It’s dark inside the half-submerged structure as my classmates and I follow instructors Ben Rayner and Shane Lucas into the gloom to pick our seats in this simulated UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter cabin. We’re wearing flightsuits, helmets, vests, and pool shoes.
We’ve been advised that the underwater-escape problems will ratchet up in difficulty, to the point where we’ll be flipped upside down, in darkness, and dealing with obstacles on the way out, but Rayner has also assured us that nobody’s going to drown during this helicopter underwater-egress training.
Survival Systems USA offers several such courses at its headquarters building alongside the airport at Groton, Connecticut. The one-day course teaches the basics of escape from a flooded aircraft cabin on “breath-hold,” meaning without the help of emergency breathing gear. It’s chiefly for civilians who fly over water in small aircraft, such as business jets, floatplanes, air taxis, or air-ambulance helicopters.
I’m taking the two-day course, called Dunker Training. It’s designed for crews who train to military or law-enforcement standards. It adds two main topics to the short course: how to survive once out of the aircraft, and how to use a mini-SCUBA set that fits in a vest. The pressurized breathing gear poses some risk of injury or death—even to students in class—but offers valuable time when escape proves difficult. And underwater escape is a field where small margins, plus a powerful will to see one’s family again, make all the difference.
Along with Rayner and Lucas on the inside of the cabin, two SCUBA divers will be on the outside, watching our group of four students for signs of distress. Lucas and Rayner can release seat-belt straps in a hurry, and can signal the crane operator to haul the cabin out of the water. If the crane’s power supply were to fail at that instant, the crane has an emergency pneumatic air supply. But it’s not a free pass: If an instructor has to intervene, say by dragging us to the surface, we’ll have to rinse and repeat before moving to the next challenge. Unlike some underwater egress training schools, Survival Systems instructors don’t offer students any time-out signal to wave for help during the runs. I’m told that since real crashes don’t offer time-outs, depending on them is a bad habit to acquire during training.
Earlier, Rayner told us to pay attention to whoever is shouting the loudest, and he meets that test easily. Compact, energetic, with short gray hair, he’s an experienced diver and reminds our class that when navigating around the cabin, we should rely on hands and memory, not eyesight. A real crash could happen at night, or the cabin could be murky with floating debris, or leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid could blind us. Emergency lights are no guarantee of clear vision either: Those, along with a curtain of bubbles from the sinking aircraft, can obscure the exits. “So it’s best if you keep your eyes closed underwater,” Rayner says. “If they’re open, you just get bad data.”
It’s time to make a seating selection; each student gets an entire row of seats to himself, unlike any other setting in modern aviation. The Black Hawk layout offers three rows of seats, and I select the row behind the flight deck, taking a side-gunner’s chair.
The empty seats are an anti-panic measure, one of many lessons from a half-century of underwater-escape training (the Royal Navy began tormenting air crews with the training in 1962; the U.S. Navy, 10 years later). In the early years, some exercises filled the cabin with students. That was highly realistic but also dangerous because anxious students piled up at the exits. Another safety upgrade: After a few deaths in the early years, schools now screen students for any ailments that might be aggravated by near-drowning experiences.
At least a quarter-million people have passed through helicopter escape schools worldwide, mostly as part of offshore-oil employment. The degree of realism (and stress level) varies from school to school, as does the equipment. Why the focus on rotorcraft? Helicopters fly lower and slower than airliners, so when they hit the water, their cabins are usually intact enough to trap people inside. And because the heavy machinery (engines, transmission, and main rotor) is up high, helicopters tend to roll over quickly.
Over five decades, dozens of military and oil field transports have crashed in the water with passengers, and of the deaths that resulted, drowning has been a common cause. In one eight-year span, two big transport helicopters crashed into English waters, killing 74.
Helicopter-escape lessons are relevant for anybody at risk of being trapped in a vehicle that tumbles into the drink and floods quickly, whether that’s a pontoon-equipped airplane or a military vehicle operating close to canals in the Middle East. Singer Jimmy Buffett was piloting a floatplane off Nantucket Island in 1994 when it hit a wave and flipped. He attributes his survival to underwater-escape training he’d taken at a Navy base.
Survival Systems’ dunker course ranks as one of the most realistic anywhere. While some offshore workers might say a better description is “one of the scariest,” the training has its selling points. Where else can a civilian train to the same standards as SEAL teams, Night Stalker crews, and Army Rangers? To train alongside combat troops, FBI agents, and even rock stars? David Lee Roth can be seen in one snapshot along a hallway of graduates. Roth trained here as a New York City paramedic while taking a pause from his career as front-man for Van Halen.
“The course gives confidence and skills to respond to horrific circumstances,” says Chris Judah, executive director at Survival Systems, as we talk in the front offices beforehand. “We want to avoid chaotic responses. Two or three seconds of panic can kill, but one or two seconds of thinking can save you.”
Quelling panic requires realistic training beforehand, adds Maria C. Hanna, president and CEO of the employee-owned company. “We make the simulation as real as possible without actually taking an aircraft out and ditching it. We can add an auxiliary fuel tank in the cabin—all kinds of obstacles.” Obstacles, darkness, and disorientation are part of the real world, she says: “You can’t assume you’ll always be seated next to an emergency exit.” To add to the realism, instructors can simulate different makes and models of aircraft by picking different cabin sizes, interior equipment, exits, and doors.
While the Navy, Air Force, and Army aviation house their own schools for underwater-escape training, the core classes there are the same as we’ll encounter at Groton, and this company provides all of the instructors for the Army underwater-escape training centers. A Canadian sister company of Survival Systems provides all of the equipment.
The company cites a graduation rate of 98 percent, and among those graduates are people who can’t swim and even some who arrive with an acute fear of open water. Hanna says the school builds skill and confidence—and holds panic at bay—with a crawl-walk-run approach.
That’s why on the first day our pool time starts not with entrapment in the simulated helicopter cabin, which can trigger claustrophobia, but by climbing into a floating metal framework holding a seat and harness. It’s called the SWET chair, short for Shallow Water Egress Trainer. Each of us is to be flipped head-down in the water by a pair of instructors so we can demonstrate Escapology 101: identifying our exit path, pushing out a panel, grasping the exit pathway with one hand while opening the buckle of the seat harness with the other, and pulling ourselves free.