The idea of a survival vest for aircrew is as old as aviation itself. It could be argued that Eugene Ely wore a survival “vest” for his historic aircraft carrier landing in 1911. Granted, his “vest” of bike inner tubes and a jacket pocket with a small knife was probably more useful to him from a psychological point of view more than anything else.
The Second World War saw allied aircrew routinely wearing vests that provided enough gear to (hopefully) escape and evade the enemy in the event they got shot down. The famous Flying Tigers had instructions written in Chinese sewn into the inside of their flight jackets. These instructions offered a reward to locals for helping a downed Flying Tiger. While not a survival vest, the concept was the same: wear the equipment you need. Wearing it guaranteed that you had it with you when things got tough.
The modern survival vest really came into its own during the Vietnam War. Helicopter rescue techniques were perfected during the war and vests were soon developed that had integral harnesses for hoisting aircrew into helicopters in addition having pockets that carried survival essentials. These vests were responsible for helping save the lives of countless airmen.
Today, all military aviators use some form of a survival vest that is far more sophisticated than Ely’s inner tubes and pocket knife!
Backcountry pilots should seriously consider doing the same.
Because of the remote places we fly, most of us carry a well equipped survival kit in the back of our planes. These kits might be part of our camping gear or they might be set aside exclusively for a survival situation. Aviation regulations (may) require that we carry a survival kit but the regulations are not specific about how or where the survival kit should be carried in the aircraft.
If your survival kit is like mine, it’s buried under a stack of gear when I load up for a backcountry trip! Ideally I would have time to conduct a major excavation project to get to my survival kit in an emergency. This is okay if the aircraft experiences a precautionary landing... but that's about all.
Consider this: My friend was out and about in his plane one fall afternoon looking for moose. He was having fun flying around his guiding territory when he spotted a huge bull. He circled and circled... tighter and tighter...and yep, you guessed it...he stalled and went into the tree tops in an incipient spin. The plane didn’t even get to the ground! It was hung up in the forest canopy and he was stuck in the cockpit with a broken leg. It was getting dark, frosty, and no one knew exactly where he was. All he had was a pocket knife and a can of chewing tobacco. There was no way he could reach the survival kit in the tail of the plane.
There was a happy ending though...His son set out in his Cub first thing in the morning and spotted his dad’s plane hung up in the trees not far from the lodge. A rescue party from the lodge headed out with some horses and packed into the site by noon. My friend was lucky...very lucky...he just about froze to death that night. Fuel dripped on him all night and it made him much colder than he would have otherwise been. He was cold and had chemical burns from the fuel, but he was alive. Having a simple “space blanket” and some jerky to chew on would have gone a long way to making his situation much easier.
Being trapped in the cockpit is only one scenario where a survival vest would be the thing to have. Other scenarios include accidents that see the crew escape but the plane burning up; float planes taking a "dunking"; and ski planes breaking through the ice or getting stuck in overflow. The survival vest will give you the tools you need to survive the immediate situation. Once you have taken care of your immediate survival needs, you can return to the plane under more controlled conditions to try to recover the large survival kit (and any other gear). The only good survival kit is the one you have on you after the event. This is where the survival vest shines.
There are several important things to consider when buying a survival vest.
First off... You won't wear a vest that doesn’t fit well.
Find a vest that's size is adjustable so that you can wear different layers of clothing under it. This is very important if you fly all year round. You may need a vest that’s a bit larger that what you would expect if you plan on wearing a parka in the winter!
The cut and design of the vest is extremely important. Remember that you will be sitting down when wearing the vest, so try the vest on and sit in a chair to simulate being seated in your plane. Putting on a vest in the store and looking at yourself in the mirror as you stand there, won’t work for fitting a vest. Sit down, and once seated, make sure the vest doesn’t ride up to your chin, chaff your neck, or bunch up uncomfortably (particularly under the arms). The vest must allow good freedom of movement for your arms, neck, and torso.
Pocket placement and volume is important because pockets can interfere with your shoulder harnesses. The vest pockets should not sit directly under the shoulder harnesses. If they do, don’t fill these pockets with hard items. Put small space blankets, baby wipes, or other soft items in them that won’t injure you if the belts are pressed hard into the pockets... like in a deceleration event. Wearing the vest with the front fasteners (zipper, snaps, or straps) undone will usually facilitate the use of shoulder harnesses without interfering with the pockets of the vest. It’s easier to find a vest that works with dual shoulder harnesses rather than the single automotive style shoulder harness.
Most vests are not really designed to have seatbelts worn over them. You want your lap belt worn low on your hips and over top of the lower part of your vest. Ideally the lap belt should sit below the bottom of the vest. Either way, you want the seat belt buckle easily accessible for a quick release if needed. I find that "shorty" style fly fishing vests with adjustable side webbing are the best option for a survival vest as far as comfort, fit, and shoulder harness fitting is concerned.
You need enough pockets to store your survival gear without stuffing the pockets completely full. If you stuff the front pockets too full, you may not be able to bend over to grab the flap handle or fuel selector. As a general rule, numerous, medium sized, flat, pockets tend to work better than a few larger ones or many small ones. The cut and design of the vest can affect this “general rule”. Pockets located under your arms and away from the front vest closure will better accommodate shoulder harnesses and give you more freedom to move. All the pockets should have a positive closure like zippers, adequate Velcro, or snaps to prevent the loss of gear.
