Friday, August 31, 2012

PPG and flotation

Many people think that almost any PPG flying over water, under almost any circumstances ranks pretty high on the foolish scale.  I can't really fault their reasoning, but I will go so far as to say that I think that flying over water - without flotation - is foolish beyond words. 

Few sensible people will go boating these days without auxilliary flotation, and yet boats are designed to float on water, whereas two-stroke paramotors are pretty much guaranteed to sink.
When I plan to overfly water, I'm never without an "Agama" Emergency Flotation Device.  There is a new product on the market from an Australian manufacturer called PowerFloat, which is similar, but a little bigger, and may fit some paramotors better.  PowerFloat also makes a two-piece system mainly designed for trikes, but it can be used for backpack style PPG also.

Agama is the industry leader, but PowerFloat has given this idea a lot of thought, and has produced what appears to be a quality product.
Agama on the left - PowerFloat on the right
I believe that these purpose-designed flotation systema will not only protect the safety of my person in the event of a water landing, but will make it easier to recover my equipment. In Canada, probably like most places, recovery of sunken gas-powered motorized equipment is not an option; if you drop your snowmobile into a lake, you either pull it off the bottom yourself, or you can expect a bill for someone else to do it for you wether you like it or not.

You can see some pool tests of the Agama here:

And Ryan at Paradrenalin replacing the firing fuse here:

Installation of the PowerFloat here:

The Agama/PowerFloat are designed to float both you and your motor in the event of a water landing until you can be rescued.

In the event of a face plant, or a landing that results in injury or unconsciousness, these units may not self-right an immobile pilot lying in a face down position if the fuel tank is empty, (and providing buoyancy from the back/rear of the motor, but tests prove that a conscious pilot can easily achieve an upright, head above water position even with a dry tank.

But what about a situation where self-rescue is the only option? If no one is coming for you, then you're going to have to disengage from the unit, and make it to shore on your own. The overriding question becomes: Can you make it? Are you injured? Are you close enough to land to be confident of your ability to swim the distance wearing your flight gear and boots? Is hypothermia going to sap your strength and zap your muscles before you make it to shore?

It is important to understand a few facts about hypothermia before beginning any debate on this latter point. This video presentation of cold-water survival is excellent:

To sum up, the most important lesson to learn about hypothermia is the "ten-minute rule".

In ten minutes, in water only as cold as 49 degrees Farenheight, your body will lose voluntary muscle control, and you will drown without flotation. Full stop. That proved true in 100 percent of the cases studied.

You will be unable to keep swimming, you will be unable to walk onto the beach, and be incapable of climbing onto a dock or into a boat on your own. Your arms and legs will be only so much dead weight. Without flotation you will die.

You can survive with flotation for up to an hour, however, even in ice water, you're just not going to be able to do anything about your situation.  With flotation, you're in trouble, but at least you won't sink and immediately drown. 

One of my favourite flying sites is just east of Toronto, along the beautiful line of cliffs bordering Lake Ontario called The Scarborough Bluffs.  The trouble is, is that there are very few safe landing options on that route, except Lake Ontario itself, as the cliffs in some places come out right to the water and a lot of the shoreline is tree covered.  I had a motor-out last year, but fortunately happened to find a safe spot to touch down without incident, as you can see in the video below.  I say "fortunately" because despite the lack of visible snow cover in the video, it was mid winter, and maybe 45 minutes before dusk.  Had I ditched, it is very possible that I could have died of hypothermia, in an "urban wilderness", only a few hundred meters "as the crow flies" from a busy road, with buses, cars, and occupied houses, but all unfortunately at the top of a rather sketchy bit of cliff.


The point is, with nobody around to see me go in, there would be nobody coming to get me.  I might have had to detach from the Agama, and try to get to shore on my own.  From there, I'd still be in trouble, but could activate my FastFind PLB, or if my phone still worked, call 911, or in a worst case maybe make it up a switchback to a house.  That is, if I could be sure of my ability to make it to shore.  

With these thoughts in mind, I began looking into some auxiliary flotation options for PPG use.

Personal flotation devices, (PFDs) come in two basic styles: semi-solid, bouyant foam/neoprene or CO2 inflatable bladders.  The CO2 inflatables are less bulky when worn with a PPG harness, and generally cooler, and more comfortable when worn for long periods of para-waitnig. The only drawback is in their being slightly more expensive.

I focused my choice on manual inflation, as opposed to automatic for a PFD which I plan to wear/carry on my body. While the Agama system is automatic, designed to charge within seconds of complete submersion, the Agama inflates around the motor itself, and the pilot is free to detach or remain as circumstances warrant.

