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Friday, March 10, 2000

HCC flight
students will wear
inflatable life rafts

By Susan Kreifels


Honolulu Community College flight students are the first civilians to wear inflatable life rafts, as a precaution in case their aircraft goes down between islands.

Only the military and NASA used the safety backpacks before they arrived last month at HCC's Aviation Flight Training Program at Honolulu Airport, according to Ed Helmick, program director and chief flight instructor.

When a plane goes down, "your priority is to get out of the airplane, not look for a life raft" stashed in the craft, he noted.

Since HCC's cross-country flight training must be over water, instructors thought their students should wear the rafts. They and a local supplier convinced the manufacturer to certify them for civilian use.

The college purchased its first 10 rafts at a cost of $650 each. The raft weighs about 2 pounds and is worn around the lower back.

After touching water and inflating a safety vest, the pilot pulls a cord to inflate three tubes of the raft, then blows up the last two. That way, it's easier to mount and easier to adjust buoyancy to match water conditions, Helmick said.

When inflated, the raft measures about 5 feet by 2 feet and has a shelf to sit on. It provides added protection against shark attacks by keeping limbs out of the water.

Most training is done in single-engine aircraft, making the rafts valuable. If there are problems with the single engine, "you're going down," Helmick said.

The five-semester program, the only collegiate flight training in the state, started in 1998 and will see its first six graduates this spring. Students leave with commercial multiengine instrument ratings, qualifying them to fly commercially.

HCC contracted with the University of North Dakota to provide instructors, curriculum and aircraft. A total of 54 students, all but three local, are enrolled in the program, which plans to relocate to Barbers Point.

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