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Earlier this year, I helped ferry an Airbus AS350 helicopter from Fort Worth, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska. We intercepted the coast of British Columbia near Prince Rupert and followed in into southeast Alaska; because it was springtime, the weather was sometimes not flyable and the rest of the time, only barely so.
Low ceilings and almost constant rain meant that it was rarely possible to climb to more than 600 or 700 feet above ground level. We knew from our charts that we were flying past spectacular mountains and glaciers, but for hours at a time our view was limited to a mile or two of the coastline in front of us, shrouded in mist.
We were wearing life jackets for this part of the ferry, but out aircraft didn’t have floats. And, although we stayed as much as possible within power-off gliding distance of shore, that shoreline was often rocky or covered in dense forest, hardly ideal for an emergency landing.
Fortunately, the flight was uneventful. But I spent a lot of time contemplating the cold, dark water beneath me, wondering whether and how I would be able to get out of the helicopter if our single engine were to suddenly take the day off. Like many civilian pilots, I had never gotten around to underwater egress training, and I felt as vulnerable as I had as a brand-new private pilot, flying a Robinson R22 over the Superstition Mountains in Arizona and realizing that I didn’t know the first thing about how to land in them.
That Alaska flight was one of two things that moved egress training to the top of my priority list. The other was the March 11 helicopter accident in New York City, in which five tightly harnessed FlyNYON passengers drowned when the Liberty Helicopters AS350 they were riding in made an emergency landing to the East River, then overturned in the water. I wrote extensively about the accident, and imagining the passengers’ terrifying last moments disturbed me profoundly.
Shortly after the accident, I interviewed Jon Ehm, training coordinator for Survival Systems USA (SSUSA), a longstanding provider of underwater escape training. A few months later, when I had an opening in my schedule, I contacted SSUSA again to sign up for a two-day Aviation Survival and Egress Training (ASET) course at the company’s headquarters in Groton, Connecticut.
Having never completed underwater egress training before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I enjoy swimming and am comfortable in the water; even so, I doubted that the experience would be pleasant. However, I went into it confident of one thing — that for someone who spends so much of her time in helicopters, undergoing egress training would be far preferable to not undergoing it.
I wasn’t wrong about that.
Pulling out all the stops
Because any underwater escape training is preferable to no training at all, SSUSA offers a range of courses to accommodate all schedules and budgets. In fact, the day after my own course wrapped up, I headed to APSCON 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky, where some of the SSUSA team were putting on a one-day course in the pool of the Galt House Hotel. The company plans to offer something similar at HAI Heli-Expo 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, next year, which should be a great opportunity for crewmembers of all experience levels to check this item off their to-do lists.
Having put off my own egress training for so long, however, I wanted to go all out. And “all out” is what’s on offer at SSUSA’s headquarters, home to a million-dollar Modular Egress Training Simulator (METS) that convincingly simulates flying an aircraft into the drink. The simulator can be configured to represent a range of different fixed- and rotary-wing models; for my class of eight, which included six U.S. Army flight crewmembers, the METS was nominally a UH-60 Black Hawk.
The METS would be impressive enough on its own, but it’s supplemented at the Groton facility with some gnarly environmental effects — wind, thunder, and driving rain. By the end of the course, the lights would be off and the environmental effects would be full on as we rolled upside-down into the deep end, simulating a nighttime crash in weather that even the Coast Guard would have a tough time flying in.
Naturally, we would need to work our way up to that. And because it can be difficult to retain new information when you’re strapped into a chair with your sinuses full of water, we started our training with three hours of ground school in a bright, dry, climate-controlled classroom.
SSUSA’s ground instruction is thorough but engaging and to the point; at least in my class, no one was zoning out or checking their phones. Our instructor for the day, Andrew Kelly, talked us through the basic steps of an underwater egress, explaining the principles and some potential pitfalls behind each. Brace. Wait for the violent motion to stop. Sit up and find a reference point. Locate the exit. Jettison the door or window. Release your seat belt while keeping one hand on the exit, then pull yourself out.