If an automatic PFD were to charge and inflate while you were belted into your unit, you could potentially find yourself unable to unclip from your harness and might end up strapped in for the duration.

Bearing this in mind, I focused on MANUAL activation PFD's only.

VEST STYLE PFDs - are typically Horsehoe-shaped units, that pop open into the familiar life-jacket orientation around your neck.

These may or not be a workable solution for PPG, as some might not be compatible with being worn while moving around with your particular motor harness assembly on your back. I felt that the ones I tried on would probably work with my Nirvana Rodeo, but I'd suggest that it might be prudent to try one on and test the feel of it while actually donning whatever paramotor harness assembly you normally wear.  Some brands I looked at included:
Revere Comfort Max at 3 lbs is $113 on Amazon  
It provides 33 lbs of bouancy.

The lightest and most compact unit of this type, I could find, was the West Marine Coastal Comfort, weighing only 2.2 lbs and only $69.00 (22 lbs of buoyancy)
BELT PACK PFD's -are small and compact, and when triggered pop out a full-size life jacket which the wearer then pulls over his/her head to provide flotation. One potential problem for paraglider pilots, is that the inflated life preserver will not go over a flying helmet, especially ones with communication headphones, and maybe even a GoPro attached. A pilot must be prepared to get their helmet off, and then deal with any reluctance to let go of the thing if necessary, to then get the preserver in position.
The Revere Comfortmax at 1.7 lbs is $73.00 on Amazon
As you can see, there would be no way to get this on over a helmet.  It takes some doing to fit it over a normally sized adult head.  They are designed this way so they don't pop off a person's head if the preserver is donned inflated and then the wearer jumps off of a dock or a boat.  This requirement for "second stage donning"might make this style less than optimal for PPG.
Other brands in a similar style include: Absolute Onyx belt, at 1.5 lbs and $78.00 on Amazon
Units with 22 lbs of Flotation are considered insufficient to flip an unconscious person face up, but I'm of the opinion that that isn't a typical concern for PPG water emergencies. Situations where a pilot might find himself unconscious in the water certainly exist, such as a pilot who routinely takes off over water, or practices such maneouvers as low-level wing overs, and foot drags, but such a pilot should be relying on the safety element of a motor floater, like an Agama, with automatic activation. 

               My current choice for PPG auxiliary flotation.
Since 22 lbs of buoyancy is plenty enough to float most people, and translates into a lighter, more compact unit, I think this is the way to go for PPG.  Even 15.5 lbs is more than plenty, and Stearns, just happens to makes an ultralight, very low-profile belt unit, called the "Inflatabelt" is currently listed on their website for $69.00but is actually $74.99 plus shipping/tax totalling $91.00. 

They are common on eBay in the $70.00 range with shipping included, and you can nearly always find  a couple of "used" units for half that price. 

The Inflatabelt is different from the other belt packs listed above, in that it doesn't pop out into a traditional life preserver shape, but rather into a pillow-shaped bladder, with a nylon loop that the wearer puts over his head, and then cinches up.  This can be accomplished while wearing a helmet, which is a big positive for PPG usage.  

The Inflatabelt is small, very light, (400Gr) 12.8oz, unobtrusive, and simple to take on and off.  And while the Co2 cartridge only delivers 15.5 lbs of buoyancy, you can top it up to 22 lbs using the mouth tube.)
This is how the bladder looks when it is released from the Velcro tube/sleeve.
The side being viewed will be up against the wearers chest, with the red inflation tube near your mouth.
Second-stage donning requires looping the yellow strap around head/helmet and cinching snug.
 I ordered a second Co2 cylinder, and I'll be posting a video review shortly.

SPECIALTY INFLATABLE VESTS - Another PPG option is an inflatable fishing chest pack, which can do double duty as a holder for radio, GPS, or a small tablet computer. If the chest storage pouch doesnt have two cords to let the panel lie open flat, drawbridge style, then they can be easily added. I know guys who fly with these fly fishing chest packs, to carry navigation aids, and they find them very handy.

The chest packs below is by Stearns. and uses the same kind of pillow bladder/and cinch strap as in the aforementioned inflatabelt.

