How to Survive A Helicopter Crash

Specialized—and terrifying—training helps passengers prepare for the worst.

A student practices a sling lift in the darkened pool at Survival Systems USA in Groton, Connecticut. Passengers who take an underwater escape training class—even for a day—can as much as triple their odds of surviving a helicopter crash. (Sean D. Elliot)
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When it’s my turn I climb into the open framework, and realize that this won’t be easy when even fastening my seat belt proves a challenge: It’s military style, with seat and shoulder straps that meet in a buckle with a rotating release. The four-point harness provides better protection in a crash than a car’s recoil belt.

Instructors provide no nose clips and I need both hands to escape, so as soon as I’m flipped over water rushes into my nose. For some people that feels a lot like drowning or being water-boarded, so instructors watch for signs of panic underwater: hands motioning jerkily, or eyes wide open in a look of horror. Panic following a helicopter crash can cause passengers to release their seat belts too early, leading them to float free and lose track of where the exits are. Or panic can block people from acting at all: “freezing in place,” the instructors call it. (Explaining the no-nose-clip policy, marketing director Hugh Teel says: “You wouldn’t be able to find nose clips in a crash, so you’d better not rely on them.”)

After a few runs in the SWET chair, it’s time for the helicopter cabin, which Survival Systems calls the METS (Modular Egress Training System). It’s a setting sure to dial up the fear factor. We’re to carry out each run on breath-hold only; work with emergency compressed-air tanks will come tomorrow. Barring mishap, no run should take longer than 20 seconds. Even though this is well within the average person’s breath-holding ability, Rayner reminds us to waste no time: “As soon as the violent motion stops, sit up immediately, locate your exit, and get moving. You’re not doing crossword puzzles down there!”

Rayner says that the UH-60 Black Hawk doesn’t float. Within seconds of impact the helicopter will be upside down, flooded, and heading for the bottom, sinking at a rate of nine to 13 feet per second. And that’s relevant today because five of the students in my class fly Black Hawks for the Delaware National Guard.

Also in our class of eight are two pilots for a federal civilian agency, who ask not to be identified. One of those I’ll call Tom. Tom has loads of experience in fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Currently he lives abroad. Tom’s father flew helicopters for the Marines in Vietnam. Tom is a colonel in the Marine Reserves; this is a refresher course for him, and he’s showing no signs of stress.

But I am, and as the first escape run in the cabin is about to begin, I appreciate the fact that Rayner and Lucas will be inside and watching our backs. They move through the cabin, checking our seat belts and brace positions. Lucas asks me to show my “reference point,” a method in which you rely on a body part like a knee or hip to serve as a landmark to find a nearby exit handle.

Satisfied that we’re as ready as we’ll ever be, Rayner calls to an operator at a control board. The fun begins with a distress call over the loudspeakers, then the word “Ditching” repeated three times. That’s our signal to take one last breath before the dunker plunges into the water and rolls over, leaving us upside-down and underwater in our seats. There’s an instant of panic—an urge to fight for air and grab onto something—but the water calms and the training kicks in.

The first run is a simple confidence builder, with all exits open: I use one hand to locate the frame of the gunner’s exit window, then use the other hand to release the seat belt, and leave hand over hand. The next run starts with that exit closed, so I have to push it out on the way.

Now it’s time for cross-cabin runs, simulating the possibility that the closest exit window could be jammed by the crash and we’d have to find another. I’m to abandon the exit by my seat, unbuckle, cross to the opposite side of the cabin, and find another exit, which will be open. Shane Lucas is on hand to tell me how to move crabwise, sliding from seat to seat, feet on the deck, never letting go of all reference points.

Next time, the cross-cabin exit is closed, so I have to open it. And that’s not enough for Lucas, who shifts me to a new row with more complicated exit mechanisms. And so it goes: One time, I find myself groping desperately for an exit handle, wondering how long I can stay down here, until I remember that it was diabolically (and realistically) tucked into a pocket in the door. That experience leaves me with small but vivid bruises on thumbs and fingers: Now I understand Rayner’s stories about hand injuries in reports of drowning deaths in confined spaces.