We talked about disorientation, and about the importance of keeping your eyes closed to protect them from contaminants like fuel and hydraulic fluid. Because we would be using emergency breathing devices (EBDs, sometimes called helicopter emergency egress devices, or HEEDS) we also spent considerable time reviewing the fundamentals of compressed air. We learned how to pre-flight our devices, which held two cubic feet of air compressed to approximately 3,000 psi when full — enough for around 21 breaths, which can make all the difference under water.
After a brief exam, we broke for lunch. The real fun was about to begin.
Practice makes perfect
“Ditching, ditching, ditching.”
That’s something you hear over and over again at SSUSA; it’s your cue to brace yourself, take a deep breath, and close your eyes. If I ever hear those words in a real ditching scenario, my first thought may be, as it was in the pool, “Oh God, here we go again.” Of course, that’s the point — to build proficiency through repetition.
Wearing helmets and flight suits over our swim clothes, we started off easily enough, in the Shallow Water Egress Trainer (SWET). SSUSA’s SWET is a seat suspended within a hollow metal frame; on either side of the seat, clear plastic panels simulate push-out window exits. Floats attached to the frame keep your butt at the surface of the water when seated. As the name implies, the SWET is used at the shallow end of the pool, supported by two instructors who stand in front of and behind the student.
As I strapped into the SWET’s four-point harness for the first time, the instructor facing me carefully reviewed the egress procedures I had learned in the classroom. Then I crossed my arms over my chest, grabbed my harness high on my shoulders, tucked my head down in the brace position, and took a deep breath. “Ditching, ditching, ditching.” Over I went.
I’ve never been a fan of getting water in my nose, but I quickly realized there are more important things to worry about when you’re strapped into a seat under water. Happily, the egress procedures I was taught worked like a charm. Reference. Locate exit. Jettison. Hold the exit with one hand. Undo the seatbelt with the other, taking an extra moment to ensure it releases. Egress. Before I knew it, I was standing up in the water, free and clear. That wasn’t so bad!
We each did another run in the SWET, this time wearing blackout goggles and egressing through the other side. Then it was on to the deep end of the pool and the METS — which was considerably more intimidating.
Our class divided into groups of four for the METS runs, and as the only pilot in my group, I headed straight for the cockpit. I won’t deny feeling some trepidation as we lifted out of the water and I strapped into my harness, a five-point one this time. We would be taking this introductory run in stages, first descending to just above the surface of the water to pre-jettison our exits. (Having never actually jettisoned an aircraft door before, I found the experience surprisingly satisfying.)
Then came the “Ditching, ditching, ditching.” As the massive, 6,500-pound (2,950-kilogram) METS descended and rolled over in the water, I finally understood what our instructors had meant by the “violent motion” of water rushing into a submerging aircraft. I gripped the cyclic and collective tightly and waited for the motion to stop. Then it was the same basic steps I had followed in the SWET, minus jettisoning the exit. Long before I had to worry about running out of air, I was sputtering on the surface, paddling my way to the side of the pool. That wasn’t so bad, either!
We did a couple more runs in the METS, in darkness and with full environmental effects. We did an egress that required us to jettison our emergency exit under water, and one that required us to move to the opposite side of the cabin (or in my case the cockpit, using the glare shield on the instrument panel as a reference). I learned that it really is possible to become completely disoriented under water, and that, just as I had been taught, having reference points will get you right again.
I wouldn’t say that these METS runs were fun, but I found them incredibly empowering. Yes, it is possible to escape from a submerged aircraft, and yes, I had actually done it! I was so enthusiastic, in fact, that when one of my classmates had to repeat some METS runs for proficiency I asked if I could do them again, too (I could not, due to liability reasons). As it turned out, I needn’t have worried — I would be getting my own repeat runs soon enough.
Let’s try that again
Once our initial METS runs were complete, it was on to the EBDs. We took a crawl, walk, run approach to these, too. First we learned how to use the regulators on the surface of the water. Then we practiced clearing and using them under water, but with our heads upright — no problem.
Then, as one instructor held our feet at the edge of the pool, we leaned back against the wall of the pool until we were upside down. Now we had to clear the regulator and begin breathing from it with our sinuses full of water, which wasn’t fun at all. It took me a few full-body sit-ups to get the hang of this.
