What is a Parachute Flare?

Gerard S. Walen

Used to signal distress, usually from a seagoing vessel, a parachute flare fires an extremely bright pyrotechnic signal that floats from a small parachute. The flare can reach a height of about 1,000 feet (300 m) and can be seen on a clear night from about 28 miles (45 km) away. Each flare typically is propelled on a rocket made from an aluminum alloy tube.

U.S. Coast Guard harbor patrols keep a constant lookout for parachute flares.
U.S. Coast Guard harbor patrols keep a constant lookout for parachute flares.

Parachute flares are most commonly fired from a hand-held plastic tube that uses a powder charge. Typically, the rocket burns its motor for about 3.5 seconds before launching the flare and parachute. The parachute flare then burns for about 40 seconds while slowly descending. Experts advise firing a second parachute flare a few minutes after the first one to help rescuers pinpoint the location of the person firing the flares. Other types of distress signals — such as lights, a fire, smoke signals, or a hand-held flare — can be used in conjunction with parachute flares to increase visibility for rescuers.

White parachute flares can be dropped from a helicopter.
White parachute flares can be dropped from a helicopter.

Only people who are in distress should fire a red parachute flare because the color is a universal signal for extreme emergencies. White parachute flares are also made, but they are used for signaling or for illuminating large areas. Also, white parachute flares can be dropped from an airplane or helicopter.

Hand-held rocket parachute flares are designed for easy use. If there are caps on the ends of the firing tube, a person should remove them first. The firing end, which usually is clearly marked, must be pointed away from the face and body. Typically, the trigger that fires the parachute flare is secured by a safety pin that must be removed. After removing the pin, the flare should be aimed as high as possible before the trigger is pulled.

Because a parachute flare contains highly flammable material, extreme care must be used when handling one. It should never be stored near a flame or source of high heat. Though the flares are packed in waterproof housings, they should be kept below deck in a waterproof container.

Parachute flares have an expiration date of 42 months after the manufacturing date. The United States (US) Coast Guard and local marine patrol agencies require that flares be replaced after the expiration date or the vessel owner will be cited if their boat is inspected. Old flares can be kept on board for another year or so for use as emergency backups after new ones have been purchased. They should be disposed of at a local hazardous waste facility once five years have passed since the date of manufacture.

All of a vessel’s passengers and crew should know where the flares are kept and be instructed in their use. Under no circumstances should red parachute flares be fired as a joke or for fun. Not only does it send a false distress signal, which could task the resources of local marine rescue organizations if an operation is launched, it is unsafe and it is against US law.

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