Stearns - Nova™ 16 Gram Manual Inflatable Chest Pak
Other options include inflatable fishing vests which incorporate a lot of pockets in a cotton or nylon vest.  A nice example is this older Stearns model, shown below. Good news bad news... The bad news is that it is no longer produced. The good news is that they show up regularly on eBay for about $40 dollars or so, and I just saw one go recently for only $20. Try searching "inflatable-fishing-vest", and "inflatable-angler's-vest." The rearm Co2 cartridge for this model 444 vest is the 25 gram  #0905 kit and is about $17.00 from Stearns but probably a lot less from your local big box.
Stearns will recertify a 2nd hand vest like this for $35.00 but you can do a basic check yourself, by examining the jacket and buckles for physical integrity, and testing the interior bladder by blowing it up with the mouth tube and leaving it inflated overnight. The service rep at Stearns said the bladder should not be adversely affected by age, but the only way to test the auto inflate function is to just pull the release handle, and then subsequently rearm the unit with a fresh cartridge.

Other manufacturers of inflatable fishing vests, with a sort-of combat photographer vibe, that in my opinion, look kind of cool, include Hodgman and Mustang, and newer ones from Stearns updated 33 gram inflatbable, shown below, available for about $177.95 on Amazon, and often seen for less on ebay.

Stearns SOSpenders Fishing Vest PFD

POCKET VESTS - This is an option for the financially challenged - Manual inflatable life vests designed for commercial-aviation, come and go for only a few dollars on ebay. Switlik is a well known manufacturer of these vests, and one style they make for airlines, called "Air-Mate", is available from  for $69.50.  Plenty of older ones come up for sale on auction sites all the time, either having been swiped from airplanes, or purchased in lots from airlines as planes and even airlines themselves are decommissioned.

Searching "Switlik" on eBay, I found this PFD AV-8 life vest for five dollars and another five for shipping. They show up regularly on ebay, and $15.00 seems to be about average.  The dimensions of the packed unit are: 7" X 7" by about 1" deep.  Such a vest can be worn uninflated around the neck, or stuffed in a pocket so your next ditch won't be a last ditch.
(You can also try searching: Airline-life (which will include vest, jacket, preserver in the results) and, Flight-life.)

FLOATER JACKETS AND COATS - These provide both good flotation and good thermal protection from cold temperatures. Floater coats, therefore,  not only provide buoyancy but will help delay the onset of hypothermia. Even better are one piece or two piece survival suit combinations. Some have draw string enclosures on sleeves which will further enhance survivability in very cold water. And there are also pockets and compartments in which to keep signaling devices or a VHF radio and other survival items.
The few I’ve seen are kind of bulky, but would be perfectly suited for cold weather PPG. Just not necessarily well suited for balmy summer days.

REGARDING WATER LANDINGS - John Fetz commented on the yahoo group, PPGtruth Unlimited, that in the event of a controlled water landing it would be advisable to try and land sitting rather than standing up, to avoid a "face plant" leaving you face down with 70+ pounds of equipment on your back.

Another piece of advice I've heard was from Ryan Shaw.  Assuming that you're not wearing an Agama, and you have a somewhat controlled descent and time to disengage your harness, is to wait till your feet are just above the water, like you're about to do a water foot-drag, before dropping clear of the harness. It is very difficult to accurately judge height over water, so wait till your feet are just skimming the surface.

Jeff Goin said he will never commit to a takeoff over water.  He said, "Any water overflights should be an altitude that will allow for an engineless glide back to land.  Which isn't bad advice.

Most skydiving related water fatalities are caused by line entanglements, which is another argument for flotation, as well as proving the importance of a hook knife should there be a need to cut clear of lines.

Paragliders that end up in coastal surf have caused fatalities.  This guy probably wouldn't have made it without help, and someone finally showing up with a blade. 

UPDATE: PECI makes a device for SOF soldiers who might find themselves in water distress.  It is a paired set of flotation bladders that clip on either side of a person’s belt, and can be popped to open into U-shaped bladders under each arm.

Late in 12012 they came up with a system that is automatic, after 6-seconds immersion that might be useful for PPG applications.  I'm going to try and get a hold of one of these guys, and do some testing.  

They’re small, about the size of a tall boy beer can, (6.5” X 2.5” approx) and a single unit might be clipped to a pilot’s chest strap to augment an AGAMA system,  or the pair could be clipped to the swing arms, to float the whole unit. They cost around 300 dollars a pair, but one might be all a PPG pilot needs, as they are very powerful, each providing 40 lbs of buoyancy, and together giving 80. 
They could also be used as a throwable rescue flotation device to a swimmer in trouble.  Like the Mustang Rescue Stick, which some pilot’s carry.

The best price I’ve seen is $309.00 from Combat Solutions LLC

1 comment:

  1. Paul my powerfloat system for PPG and pargliders may interest you, I also make a larger version for Trikes and hanggliders see

    please feel free to ask any questions


    Ben Darke