From there, we took our EBDs into the SWET chair. Now, when we turned upside-down, we first had to extract the regulator from a dust cover on our vests, fully extend the hose, clear the regulator, and begin breathing from the EBD under water before we completed the egress procedure.
My first run at this went fine. My second, with the blackout goggles on, not so much. Although I managed to deploy the EBD, I didn’t fully release the four-point harness, and I got hung up in it when I tried to egress. I repeated the process; I got hung up again.
Back in the SWET chair. This time, I got so frustrated that I released my hold on the exit frame and used both hands to undo the harness. That did the trick, but I realized immediately that I had made a serious error — letting go of a reference point could be a fatal mistake in a real-life scenario. Back in the SWET chair.
I eventually completed a successful egress, but it took me the rest of the night to get the water out of my ears. I had learned an important lesson: even a conventional quick-release harness can be extremely difficult to get out of under water.
We would see the EBDs again on the second day of the course, but not until the end of the program. Day 2, led by instructor Dan McInnis, was largely focused on overwater survival: how to use life vests and life rafts, how to move through the water as a group, and what to expect during a hoist rescue.
Once again, we started with a few hours of ground school, had a break for lunch, then moved into the pool. We jumped off a high dive to practice exiting a helicopter from the hover, then deployed our emergency life vests (another first for me). We practiced curling into individual trash bags to preserve body heat, and then linking up with our classmates into a “carpet” formation. In a chain formation, the eight of us awkwardly paddled around the pool.
We took turns individually righting a capsized life raft and hoisting ourselves into it, then helping each other into the life raft as a group. With the environmental effects full on, we battened down the hatches and gained some appreciation for what it might be like to spend hours adrift at sea with seven close friends or strangers. Finally, once again with the wind and rain going full blast, each of us swam to a lowered strop and was hoisted a short distance out of the water, simulating a helicopter rescue.
Bringing it all together
For the most part, this overwater survival training was uncomplicated and fun. And thanks to our life vests, our heads stayed above water the entire time! Of course, this was too good to last — it was soon time for more egress practice with the EBDs.
We started by repeating two EBD-aided egresses in the SWET chairs. Then it was on to the METS, where we would complete three egresses: one requiring us to jettison and escape through the exit next to us, followed by two cross-cabin egresses, in darkness and with full environmental effects.
I have no previous diving experience, and despite my repeated dunkings the night before, I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the EBDs. So my anxiety was high as I heard “Ditching, ditching, ditching” and we rolled into the water. I waited for the violent motion to stop. I pulled out the regulator and hose and inserted the mouthpiece. And then the thing I feared most happened: as I attempted to clear the regulator, I inhaled water.
That was it for me — I wasn’t going to keep messing around with the EBD. I jettisoned the door. The instructor who was watching me said that I only released one strap of my harness, yet I still managed to wriggle out of it and through the exit, faster than they could come to my assistance. As I broke the surface of the water, a diver was by my side immediately to make sure I was safe.
The experience was frightening, but also liberating. My worst-case scenario had happened, and I was still OK. Once I had coughed my way to normal breathing, I stayed in the shallow end and practiced clearing the regulator until the bottle was exhausted. Then I grabbed a fresh bottle, pre-flighted it obsessively, and prepared for round 2.
This time, everything happened the way it was supposed to. I cleared my regulator and began breathing under water without difficulty — a miraculous feeling. I heard my breathing become fast and shallow as I began to fumble with the buckle on my harness; I forced myself to slow down and release the harness completely. I found the glare shield on the instrument panel and used it to walk my way across the cockpit. Using the edge of the panel as a reference point, I found the exit and pulled myself out.
Everything went just as smoothly on the third and final METS run, when I had the added step of jettisoning the opposite-side door. I broke the surface of the water marveling at everything I had just accomplished.
I was justified in feeling proud of myself. But the remarkable thing about SSUSA’s training is that it will bring almost anyone to the same level — even if you start out claustrophobic, apprehensive of the water or, like me, overly protective of your sinuses.
Having finally completed this training, now I can’t believe I put it off for so long. If you’ve also been delaying egress training, do yourself a favor and move it to the top of your priority list, too.