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LifeRaft KC Article SmallNo-one intentionally tries this for real but it is possible to experience "real" conditions in relative safety and under supervision.

GASCo (The General Aviation Safety Council) organise Ditching & Sea Survival Seminars and I joined a seminar in March this year at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Lifeboat College in Poole, just a few miles from Airtime's HQ.

LifeRaft KC Article Large

The pre-seminar documents promised a morning session to include sessions on preparing for over-water flight, demonstration of GA life-saving equipment, sea survival and rescue considerations followed by a "practical" in the RNLI's sea survival pool.

The morning session was presented by GASCo's Chief Executive, Mike O'Donoghue supported by Jez Hopkinson (Yakolevs) and Glen Friswell (SEMS Aerosafe).

Some interesting facts were presented.

survival waves Large

Of course, the first priority is to "ditch" successfully. When planning a cross-channel flight, in addition to the usual flight plans, GAR forms, NOTAMs and weather, I will now be checking the sea state for the wave height and the direction of the swell. Ideally, a pilot making a planned ditching will follow the advice in CAA Safety Sense Leaflet number 21, trying to land along the crest of any swell. However, knowing the wind and swell direction in advance should help.

Wearing a lifejacket made for GA aircraft is advised. There are many who fly with the lifejacket in a seat pocket but the chances of getting it out and putting it on in the few moments you have during your descent toward the water are slim.

Assuming the ditching is achieved successfully and the aircraft is afloat, pilots and passengers are uninjured, then the next step is going to be to abandon ship. Unlike the crew of a yacht (where the liferaft is the place of last resort), the aircraft crew doesn't really have any other option.

The choice of liferaft is difficult. The best equipped are the heaviest and bulkiest. The best might be suitable for a large twin but will take up a lot of space in a four-seater and is likely to be totally impractical in a two-seater. There seemed to be agreement that a liferaft without a canopy should be avoided.

Best option is to pull the liferaft out of the aircraft cabin and inflate it. I would prefer to keep dry and simply step off the aircraft into the liferaft but there are all sorts of considerations when inflating the liferaft. Keeping it away from sharp edges on the aircraft, keeping it away from leaking fuel (fuel affects the material), keeping it attached to you so that it does not blow away in the wind.....

Attracting assistance from the Coastguard is vital. The only sensible option is a PLB with GPS. An ELT fixed to the aircraft is going to work for as long as the aircraft is afloat (a few minutes at best) but a PLB attached to your lifejacket will stay with you.
Now I always carry a handheld airband transceiver in my Grab Bag as I thought it would allow me to communicate with the rescue services. The Coastguard Helicopter will communicate on 121.5 of course but, it transpired, the Lifeboats don't receive and transmit voice on 121.5 (they will home in on a 121.5 beacon in your PLB). The Lifeboats are listening on Marine Band VHF (Channel 16). So, do you need a handheld marine VHF as well? I hope not as it might take a couple of hours for a lifeboat to reach mid-channel.

But, of course, all you need to do is float in your liferaft until the Lifeboat arrives.

And so to the practical session.
Lifejacket jump LargeThe pool is not a swimming pool, it is unheated and does not have a "shallow end". Jumping in gives an idea of the cold shock you would experience dressed in casual clothes.

Pulling the cord on the lifejacket, floating in the HELP position to maintain warmth, pulling the cord on the liferaft are all demonstrated. (Incidentally, don't be afraid of dropping the liferaft into the water before it is inflated as they all float in their bags.) The need for a lifejacket with a crotch-strap and a spray hood was also noted as those without either were very uncomfortable.

Team circle LargeLet's not beat around the bush. This is an experience. The practical session will push your endurance. As someone who has endured a little bit of boating and took water survival training when quite young, I respect the water and appreciate how cruel and demanding the sea can be. After nearly an hour of being wet, I noticed classic signs that I was starting to suffer from the cold. I had to think before carrying out a simple task. Point made. It didn't take long, even though I am a bit on the heavy side, for the cold to penetrate. I called it a day at that point but that is something that you can't do in a liferaft for real.

So I came away from the practical session having made up my mind to stick to flying twin engine aircraft over the water or buy a dry suit. I am a good swimmer, and assuming the ditching is successful, the thing that will get me is the cold. A dry suit is the same thing as a dingy sailor or windsurfer might wear. "Immersion Suits" are really bulky and for the guys flying in the Arctic or across the North Atlantic. A drysuit plus a thermal "onesie" would keep me warm and dry for hours in the Channel compared to normal clothes.

In summary, if you simply want to learn how to use your lifesaving equipment, there are other training events which will probably suit you better. If you want the experience of what to expect after you ditch and are waiting for the lifeboat or helicopter, then this is for you.

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