#42 Safety First!

The New England Aquarium along with NOAA is committed to the safety of our aerial survey teams. So while talking about safety and safety equipment may be boring for some I find it exciting and fascinating. The technology that exists to the average consumer for safety equipment these days is affordable and easily accessible.

I thought I would take this opportunity to take you for a quick ride through the basics of our safety equipment. However, first, before you can come along with us you have to pass your aircraft ditching class. Each observer must be trained in aircraft ditching and water survival prior to the start of the survey season. Our training is conducted at Survival Systems USA in Groton, CT. To see what ditch training is like in the simulator check out this clip or this news report about the training.

Our aircraft is equipped with many of its own, FAA required safety features. However, we bring a lot of our own additional safety equipment aboard and most of it we are wearing! So first, lets get dressed for a survey flight. Keep in mind temperature and comfort when getting dressed in the morning and don't forget your hat and gloves for those cold days in January and February (remember we photograph from an open window at 1000 ft so it can be chilly).

Now that you have your thermal layer on its time to step into your full Nomex fight suit and your close-toed shoes. Nomex is a fire retardant material and relatively light weight so provides little thermal protection; however, it can feel extremely warm when surveying in the increasingly warm days of late March. OK, now over your flight suit goes your Switlik life vest. The life vest is constructed with dual inflation bladders. Only one bladder is needed to inflate for full flotation (in case the other gets punctured or does not inflate). Make sure you know where the inflation cord is and the manual inflation tube (in case the CO2 cartridges malfunction) and please don't forget to secure your leg straps. The leg straps keep the vest secure and tight around your chest; when inflated this allows for good positioning in the water. Without the legstraps and overall proper adjustment to the vest, inflation could pull the vest up around your neck and it could slip right over your head (depending on the size of your head). Proper life vest adjustment it very important so please make all the necessary adjustments before climbing in the plane.

Now lets dive inside the pockets of the life vest: in the left side pocket you will find your safety whistle, signaling mirror, blunt tip knife, safety streamer, thermal blanket and strobe/flashlight combo. The right side pocket holds your PLB (Personal Locating Beacon). The PLB is the latest generation of personal EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon) that, once activated, sends a GPS location to rescue agencies via satellites. Everything in your vest is tethered securely so it won't fall out or float away if in water.

The safety briefing before your first flight will cover the location of all the safety equipment and the Egress Plan. The Egress Plan explains who is responsible for removing each piece of safety equipment from the aircraft and the order in which you will exit the aircraft in an emergency ditching situation. OK, time to hop in the plane. Once you get in and get comfortable you will need to fasten your seat belt, low and tight around your waist (just like they tell you on commercial flights). Now, acquaint yourself with your surroundings and the safety equipment located around you. Reach out and touch your removable EPIRB sitting in the seat pocket in front of you, the life raft to your side, the blunt tip knife (for cutting your seat belt off if needed) clipped in place in front of you, the submersible hand-held VHF radio, the handle to the door and the lever to jettison the side window. Lastly, check around your feet, most of our cords are secured under the carpet or along the walls of the fuselage but its always good to double check. (See all the equipment that we cram into a little airplane on this previous post - from cameras to laptops to satellite phones and GPS devices.) Next, headset on and have a good flight.

Meet the folks who fly us safely over the calving grounds here and here. This post is about our new ride! Finally, read about Aquarium researcher Amy Knowlton's real life aircraft ditching experience in 1987.

Photos credited to Kelly Slivka.


  1. Wow, this was really interesting!

  2. Your updates are so well done and informative. The link to Amy's ditching experience is amazing. I will miss the updates as you close the SE survey season, but look forward to the summer updates from the Bay of Fundy. Thanks for all the wonderful work done by you and your team. I know the whales are grateful too.