Gumby Suits

When we last left our super unlucky ferry pilot he’d managed to successfully ditch his stricken aircraft, exit with his life raft, inflate it, and climb inside. This is the absolute minimum a pilot needs to do to survive when he makes a full stop landing on something other than solid surface, i.e. water. Of course where in the world that patch of water is makes all the difference in the…..well….all the difference in the world. there are many stories of pilots ditching in warm waters surviving for weeks with nothing but their underwear and a smile. If, on the other hand, our unlucky pilot finds himself in a somewhat chillier location, say, halfway between Canada and Iceland, in January, he might want his winter wooly’s on. And that’s where the survival suit comes in. Survival suits are full body suits made out of 1/4 inch neoprene and do a REALLY good job of keeping you warm in cold water. Unfortunately they also do a REALLY good job of keeping a pilot hot and sweaty in the cockpit of a small plane. And if you wear a survival suit for 8 hours or so it also has the interesting side effect of making your clothes smell exactly like a combination of wet dog and hockey bag. So to make himself more comfortable, and to allow him to get a few more days out of that pair of jeans he’s wearing, a ferry pilot has a few options.

1. Fly with the suit fully on but un-zipped. Not too risky because all you have to do is zip it up before ditching. This is the method of rookie ferry pilots and really fat guys who can barely get the suit on while standing on the ramp because it’s still hot and uncomfortable and it’s also really difficult to fly an airplane that way. Ever tried to change radio frequencies while wearing oven mitts?

2. Wear the suit pulled down to your waist. Slightly more risky because in the event of a sudden emergency a pilot might have his hands full controlling the plane while simultaneously getting his suit pulled up over his shoulders at the same time but for most pilots it’s doable.

3. Have the suit un-rolled on the pilot’s seat and just sit on it. This is pretty risky because performing the cockpit yoga required to squeeze yourself into a tight rubber suit in a tiny cockpit while getting everything you need to get done in a ditching situation, controlling the airplane, fixing your position, screaming for help on the radio, panicking, (don’t forget panicking) can be difficult. But not impossible, especially if you have enough time. And by time I mean altitude. Whenever I fly over the ocean at altitudes higher than 10,000 feet the first thing I do is strip off that damn rubber suit and sit on it because even if the engine stops making noise I’ve got over 20 minutes before splash down and it only takes me 2 seconds to get it back on. How do I know it only takes me 2 seconds you ask? Because the engine skipped a couple of beats while I was smack dab over the middle of the Atlantic ocean on only my second ferry flight ever. I don’t actually remember putting the suit on. All I know is that one second I was flying along fat dumb and happy and the next I was fully encased in orange neoprene, staring at the engine gauges and praying.  Panic does have its uses.

4.  Leave the suit in the back seat. Really risky because of all the reasons I listed in option 3 plus you have to reach behind you, dig out the bag the suit comes in, take the suit out of said bag, unroll the suit get on the seat under you, and then try to do the yoga trick of getting a rubber suit on over your clothes in a tiny cockpit. Although it would seem that only a moron would leave the suit in the bag and in the back seat, and I have seen such morons, I sometimes do it myself but only if I’m flying a cabin class aircraft that I can stand up in like a King Air or a Grand Caravan and even then only if I have a co-pilot to fly the plane while I get ready to ditch.

The nest thing to think about is what you’re going to wear under the survival suit. Most pilots I talk to don’t think about this at all. their thinking is that because the suit makes them hot in the cockpit it should do just fine in the water or life raft. That thinking is true to some extent. If you’re only in the water for a short time you should be fine, even in vary cold water. But what if you have to wait for hours or days for rescue? When I did my training in the cold water off Iceland we were in the water for only 30-45 minutes and I was already getting cold, especially my feet.  When I fly over cold water I wear a good quality base layer of long underwear in addition to the rest of my cold weather gear and always at least have a second pair of good socks to put on before climbing into the suit. This extra layer would also come in handy if you’re forced down on land in the winter and a post crash fire prevents you from grabbing additional clothing to help keep you from freezing to death. Something to consider when flying over northern Canada or Greenland’s ice cap in January.

OK, so there you are, safe and sound in your 10 man life raft and snug as a bug in your gumby suit. Guess what? you’re not out of the woods yet.


Ocean survival course in Iceland.


No need for a life jacket if you’re wearing a Gumby suit.

gumby                                                    I’m Gumby, Dammit!


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