A student who finds the training too similar to drowning can ask for one-on-one instruction off to the side, or can take a rain check and come back later. And one student in our group takes that option; he’ll return another day. But there are no exemptions for anxiety; the escape certificate requires completion of all runs, and many employers and military branches won’t let people fly on water-crossing helicopters without the certificate.
Ever since a crash off the deck of a Royal Navy carrier in 1958 drowned a squadron commander and brought the underwater-escape problem to official attention, experience has shown that training increases the odds of survival. Consider the flight of a Super Puma helicopter over the North Sea on the afternoon of August 23, 2013. The Super Puma is a large transport commonly used to move workers between oil rigs and the shore, and on this day it was carrying 16 of them from the Borgsten Dolphin platform to an airport at Sumburgh, Scotland. Just two miles from the runway, the helicopter started behaving erratically and slammed into the ocean. In seconds the aircraft flooded with frigid water and turned upside down.

Three passengers drowned inside the cabin, and a fourth was found dead outside. It was the 25th offshore helicopter mishap in the United Kingdom since 1992, and the fifth in the last five years. In arguing for stricter safety standards—some of which will take effect in the coming year—an official from the pilots’ union told reporters: “We believe something is wrong in the North Sea.”

Or perhaps in all seven seas, now that so many nations are developing offshore oil fields far over the horizon, and depending greatly on helicopters to move them around. While the risk may seem small to a statistician—about two fatal crashes per 100,000 flight hours—it’s much higher than the risk to airline passengers, and it falls heavily on a small group of regular users. That group is increasingly wary. A Russian-built Mi-17 filled with oil workers crashed off India in 2003, leaving only three alive. In 2005, a Sikorsky transport crashed off Talinn, Estonia, killing everyone. In 2009, a larger Sikorsky transport ditched in the north Atlantic off Canada, leaving passenger Robert Decker as sole survivor.

Nothing substitutes for safer helicopters, Decker told a Canadian inquiry later: “Safety starts with the helicopter, and I think everything else is secondary.” He attributed his survival chiefly to good luck, good physical condition, and long experience sailing in cold waters.

“We try to take luck out of the equation,” Rayner tells our group. And that means repetition. In one run in the dunker, I lose my bearings, and Lucas reminds me to pause and go back to my reference points. And then if I can’t locate the exit with my free hand, he says, chances are that I’m not using a full-arm sweep. “We see it all the time,” he says. “When students get worried and start reaching around, hunting for an exit handle, they only use a half-gesture.”

On the final run, instructors add rotor noise and hurricane winds from a giant fan machine, and douse the lights for good measure. Other audio effects in the Groton house of horrors include foghorns and gunfire. How are we to know which way is up in total darkness? The answer, in effect, is: “Use your heads!” Our helmets have a plastic foam lining, and their buoyancy will lead us up.

Four hours of class the next morning pass quickly enough, because, so say the instructors, our lives may depend on paying attention. We watch clips of fatal helicopter crashes into bodies of water large and small, even a swimming pool in Venezuela (cause: a firefighting chopper got its tail rotor tangled with a fence and lost control). One clip shows a CH-46 helicopter transport that crashed while approaching a carrier off Point Loma, California, in 1999. It was packed with Marines standing ready to drop by rope, as part of a maritime hostage-rescue exercise. After the helicopter went out of control, rolled over, and sank, seven of the Marines died.

Classes concentrate on how the equipment works, the importance of memorizing the cabin layout before takeoff, and how to handle contingencies that can’t be taught in the pool. (I start making a list of all possible mishaps; it fills five pages.) The overall goal, explained Chris Judah earlier, is that students leave with the ability to think clearly after the crash and work through problems as they arise. For that, more will be required than a “muscle memory” of standard operations, such as how to work the exit handles.

One simple drill that must be memorized is how to brace for helicopter impact. Pulling out a bucket seat with a military-standard four-point harness on the first day of class, Rayner had tightened the straps, then crossed his arms to grip a shoulder-belt in each hand. His arms left a sort of pocket over his chest, which he tucked his head into. “A copter crash slams you back and forth, so that can hurt your back, knees, feet, hands, arms, and neck,” he said. “But with a good brace, you can survive some really tremendous impacts.”

He waggled his thumbs to get our attention; they were pointed up, not locked around the shoulder straps in a classic fist. Only his fingers held the straps. This detail, he said, cuts the risk that a violent impact will dislocate our thumbs, and during escape, working thumbs are likely to be critical. Looking at the four pilots in our group, Rayner reminded them that during a crash, aircraft controls and dashboards cause grievous injuries, so a good brace position is no less important on the flight deck.

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