Survival Training Part 2: Flare Training

Survival training, Part 2: Using flares.

This is the fun part of the survival course, playing with pyrotechnics. It was our first chance to see a comparison between various types of signaling devices (there is a huge difference between low cost and high quality SOLAS grade signaling devices).

Each of us got a chance to use the pyrotechnics. We wore protective glasses, gloves, and in the case of parachute flares, ear protection. A "securite" call was given over channel 16 indicating we were about to launch flares, and then the USCG was called on a cell phone at the conclusion of the exercise.

Paines Wessex SOLAS flare firing mechanism

We’ll start with device marking. The ends of the containers have marking to indicate the intended use. This is a smoke signal. The sun symbol tells us this is a day-only flare. If it were good to shoot day or night, it would show a sun and moon symbol.

using flares

One end of the flare has a striker for ignition, much like a match and match box. This striker has fallen partially off and may not work, which is why it is suggested to keep used striker caps rather than throwing them away.

signaling flare

Stacey Meacham, a cruiser who is taking the course with us, demonstrates a non-SOLAS flare. Aside from not being as bright nor lasting as long as the SOLAS flare, it gives off "slag" (hot debris).

signal flare slag

Here is a close up. Those bits falling off are the "slag" which would burn a hole in your life raft.

smoke flare

A SOLAS grade smoke device.

SOLAS smoke flare

Remove the cap or end and you find the firing mechanism, in this case a string that is pulled.

SOLAS smoke flare demo

We’re north of Sitka a few miles, the sun is shining, and we’ve got a beautiful backdrop for these tests. Our instructor, Dug Jensen has just tossed the smoke device over the edge of this cliff. Helicopter rescue pilots love these because they are visible from a long way off and mark the wind direction for them.

SOLAS smoke flare view from the air

This is the best we could do to show you how this looks from above. If you mentally remove the bushes you will see that this is a very effective daytime marker.

Skyblazer Flares

We tested two types of small rocket flares. This is a self-contained model, including its own firing mechanism, vacuum packed for longevity.

flare pistol

The alternative is a "pistol", which fires what looks like a shotgun shell containing a flare.

These make a small, short lived signal; better than nothing, and probably useful where there are lots of other folks around who might see the signal. But these do not begin to compare to the SOLAS grade gear.

parachute flare cap

The end cap from a parachute flare. We next tested several non-SOLAS grade parachute flares. These were more effective than the smaller devices, but nothing compared to the true SOLAS parachute flares.

PainesWessex SOLAS parachute flare

This is a Paines Wessex SOLAS parachute flare (what we carry) with a toggle lever firing mechanism.


A close up of the firing mechanism.

Using SOLAS parachute flares

Robert Meacham firing the SOLAS parachute flare. He’s got gloves on of course, and is wearing eye and ear protection. Dug has him turn his face away from the flare canister. The flare is positioned so the bottom of it is aimed away from his body – or anything else that could be harmed if it accidentally exploded out the back end. This is good practice when using any of these pyrotechnics.

SOLAS parachute flare demonstration

We think this is pretty cool, so here is a close up of the last photo. You can see the rocket flare projectile at the top of the photo. This shot was taken using a Canon 20D camera shooting five frames per second. We got lucky with this one.


Follow the smoke trail to the bottom and you will find the parachute flare. It would be a lot more visible at sea, and of course even more visible at night.

We came away very much impressed with the difference between SOLAS grade gear and the rest. We do carry SOLAS flares in our abandon ship bag and raft, but the extra gear in the dinghy is not SOLAS. We are going to change that, and toss in some out-of-date SOLAS flares.

One of the subjects we discussed was the short expiration date on the SOLAS gear. In reality, it often lasts much longer than the few years they officially give you. The Coast Guard will not allow expired flares on inspected vessels, unless they are kept separate and marked as expired. We think using them for practice, perhaps in the dink, and abandon ship bag makes sense. But you should also keep up-to-date pyrotechnics as well.

These pyrotechnics can seriously injure the user or bystanders. As Dug says, rocket flares could kill and cook a bear. They can start fires, burn through the deck and hull of a boat, and don’t stop burning until the contents are consumed (they continue to burn underwater). Using these for the first time under stress, when your life depends on correct procedure, is not a good idea. Neither is self teaching. We strongly recommend formal, hands-on training.

Here is a recap of the key points we picked up:

  • Use SOLAS grade flares. If you need to use a flare at all, you will want the best.

  • Most pyrotechnics cannot be put out once lit. Make sure they cannot come in contact with flammable materials or bodies.

  • Keep the back end of flares aimed away from your body or the crew in case the flare explodes out the back end.

  • Turn your head away when firing. Wear gloves, eye, and ear protection when possible.

  • Get formal training using this gear.

  • Save out-of-date pyrotechnics for use in the dinghy and to supplement legal within date flares carried in the raft and abandon ship bag.

And a final word on how to use your inventory of pyrotechnics. Dug suggests "wasting" a flare as soon as you realize you are in trouble. Somebody may just see this – a passing aircraft or vessel over the horizon, or someone on shore.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (July 7, 2007)

One Response to “Survival Training Part 2: Flare Training”

  1. Matt Says:

    Just a note on out-of-date pyrotechnics. You’re better off using them for training and familiarization as they expire, rather then keeping them as extras for emergencies.

    I’ve recently joined the RNLI and we where using some expired SOLAS grade kit for training. Out of around 20 items, two failed, both parachute flares. One failed to fire, which is worrying enough, but the second must have had a damaged fuel grain, as it exploded from the launcher with enough force to blow it out of the operators hands, and the flare itself didn’t get very far in the air.

    Its very important to remember that these pyrotechnics are controlled explosions, and the last thing you want to do is give them a chance to be come uncontrolled. I admit I’m new to using this equipment, and i’m not an expert yet, but this is one item I’d always air on the side of caution with.