coastguard rescue
Special feature

Pimp my life-jacket!

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your aviation life-jacket ‘will do’. Whatever you own, you can improve it, as Dave White reports

Aviation life-jackets are readily available, and at reasonable prices – they are usually very good but with a little effort they can be made even better.

Firstly, just to check: Your life-jackets aren’t self-inflating ones bought from a yacht chandler, are they? If so, can I suggest that you no longer wear them in an aircraft until the self-inflation mechanism has been removed.

The reason being that there have been several tragedies over the years of people being trapped in the cockpit because the jackets have automatically inflated after water entry, leaving those people either stuck like a cork in a bottle, or unable to swim to escape a flooded aircraft due to the buoyancy.

This is the same reason why airline cabin crew tell you: “Do not inflate your jacket until you are clear of the aircraft.” Don’t forget that a high-wing aircraft, for example, will put the cabin under water even if it doesn’t flip on ditching (which despite intuition, often does not happen). 

If this is you, then the good news is that many unsuitable self-inflating life-jackets can be modified to manual inflation simply by removing the auto-inflation device, which is usually found by the gas cylinder, so do check that if you have one – and you can fix the problem without spending any money.

OK, that’s that out of the way – now onto the enhancements.

A useful first modification, if your jacket doesn’t already come with one, is to add a spray hood. These are simply transparent face protection visors which covers the head and protect against rough seas, of which splashing waves in the face can results in a build-up of water ingestion into the lungs by the casualty, irritating the lung lining and leading to a fluid build-up (pulmonary oedema).

This can impact the casualty even hours after rescue from the water and is sometimes called ‘secondary drowning’. Retrofit splash hoods cost £20-£40, which may seem a lot for what they are, but are, nevertheless, a good investment. If possible, attach them to the life-jacket as a standard accessory.

Most life-jackets come with a small light as standard, powered by a sea water-activated battery. These are pretty dim, and seem intended more for individual survivors to find each other close by at night rather than for SAR – so you might consider adding a much brighter LED strobe as well to help searchers find you.

However, where would you carry it? Many life-jackets do not have attached storage pockets, and because the straps are typically stitched on for robustness it’s often tricky to add a normal belt pouch, which would usually slot over a loose end. 

Training by the military emphasises that ‘you can only rely on getting out of the aircraft with whatever is attached to you’. 

You may have a life-raft and even a buoyant grab bag in the cockpit or cabin, but are you CERTAIN you’ll get them out of the aircraft? After the shock of a ditching? If the aircraft inverts? From a high-wing, when you WILL be egressing from under the surface?

It’s worth thinking about in advance, as uncomfortable as it can be to contemplate. In short, the professional advice I’ve had often over the years is that your essentials should be on you i.e. wear them.

This is one reason why the military insist on the wearing of immersion suits and suitable clothing underneath (the immersion suit only keeps you dry – not warm) when the water temperature is below 15°C, even if there is a life-raft in the aircraft.

Life-jacket and waistcoat combo

But back to enhancing your life-jacket – you could, for example, wear your Personal Locator Beacon on a looped cord around your neck or in a pocket of your normal clothing.

But could it drop out, or could the cord snag as you are getting out? It’s likely to be a busy time, and critical safety equipment like that probably wants to be secured properly rather than leaving it to hope that neither of those things will happen, and therefore impede your rescue.

When I was thinking about this, I once again took a leaf again from the military, and rather than treating the life-jacket solely as a buoyancy aid I wondered if I could attach multiple pockets to carry extra bits’n’bobs such as the PLB, and perhaps also some more general items not just for use in the water.

So how about a fishing or workwear vest? Lots of pockets, not too heavy, available in several lightweight designs and materials such as cotton in case of fire.

It can be worn under a life-jacket, and the one I already owned happened to have loops as part of the design that coincidentally lined up nicely with elasticated toggles already present on the life-jacket so the two could be attached without modification.

Without those loops and toggles, I had been considering a simple stitching of life-jacket straps onto the waistcoat, just to hold them together rather than carry any load, allowing them to be easily stowed and worn as a single item.

The philosophy was that anything likely to be required in the water should be in those pockets most easily accessible with the jacket inflated, and ideally closed with Velcro rather than zips, to allow access with cold fingers.

