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I'd like to fly to Santa Catalina Island (AVX) from the mainland around Los Angeles. There is a portion of this overwater flight where my Cessna 172 will be beyond gliding distance from land. I know that people usually do this flight with only life jackets, but the water is about 64 degrees F (18 °C) right now and I'm pretty sure that if I needed to make a forced landing in the water I may have hypothermia before rescue arrives.

Is it recommended to take an aviation life raft? They're pretty expensive - they start at US$1000 for a two-man raft. I see that raft rentals are available, but that's kind of a big pain, especially because they are going to be shipped from some other location and there is the possibility of needing to reschedule the flight because of weather.

What are the recommendations of authorities? Is there any alternative equipment that would be as effective in this scenario?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you thought about the size and weight of it, whether you are taking passengers or not? Could you manhandle it out of the airplane after ditching? $\endgroup$ – GdD May 13 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe this should be reopened and closed as a duplicate, not opinion-based. I would expect nearly identical answers. aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/42236/… $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 13 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it's a duplicate. That's about legality, this is about best practice. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth May 13 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ For interest - here is a helicopter marine immersion simulator intended for training oil rig crew prior to flights to platforms off the African coast. This is in a factory in China. When installed you get dropped in a swimming pool and optionally in the dark. I had a (dry) run. Even dry it was surprisingly scary. Helicopter immersion simulator The man in the orange shirt is the client. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon May 14 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth welcome to the Aviation Stackexchange community. I would have thought the same thing 2 years ago. It is a clear precedent here that marking a question as duplicate is actually less about the question being asked and more about the answers it would generate. So based on the history of moderator judgements and meta questions addressing it, this would be a duplicate because it would generate the same answers. Anything purely opinion-based is really not meant to be asked. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen May 14 at 12:58
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I used to be a bush pilot flying Cessna 180s on floats. If you ditch in a 172 on wheels with a life raft in the back seat, it's going to flip inverted when it contacts the water and start to sink immediately, and getting your own carcass and your passenger out of the thing without drowning will be enough of a challenge. Forget about trying to pull a life raft out of the back seat of a sinking inverted 172 after you just escaped. It's gone.

If you are that wary of overwater flight, the normal practice, for things like trans Atlantic ferries, is to wear an immersion suit. With the water at 64F, you could get by on a warm weather immersion suit or a sailing dry suit plus life jacket, but even without, it takes quite a few hours for 64F water to kill you, and the Coast Guard is going to be there within 30 min.

In any case, a 172 has an L/D of about 9, which means from 10000 ft you can glide somewhere around 17 miles. At mid point between between Long Beach and the island you are less than 15 miles from shore, so there's really no need to worry about ditching in the open ocean, unless you want to do the flight at a couple thousand feet.

Even if you only climb to 5000, you could glide to a few miles of either shore. And the actual "risk exposure" time of the engine spontaneously blowing up in your face without warning, while out of gliding distance of land, is only a few minutes. The probability of this happening, that is the engine doing something like throwing a rod suddenly, in that little time window, is a fraction of the probability of driving your car off a bridge into the water on your way to the airport.

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    $\begingroup$ The additional advantage of height is that the rescue can start before you're in the water. $\endgroup$ – MSalters May 14 at 12:35
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To amend John K's excellent answer:

In the unfortunately unlikely event of you being able to get the life raft out of the sinking Cessna, you'd be soaking wet and operating it would be very hard. If you manage to inflate it, and mind you, outside the plane, your a**e would be freezing anyway.

For the life raft to be useful, given evacuation goes ok, you'd have to be very proficient in using it. So where do you practise... and when...

I'd absolutely ditch (pun intended) the idea of the life raft. Your best life insurances are:

  • Altitude. Fly as high as safe considering hypoxia. If something happens, you have good gliding distance, help has time to react and you can troubleshoot
  • Keep in touch. File a flight plan and stick to it. Talk to ATC so they know where you are.
  • Immersion suit. If possible, get an immersion suit (and wear it). It's a bit uncomfortable, but you can just wear it waist high, and if shit or something else hits the fan, get it all up. Practise this in the plane. Wear a warm midlayer.