A large, flat pocket across the back of the vest lets you carry a heavy duty survival blanket folded flat. Personally I consider this large pocket to be a must-have feature in a vest. If the blanket is folded properly, you won’t even feel the blanket across your back when you lean into the seatback. The material of the vest should be tough and wear resistant. Vests made using mesh may not be as tough as those that use other fabrics but a quality mesh vest is definitely up to the job. Mesh vests are more comfortable in hot weather.
Some folks feel that the vest should be cotton or Nomex to resist fire. That’s a legitimate point but I think fit and function should be a much higher priority. All the webbing, zippers, and fasteners should be of good quality. Double stitching or re-enforced tack stitching ads to a vest's durability. The color of the vest may be something to consider. It's difficult to find a fishing vest that is not "earth tone," thus making it harder for rescuers to see you. Upland game hunting vests often have blaze-orange applied to them. While this is a desirable trait, I generally find the cut of these vests doesn’t lend itself to survival vest use. The same goes for "surveyor" vests. While they are both very well made, have lots of pockets, and are definitely "hi vis," they can be too bulky to use as survival vests for all but the largest of pilots.
An "offshore" helicopter survival vestThere are many other options available for survival vests. Commercial survival vests are available complete with survival supplies. The quality of the supplies contained in some of these vests may be questionable. A vest that you put together yourself allows you to control the contents and quality of the items you put in it. As mentioned, fly fishing vests are a good and popular option...especially the “shorty” styles. Inflatable fishing vests are an option for both wheel and float pilots but they’re bulkier and more difficult to fit and wear with shoulder harnesses. Upland game hunting vests can be used but also as mentioned, they can be bulky. Military surplus aircrew vests are not expensive and they give you the ability to attach pockets where you want them. “Tactical” vests using the military “MOLLE” system may be suitable and depending on the fit, Photography Vests may prove suitable as well. Some pilots wear a survival vest with a modern, low profile, inflatable life vest over top...not a bad combination for float drivers. Helicopter survival vests are available for offshore helicopter work and while expensive, they may be a great option for float pilots. You could go over the top and purchase the same Nomex, inflatable survival vests with pockets and small SCUBA units that the military uses...but that will cut into your airplane fuel budget in a really bad way!
The choice of vest all comes down to personal preference. You may have to do some shopping around before deciding on a vest. Your priorities for selecting a vest should be FIT, FUNCTION, QUALITY, & PRICE.
Now to fill those pockets! While I could provide you with a detailed list of exactly what to pack, I think it’s best to provide a “frame work” for you to build your own gear list on. The type of geography and environment, combined with the seasons you fly in, will influence what gear you pack into your vest. You may need to modify the contents of your vest as these conditions change from mission to mission or season to season.
The "framework" I use to build a survival equipment list is based on the survival priorities established by both military and civilian survival experts...so here we go:
You can pack these items into "mini kits" such as a fire kit in one pocket, a signal kit in another and so on. It depends on the design of your vest. Using a vacuum packer to pack your gear saves room and also keeps all the gear dry.
Buy good quality gear for your vest. It's tempting to go cheap on survival items...especially things like knives but this is false economy. Buy the best you can afford. Everyone has different ideas on what to carry in their vest. There's no right answer. There's only a wrong answer...the items you "should" have packed. So plan ahead and give the contents of your vest some serious thought.
Maintain your survival vest just like you maintain you airplane.Just like your plane, you vest and the gear in it needs maintenance. I have developed a survival kit maintenance checklist that I use for both my survival kit and survival vest. I include this checklist as part of my Annual Inspection. I treat the maintenance of these kits just like the maintenance of the components of my plane.
Many survival items have a shelf life. Strike anywhere matches break down overtime. Food items need replacing each year. Batteries and glow sticks will die over time without being used. Inflatable vests need to have the inflation mechanisms checked and a leak check performed. Some medical supplies have a shelf life and these need to be checked as well. Oil and sharpen any tools as needed. Give the vest itself a "once over." Check for holes, loose webbing, failing seams, and broken or damaged fasteners and closures.
Check the Aviation Regulations. You may be required to conduct inspections on survival kits and document this inspection. I know this is the case under certain conditions here in Canada.
I do a lot of flying without wearing my vest. When I fly over prairie farmland or well populated areas and the chances of a successful emergency landing are good, the vest is either left at home or hanging on the back of the pilot’s seat. But when I'm flying over remote areas, and in mountainous areas I always wear my vest.
A survival vest is not meant to replace a proper survival kit and it’s only as good as your skills and knowledge of survival techniques. The vest can buy you some time in a survival situation and it can provide you with a psychological boost...knowing that even under bad circumstances you at least have something that is going to help you improve your situation.
Practice using the items in your vest. Things like figuring out how to use a pen flare is best done under ideal conditions and fire lighting is an art that requires practice. You will most likely want to change some of the equipment in your vest after a few practice runs. I suggest taking a formal wilderness survival course that provides hands on field training and a first aid course that focuses on wilderness or travel first aid.
Hope that you never have to use your survival vest but knowing you have it and knowing how to use it is cheap insurance.