votes, and we concur completely, the aptly named Ulitma is still Best Overall in our opinion, and even better than last we reviewed it. While not perfect, nothing else, except Winslow's own Ultra-Light, comes close.
The Winslow Ulitma 4-person is the first raft we have tested to be rated "superior" when fully equipped with their best available SEP. The Ulitma is not cheap, but it is a fair value in terms of getting what you pay for. It is also not the lightest or most compact raft (though both lighter and more compact than the ones we previously tested), a consideration for some. However, the difference represents a significant increase in survivability, the whole reason for carrying a raft in the first place.
The Ulitma is the most "user friendly" of all the rafts and has the greatest margin of safety. It's the raft we would want at hand if we suddenly found ourselves contemplating an unplanned dip. Without question in our opinion, the Ulitma is the only raft currently available that is appropriate for use on large corporate aircraft.
We were a bit disappointed to see Winslow compromise the ultimate performance of the Ulitma to produce the Ultra-Light, particularly the reduced freeboard. On the other hand, it's a boon for safety conscious single and piston twin pilots where weight is generally a legitimate concern. The Ultra-Light offers a huge increase in safety margin over the Island Flyer without the weight penalty of the full-blown Ulitma, making it a great compromise for those who prefer the extra margin of safety from a double tube raft--and can afford the premium price. We rate the Ultra-Light as "very good."
Winslow's move to a standard self-deploying 406 MHz beacon is a major step forward. It'll get you rescued quicker than just about anything except ditching beside a Coast Guard cutter, and that, after all, is the ultimate goal. Winslow's view ports are a "must have" option.
The Winslow life rafts are not perfect, but they are still superior to all others for general aviation use. In addition, no one offers buyers more options to customize the life rafts or survival kits to their own needs. Given Winslow's penchant for constant improvement and the list of those improvements already planned, I think they will likely just get better.
EAM, Hoover, and Survival Products occupy the low cost, light weight, low capability niche and we don't expect them to make any effort to compete directly with the high end manufacturers on any other basis. However, without significantly increasing costs or weight, they could certainly improve their raft's capabilities.
Only a week after writing this, EAM showed off a new series of rafts with advanced features at NBAA 2000, so it appears our crystal ball wasn't very accurate. How good they are is yet to be determined.
Air Cruisers, BFGoodrich, and RFD certainly have the capability to produce rafts of equal or better capability than Winslow, but to date they have not done so. BFGoodrich comes closest, but for now, if aviation rafts is the question, Winslow is the answer.
Bottom line - the selection of aviation life rafts represent the compromises inherent in aviation. Size and weight do effect capability and price. In our opinion, some of the compromises made in an effort to keep weight low and size small, as well as prices in check, are not sound choices. However, as long as the purchaser and user understand what they are getting and the safety and performance degradation they are accepting, the choice is theirs. Unfortunately, this is almost never made clear in manufacturers' sales literature which is sometimes downright misleading. In the case of the biz-jet manufacturers, some seem to be shortchanging their customers, who can afford the best, without concern for the ultimate consequences.
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