Repeatedly we’re warned during class and pool sessions that, however scary we might regard the exercises, a real crash is likely to be harsher: objects flying through the air, ice-cold water blasting as if from a fire hose, exits barely wide enough to squeeze through, shock-absorbing seats that collapse and trap one’s feet, and a cabin with more passengers than exits. An unpleasant surprise: According to Survival Systems, more than half of aircraft crashes happen with little or no warning to the passengers. After surviving the high-speed water impact of a Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk that hit a power line off the Washington coast in 2010, Lieutenant Lance Leone recalled that “we were flying, everything was fine, and then it blew apart.”
As the second day of class winds up, instructor Dan McInnis reminds us for the umpteenth time that since we’ll be using an emergency SCUBA set called an Emergency Breathing Device, or EBD, there will be some extra rules stacked onto the afternoon’s work.
EBD is now standard for users of military and many public-safety helicopters. An EBD bottle fully charged with air offers more than a minute of underwater survival time, even several minutes. How much time depends greatly on one’s ability to take slow breaths. We’ve listened to an interview with a Royal Navy pilot who had to deal with a jammed window and entanglement on the way out of his helicopter: The EBD bottle gave him sufficient time to work things out, but had he panicked, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Before going into confined spaces with an EBD, there’s a mini-ordeal called “The Wall,” in which instructors hold us upside down against the side of the pool, while we pull the bottle and attached hose from our vests, clear the mouthpiece of water, and breathe. It’s a major selling point of the EBD that the user can be trapped underwater before he starts it up. Another device, a “re-breather” bag to scrub carbon dioxide from the user’s own breath, can’t be started while underwater. Nor does the re-breather offer as much survival time as an EBD set. And time is critical when evacuating a Super Puma underwater; one set of tests showed that even under good conditions a fully loaded aircraft took 90 seconds to clear when underwater; no passengers are going to hold their breath nearly that long in cold water.
An EBD improves escape chances near the surface, but it can be dangerous—even fatal—to users who forget to exhale on the way up. One of those risks is air embolism—air bubbles that go to the brain. Even a short dive going no deeper than 10 feet can leave the non-exhaler with stroke-like injuries.
So instructors constantly remind us to exhale on the way up, and they arrange exercises so that no student need go any deeper than four feet. But the pool is 14 feet deep, so mistakes are possible.
The pool’s depth and size once attracted a video crew, which hired the facility and its expertise to create an “underwater nightclub” set to promote its watches. Diver Fred Ward tells me that Survival Systems has gotten a range of entertainment-related requests, from hosting TV reality shows to engineering amusement park rides. I find the cabin dunker too stressful and risky for an amusement-park ride, though as the afternoon goes on, the challenges become slightly more fun than fearful.
One aspect of the second day’s training could qualify as an amusement park attraction, in terms of movie-style vividness. Instructors turn off the lights and simulate a helicopter rescue, using the crane to drop a “horse collar” rescue strop on a cable, as a helicopter’s winch would do. A cyclone-strength blast of air from above, along with full-bore rotor noise via loudspeakers, simulates what it feels like to have a Coast Guard helicopter looming overhead, turning night to day with a searchlight, kicking up chop, and blasting spray into our eyes. Each of us swim to a floating strop, roll into it, attach the free end to a hook, and get hoisted up. Normally a rescue swimmer would be on hand to assist, but as with all other drills here, the goal is to participate in one’s own rescue, rather than waiting helplessly for outside help.
How does this training play out in the real world, with actual and chaotic hazards? While it’s impossible to nail down an exact figure, underwater escape training is likely to double or even triple the odds of getting out from a ditching or a “survivable” crash, meaning a mishap that leaves the occupants alive but stuck inside a flooding cabin. And survival will also depend on having the right equipment, such as the insulated suits that North Sea passengers wear to cope with cold-water immersion.
Patrik Nilsson, a Swedish rescue swimmer, credits escape training as one reason he and his four fellow crew members survived when their helicopter crashed into the waters off of Sweden in September 2004. And it was a close thing: When the aircraft hit the water and flipped, the men in back had no warning. It was night, and two of them were out of their seat belts at the time, preparing to pick up a cardiac patient from an island nearby. One of those was Nilsson; he oriented himself underwater, helped a crew member, and got out without using his EBD bottle.
“[Underwater escape] training is important not only for yourself,” Nilsson says in an email. “You may need to help a colleague. You should certainly not be a burden to other crew.”
In the final gathering, as we received our dunker diplomas, Hugh Teel, sales manager for Survival Systems, summarized the training this way: “When you go home, now you’ve got a fighting chance. It’s not a guarantee, but a fighting chance.”
And one more thing: Now we know what it’s like to slip the surly bonds of a sinking aircraft, then float freely upward, and breathe in open air. It’s a marvelous feeling.