I've tested an immersion suit in 32 °F (0 °C) water. If you have enough midlayer, it's actually quite comfy. Your face is freezing, yes, but other than that, could have probably spent hours floating in the hole in the ice.

A quick search shows that for 1000$ you can get two Solas suits + more than enough midlayers.

note: I originally used the term flotation suit, dug up from dark depths of my english-as-a-third-language brain. Fixed that now, thus some earlier commentary refers this

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    $\begingroup$ I once attended a talk by a guy who was involved in the Cirrus that ditched off Greenland when (they think) the engine breather froze over and made the engine dump all the oil out the prop seal. They guy used his temperate/tropical immersion suit, more or less a sailing dry suit, even though it was winter. A helicopter just happened to be only about 45 min away in south Greenland checking on a remote radio facility, and rushed to the site. They found him dead of exposure floating about 1/2 mile offshore. If he had a proper winter immersion suit he'd have been fine. $\endgroup$ – John K May 13 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ The one I've used is only a shell. There is no insulation in the suit itself, you wear midlayer(s) according to the conditions outside. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 May 13 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ ... and the shell itself really insulates absolutely damn nothing. I've tried that too 😃 $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 May 13 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ The cold water ones have pretty thick shells and make you look like Gumby. You can't really fly with it all the way on, but have to have it ready to go, so they are worn rolled down to the waist during oceanic ferries. $\endgroup$ – John K May 14 at 0:04
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    $\begingroup$ You are referring to the neoprene ones right? The thick ones are really clumsy yes. But you can get a thinner one and wear a midlayer or two under it. I would recommend this, because while thick neoprene is a good insulator, it does not transfer or even out moisture in the suit at all. You' ll eventually build condensatuin in certain part. Layered clothing is the way to go in any cold situation, land water, air. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 May 14 at 20:15
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I can't speak on whether or not to bring a life raft, and others have already posted their views on that.

I can add a few more items to consider in addition to what others mentioned:

  1. Don't forget to wear a portable EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon). They are available for purchase and for rent. One can be attached directly to you; make sure it also has a sturdy backup lanyard in the event it tears off of you.
  2. Attach a flashing water-activated portable strobe to you. Don't assume you will be found while there is still daylight. Note that some have strong magnets in them. If that could affect your flight instrumentation, make sure it does not have a magnet.
  3. Bring a signaling mirror, preferably one with a small hole in the center to help with targeting. Practice with it ahead of time. Make sure it is attached via a lanyard.
  4. Bring self-launching waterproof flares.
  5. Bring a waterproof portable VHF radio. Test it before going anywhere. Learn how to use it and change signal strength on it blindfolded.
  6. Research cell phone service in the area, and bring a waterproof cell phone that has the best chance of having a signal. Pre-program it with anyone you may need to contact for an emergency.
  7. Bring ocean rescue dye. When released, it causes the water around you to change color; this makes your whereabouts much more obvious from the air, and from larger ships.
  8. Decide on a plan on how you are going to deal with sharks, should they be the first to respond.
  9. Study shipping lanes in the area and evaluate whether you want to be near them or far from them. A large ship may be able to rescue you if they happen to see you, but you have to guess if they will actually see you. Many large vessels have no way to quickly stop or maneuver away from you. If you get hit by one, it will likely be fatal.
  10. Plan for the possibilities of being near your aircraft in the water or away from it. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility.
  11. Include a fire extinguisher that is rated for any elevations you might be encountering.
  12. Consider bringing a portable paddle. They are very lightweight, inexpensive, and not very bulky.
  13. Bring calories with you (such as energy bars) as well as some fresh potable water.
  14. If you have any required medications, include them in your rescue kit.
  15. Include basic first aid supplies that will work when wet.
  16. Wear highly visible colors like bright red.
  17. Bring a plastic emergency whistle that is specifically designed for ocean rescues.
  18. Equip yourself with a high-intensity compact waterproof flashlight. One that has adjustable focus is a bonus.
  19. Bring a sharp multi-tool that includes scissors and a knife. If it has pliers too, that's a big bonus.
  20. Waterproof matches. They are lightweight and take up almost no room. I honestly can't think of a reason that you may need them, but I think it's worth mentioning. Don't bring a lighter that could explode at altitude or from excessive heat or pressure.
  21. Naval emergency flag (made of flexible plastic). Another item that I can't think of a reason you would need, but they are compact, lightweight, and inexpensive. They are orange with a black ball and black square, and look like this: Maritime Emergency Flag
  22. Metallic emergency blanket. In addition to providing warmth, they can be used for signaling. They weigh almost nothing, take up almost no room, and are very affordable. With the right training, they can also be used to help make potable water.
  23. Swim fins that will fit over whatever you plan on wearing (discussed in other answers).
  24. Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Every real PFD has an official Type. Learn about these Types, and decide which is best for you. Also evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of inflatable PFDs. If you consider a self-inflating PFD, ensure there is no risk of it self-inflating (or exploding) due to atmospheric changes at altitude.
  25. Throwable flotation device. In addition to a wearable PDF, having a throwable PDF is always a good idea. They add more buoyancy and act as a backup. They can also double as a seat cushion.
  26. Visual correction and protection. Do you need glasses to see? Plan for how to deal with that if you wind up in the ocean. Also, have the necessary equipment to deal with the possible intense brightness and glare of the open ocean.
  27. Swim mask. For some, the salt in the ocean causes temporary blindness. A swim mask or swimming goggles can help prevent this from happening.
  28. Make sure you are comfortable being in the cold and turbulent ocean and can swim in the conditions you could possibly encounter.
  29. Sunscreen. If you do wind up in the water, you don't know how long you'll be out there. Depending on the currents, you could be moving fairly rapidly from where you first went down. Sunscreen can help prevent painful burns. Something for your face and for your lips is ideal.
  30. Attach SOLAS reflective tape to as many things as possible, including your legs and your hood.
  31. If you are planning a round-trip, remember that the weather conditions returning may be very different than the conditions when you leave. Don't go up if the conditions are questionable. It's not worth it.
  32. Contact the people who will be responsible for your possible rescue and ask them what they recommend.
  33. Contact others who have made the same journey and ask them for recommendations.
  34. File accurate flight plans for both legs of your journey and make sure you follow them. Try to transmit details of any changes before you deviate from your plans.
  35. Maintain contact with others during your trip.

Note that although this might sound like a lot of physical items, all of these items will fit inside a backpack-sized waterproof bag. The bag should be well-organized and designed to be accessed while you are stranded in the potentially turbulent ocean. Opening the bag should not result in everything floating away or sinking. The bag needs to contain appropriate floatation devices so it does no sink, and possibly provide added buoyancy for you. The bag should be a highly visible color and have some SOLAS tape affixed to all sides of it.

Well before take-off, attach any appropriate devices directly to your person. Position your rescue bag purposefully and intelligently.

Note that although I have so far avoided dying, I do not consider myself to be an expert. Collect data from multiple sources. Don't rush. Think through it and plan ahead.

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    $\begingroup$ There seems to be some good general survival advice here, but not much if it is relevant to the question. Some of it seems excessive for an aircraft flight that never goes more than 15 miles from land. We generally try and stick to direct answers to the question. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth May 14 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ This is definitely an overkill considerin the question. Good advice generally speaking, but for example to take a cellphone as a safety device in case of ditching in cold water is hardly good advice. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 May 14 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ A self-inflatable pfd sounds like a terrible idea. $\endgroup$ – Nobody May 15 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ Yes a self.inflating PFD is a very bad idea for a plane. If water comes into the cockpit then it inflates and impedes your exit. That's one reason why airline PFDs aren't self inflating. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth May 15 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Operating one in freezing cold water is far from easy, try it. In a matter of seconds your hands are numb. I have to admit I'm not familiar with cellular reception in the area of the particular body of water in question, but as a general advice I would not recommend relying on a cellphone at sea (or lake). You are very quickly below radio horizon and / or out of range when you are in the drink. You claim getting reception in surprising places, is swimming miles and miles from shore such a place? $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 May 15 at 22:30

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