Unfortunately, most inadvertent water landings do not result in the same successful ditching as Capt. Sullenberger’s US Airways jet in the East River. How many of those passengers had ever gone down in the water prior to that cold day? They were lucky to survive.
I attended a water survival training course hosted by John McMillan, president of McMillan Offshore Survival Training, headquartered in Belfast, Maine. John is also the U.S. representative to the International Association for Safety and Survival Training. He invited me to sit through a Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET) session held in Houston, Texas. I took this same course 30 years ago and can say that the single most improved part of the training was the use of a training device called a "dunker."
This particular one is made of welded aluminum tubular stock and is large enough to accommodate four adults in an opposed two-seat configuration. All seats have the standard seat belts installed and for aircrew training, there are shoulder harness configurations. Its purpose is to simulate a rollover and an escape from a submerged helicopter. Not overly sophisticated, but certainly adequate. In my day we used a lawn chair and a broomstick as a simulator.
Courses are offered for passengers and helicopter crews and they use a different syllabus for each. For pilots, emphasis is placed on communicating with passengers and assuming the leadership role once they are in the water and awaiting rescue. But this particular class was for passengers.
Four hours of classroom training covered do’s and don’ts around the helicopter, paying attention to the pilot briefing, circumstances of controlled ditching, semi-controlled ditching and uncontrolled ditching. The actual HUET training covered the major problems you could expect to encounter, such as in-rushing water, disorientation, impact injury, buoyancy issues, entanglement, jammed or blocked exits, confusion, panic, lack of vision, breath-holding limitations and poor or incorrect reference points. There was detailed instruction on how to use the water survival equipment aboard the aircraft, such as life rafts, first aid kits, dye markers, signaling devices such as flares and mirrors, even fishing lures and hooks.
The afternoon hours were used for hands-on training in an Olympic-size pool. All the trainees were required to don coveralls similar to what is worn by work crews on the offshore rigs and enter the water to learn and practice survival skills.
Of the 18 students in the class, three stated they could not swim. Never the less, they were put into the dunker when it came their turn, and they performed the escape procedures as well as the swimmers. This involved strapping into a seat, using the training cues given them, being rolled upside down in the swimming pool, releasing their seat belts, finding the exit, releasing the escape door and swimming clear of the simulated aircraft. Being non-swimmers, I can only imagine their sense of confidence after that accomplishment.
There are several training schools and organizations that teach this survival training around the Gulf of Mexico, many centered in Lafayette, La. Surprisingly, there are no FAA regulatory requirements for aircrew survival training, even though almost all of the operators provide it to their pilots.
On the other hand, the oil producers who operate in the Gulf make it mandatory for their contract pilots and employees who work offshore to undergo the training on a regular basis, that is, initial training and then refresher training every three years or so. It was not always so. Shell Oil took the initiative some years ago to make this training mandatory after reviewing accident profiles covering a number of offshore accidents wherein it was discovered that several of them could have had a better survivability rate had the personnel been trained in egress from a sunken aircraft.
As I related earlier, McMillan has a dunking device that is adequate for smaller helicopters, but it is a long way from state of the art manufactured systems such as the Modular Egress Training Simulator. This unit meets the requirements for the larger passenger helicopters of 10 seats plus, however, it comes with a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At least two of the survival training companies in Lafayette have them.
It is an all day course with many lectures, training aids and at least four to five hours of swimming pool time. The benefits? Greatly increased odds of your survival in an aircraft/water confrontation.