Packing Your Vest: Why Signalling Strobes Belong on the Outside

When LSC designed the Low Profile Flotation Collar (LPFC), it was in response to a real need for helicopter aviators: the need to look around. Where the collar crosses over the shoulders the collar is only 6mm thick when properly packed. This allows a flyer with a helmet to easily turn their head without making contact with the vest. In that design the size and shape of the bladder and the vest casing are critical. There are trade-offs; to get the right functionality required 99.999999% of the time, the vest had to change from big and bulky, to slim and sleek. The result is the most compact, low profile collar available. Less bulk, less fatigue; it’s a good thing.

Of course, the most common request we get is to pack things inside the vest to make sure the .0000001% eventuality is covered. The requests to pack water-activated strobe lights inside the vest casing is the most common but it is the one I least understand. The conversations usually go like this:

Customer: “We want the strobe inside the vest so that if we have to ditch, the strobe will be lit automatically.”

Me: “Why do you need the strobe to be lit and in place automatically?”

Customer: “Well…what if I’m unconscious?”

Me: “How will you get out of the helicopter?”

For obvious reasons, all life vests used in helicopter operations are manually inflating. To egress an aircraft that ditches, an aviator has to (at minimum) release a five-point restraint and clear it, operate an emergency exit, crawl hand over hand out of the sinking fuselage and then – after they are sure they have cleared the aircraft – inflate their flotation vest. I’m not sure why pulling a strobe light out of a pocket is too much to handle after all of that, but the requests for packing gear inside the vests keep coming. Here are a few things to consider about this idea:

What if you ARE unconscious?

A water-activated strobe in your vest will go off when it gets wet enough, but as the wearer would still be in the aircraft, no one will be able to see it. It will be wrapped inside the vest casing and blinking to no one. A water-activated strobe attached outside the vest will be flashing, and though we haven’t yet taken our strobe lights down to crush depth to see how long they will flash, we have had them to 60 feet and they do quite well. If you’ve ditched in a place where responders might get to you (Rivers, Bays, near-shore) strobe lights (outside your vest) will help; any inside the vest will not.

On the Helmet is Better

Given that to inflate your life vest you will have to be conscious and have successfully egressed the aircraft, pulling the activated strobe from a pouch on the harness and mounting it (via velcro) to the top of your helmet will increase visibility and and keep the flashing out of your face. While strobes don’t significantly affect night vision, they do annoy and occlude your ability to scan the horizon and the air for those who may be coming to your rescue. I’ve been out there in the dark with a lit strobe. In your face is not good – on your head is better.

Maintenance Anyone?

When you pack a thing that requires inspection and maintenance inside a thing that requires inspection and maintenance, you create …issues. If you want to check the batteries on your strobe or turn the thing on just to make sure it is still working, are you going to unpack your vest and repack it just to do that check? I don’t think you are. I think you are going to hope your strobe is alright and go flying, and so do you.

Packing an automatic strobe light inside a manual vest solves a problem that doesn’t exist, the need to set off the strobe if you are unable to do so. All things being equal, I believe that outside the vest is better for all survival and signaling gear.

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