Hence appropriate pockets were selected for the marine emergency gear. Also, everything likely to be necessary in the water would be attached to the jacket with a lanyard cord – again, if it’s not attached to you, you might not have it when you need it, and that includes things floating away or being dropped by cold hands.

The important survival tin

But as well as the PLB, what else should I carry? 

Well, I again reached back to some military survival training I’d had (as a civilian!) in a previous life, remembering that the priority for survival goes: ‘Protection – Location – Water – Food’, in that order.

Water and food are not likely to be required in UK or Northern European waters, when SAR will hopefully pick us up within an hour or so. The challenges then are staying afloat, staying alive, and being found.

The first two are covered by wearing a life-jacket and clothing appropriate for the conditions on the day. Location starts with (hopefully!) a Mayday call on the way down, and activating the PLB, but there are other cheap and lightweight items that can be carried to help searchers find a small head in a large bit of water.

I’ve already mentioned an LED strobe, but perhaps not that useful in daylight. I remember being surprised to learn during training that the signal item detected at the longest distance in daylight – better than lights, flares or other bits of kit – was the humble mirror.

I forget the exact numbers, but it was visible at over twice the distance of the other visual signals, could be used over again, and the flicker of a moving mirror actually improves detection as it is picked out well by the human brain.

In fact, if there is more than one mirror being used at the same time, the flicker is even more effective. The only requirement is sunshine! But we’re VFR pilots, not steely eyed all-weather military crews, so perhaps we can expect blue skies more frequently than they might… Survival mirrors are less than £5 from eBay or Amazon and weigh almost nothing, so one of those can go in the top waistcoat pocket on a lanyard.

Fluorescent dye marker in the water can save your live if stranded in the ocean

The other quite surprising bit of training info that stuck, is that dye in seawater is a pretty good indicator of position for airborne searchers who already have an approximate location.

Sure, the PLB should bring them right to you, but a backup is always good, and a visual cue might save a few cold minutes, so let’s think about carrying that.

What is it, though? Well, it turns out it’s fluorescein, which you can buy from yacht chandlers in pouches for around £30, but is also available from DIY shops such as Screwfix, where it is sold to plumbers for troubleshooting drain problems for less than a tenner, sufficient for two or three people’s needs.

A robust sealed container from eBay for a few pounds, and a lanyard cord (pennies), completed the kit. I went for an orange marker, although most dedicated kits seem to use bright green – I might change.

Don’t put it in the water straight away, though – it disperses after about 30 minutes or so. Wait until you think searchers are nearby.

Do not use your dye marker in the water until you think a search party is nearby

Additional items I have in the waistcoat, less likely to be used at sea (so in pockets less accessible with an inflated jacket), but which I’ll no doubt be grateful for if I ever have to spend a night on a mountainside or remote European forest, include:

Lightweight waterproof gloves, a small first aid kit, a single-use waterproof poncho and a small tobacco-type tin sealed with electrical tape in which I’ve put things like a foil survival blanket, water purification tablets, a couple of ibuprofen and paracetamol, a condom (for water carrying), a wire saw, some cotton kindling (in a waxed straw to keep dry), flint and steel fire starter, a tiny knife and a small compass.

There are plenty of aids that can help save your life if you have to ditch into the sea…

All of this costs very little, weighs hardly anything and fits easily into the waistcoat pockets without getting in the way in the cockpit.

I’m even thinking about perhaps putting a velcro patch on the waistcoat shoulder to mount the PLB case and keep the antenna out of the water. Perhaps I’ll also add a one litre, flat heat-sealed foil packet of water and slip that into a pocket.

Maybe all this is overkill, maybe it isn’t…? But if we ever do find ourselves deep in the Black Forest with night approaching and nobody sure where we are, you’re welcome to sit by my fire and have a painkiller (if I’ve got any left).



  • Dusty_B says:

    Please don’t dismiss the humble water-activated dim incandescent bulb. They’ve remained that way for a reason!
    LED lights are virtual invisible to thermal cameras, so the dim (battery saving) bulbs are actually more visible at night to SAR sensors.
    An LED strobe (or just your usual night flying headtorch) make an excellent addition. Many PLBs have their own built in LED strobes anyway.

  • davidwhite894 says:

    Thanks, Dusty – handy info.

Leave a Reply

  • 2
  • 3
Enjoy 3 Free articles OR Join today to enjoy unlimited access to all content
Join today

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.