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Pocket-sized Surface Flotation Device for Cold-Water Aviation Survival



TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Air Platform, Human Systems

ACQUISITION PROGRAM: PMA-261, H-53 Heavy Lift Helicopters

OBJECTIVE: Develop a surface flotation device for an aviation mishap survivor that is pocket-sized, has a method for easy entry, and provides protection from exposure to cold water.

DESCRIPTION: Flying over cold water is a hazard increasingly faced by all military aviators. The possibility of having to ditch the aircraft is one of the most dangerous exigencies, as death can occur quickly from immersion hypothermia when the aviator is not properly protected. Survival in cold water is dependent upon three things; not drowning, staying alive until rescued, and being found. The best chance an aviator has to survive ditching is offered by surface flotation devices. A combination of the life preserver, a dry suit, and a life raft are currently available to aviators. All three components are minimum-required survival equipment for all services, but the life raft is the most versatile and functional component of the cold water survival triad.

Current life rafts are typically aircraft-specialized and logistically hard to manage. Rafts are developed for the limited storage space constraints onboard the aircraft. With different raft types, come different sizes of carbon dioxide bottles; different manifolds with different inspection cycles and procedures; and different spares, repair parts, and consumables. This fracturing of demand across a myriad of rafts and spares often results in persistent supply deficits. Current life rafts are typically sized to hold multiple crewmembers, are heavy and bulky, and are built to withstand improvised stowage, crash damage, and long sea exposures. Depending upon the number of aircrew the raft is designed to hold, it can weigh more than 100 pounds, and the packed dimensions can be as large as 1x2x3 feet. Single man life rafts are also currently too bulky to mount on the person. Logistically, the opportunity cost of carrying rafts equals the commensurate amount of fuel, ammunition, or other cargo that must be left behind in order to make room for the raft. Existing life rafts are difficult to deploy and very hard to board. Swimming through an escape hatch with only a survival vest and life preserver, or wrestling a multi-person raft out of the aircraft, often through only the main door, can be crowded in an emergency situation. Despite the addition of boarding aids, getting into the raft remains one of the most difficult in-water survival tasks. Currently, rafts are designed to keep water out, and therefore must have high sidewalls. High sidewalls on a raft are a problem because once the aviator is in the water with an inflated life preserver, the life preserver lobes act like boat fenders, inhibiting the ability of the aviator to board the life raft. Deflating the life preserver lobes is often necessary to allow boarding, a counterproductive burden and threat to the survivor.

Current one-man life rafts weigh between 4.2 and 5.25 pounds and are not worn on the person due to the bulk not fitting onto the survival vests along with the other required survival gear. Lighter, less bulky and more durable surface flotation devices to supplement the flotation provided by the life preserver are a chronic and documented need. The aviation life raft and life preserver have not changed significantly in more than fifty years. In routine use, inadvertent or failed inflation has been reported, and in cold temperatures, carbon dioxide cannot expand rapidly, creating slow or partially filled conditions that jeopardize boarding, stability, and buoyancy.

Develop a surface flotation device that can be worn or carried on the aircrew without interfering with flight duties and integration with aircraft and survival equipment, be pocket-sized, easy to board and more usable than existing devices. Aircrew will continue to wear their life preservers and will carry this device as an additional means of anti-exposure protection. In addition to the anti-exposure suit worn in conditions where the sum of the air temperature and water temperature are less than 130 degrees Fahrenheit (F), the device should provide additional protection from exposure to cold water. Innovative approaches involving the leveraging of the recreational raft market, use of novel raft construction, and micro-inflator technologies are sought.

The device should:


• be able to fully lift the wearer from the water while providing a 1 inch air gap between the user and the water;


• not impede with survivor egress from the underwater aircraft (i.e., inherent system size to be no greater than 1x3x4 inches);


• achieve deployed form in less than 60 seconds (ideally, 15 seconds);


• have a maximum weight of 5 pounds;


• maintain intact flotation in rough seas for 72 hours;


• be one-size-fits-most (small female to large male) device;


• enable survivor-capable repair, while in water, that is capable of lasting for 72 hours;


• withstand an 11-hour flying time in routine ambient conditions (0 degrees F to 120 degrees F);


• provide resistance to environmental contaminants (e.g., sand, petroleum, oil, lubricants, solar radiation);


• survive prolonged exposures to temperature extremes of negative 20 degrees F to positive 140 degrees F;


• be mold and mildew resistant;


• be flame resistant;


• be salt fog resistant;


• ensure compatibility with current military gear and equipment required to be worn with military dry suits (such as armor, masks, gloves, helmets, and boots);


• be nontoxic to the skin;


• and have a low propensity to sudden static discharge or exposed surfaces.

PHASE I: Design and determine the feasibility of a concept pocket-sized surface flotation device that provides protection from cold water exposure and meets the requirements provided in the Description above. Demonstrate feasibility through analysis and limited laboratory demonstrations. Provide cost and reliability estimates.

PHASE II: Develop, demonstrate, and validate a prototype pocket surface flotation device based on the design concept created in Phase I. Demonstration of device operation and capabilities, except for raft boarding can be conducted in a laboratory environment. Demonstration of raft boarding must be conducted in a facility that trains personnel for underwater egress and survival, using certified safety swimmers. When a prototype has been delivered, a demonstration will be performed by the Government using Navy divers representing the 95th percentile male human subject in controlled immersions, in compliance with the requirements provided in Phase I. Provide draft engineering drawings and benefit and cost/life-cycle cost analyses.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Perform any final design updates based upon the prototype testing in Phase II. Develop mass production capability of the pocket surface flotation device and commercialization for the private sector. Provide updated engineering drawings, detail specifications, and benefit and cost/life-cycle cost analyses. Private Sector Commercial Potential: The transfer and modification of commercial technology is common for efforts like this. Novel alternative flotation devices can benefit other military, industrial, and recreational aviation operators and passengers, as well as industrial, merchant, and recreational marine operators and their crews or passengers. This flotation device also could possibly be adapted for cargo transport protection and/or salvage.


  • Transport Canada. (2003). Survival in cold waters (Publication #TP 13822). E. Ottawa, Canada: Available at
  • NATO Research and Technical Organization. (2008). Survival at sea for mariners, aviators, and search and rescue personnel (AGARD-o-Graph #AG-HFM-152). Available at

KEYWORDS: Survival; Life Raft; Surface Flotation/Floatation; Immersion Hypothermia; Buoyancy; anti-exposure

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