Public Service, Services, Training

Getting Wet: Water Egress Training

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | July 1, 2011
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Water egress training is not just about escaping the aircraft, but about all aspects of surviving a water emergency. Familiarizing one’s self with treading water while wearing a helmet, flight suit and boots is an essential part of any training scenario.

The first time I ever flew over a large body of water as pilot-in-command was in a single-engine Robinson R22. I had a whopping 120 hours in my logbook, and my buddy Steve Grimes, who was also a pilot, riding shotgun. Just by looking at the distance from shore to shore, I calculated that at its narrowest point along our route, an engine failure midway across the bay would have put us in the drink. And of course, it was right at that midway point where Steve sniffed the air and said, “Do you smell something burning?”

Yeah, that was just Steve being a wise guy, but it reminded me of how precarious the situation is when you’re flying over water in a machine that will act like a submarine shortly after hitting the surface.


With the recent spate of storms that have caused rivers in North America to swell to record levels, many helicopter pilots—whether engaged in rescue efforts or not—have been finding themselves over large rivers and lakes with little or no training in how to deal with an emergency landing in water.

What can you expect once your aircraft contacts the water? Is water egress training necessary for escaping from a downed aircraft? What does water egress training consist of?

I put those questions and more to two experts who provide helicopter underwater egress training (HUET) to pilots around the globe.

Bill Thompson spent 20 years serving with the U.S. Coast Guard as an aviation survival technician and rescue swimmer. He later rose to the position of lead water survival and aircraft egress instructor at the Aircrew Training Division in Clearwater, Fla., the largest of all 28 USCG air stations. Thompson now heads up operations safety training at The Squadron, a Florida-based consulting firm that specializes in aviation operations.

Rotor & Wing: Why is HUET training so important, especially for helicopter crews?

Thompson: Once a helicopter ends up in the water—even in a controlled ditching—it will immediately roll upside down as it settles into the water. When it does, a massive torrent of water enters the fuselage through any and all openings, regardless of size. The occupants find themselves underwater, upside down, disoriented, and still strapped in their seats.

Rotor & Wing: What are some of the common mistakes made by untrained helicopter crewmembers in a water emergency?

Thompson: Some, in an attempt to egress before going under water, may release their seatbelt too early, and try to escape the aircraft while water is still rushing in. Others may become entangled in debris, wiring, or an [intercom] cord. As they attempt to free themselves, they panic due to lack of air, and consequently drown.

Rotor & Wing: What can a person do to prevent being overcome by panic?

Thompson: Train, train, train!

Jim Dinges is a former U.S. Marine specially trained in amphibious warfare. Upon leaving the Marine Corps, he became a line pilot with a state police aviation operation. He later became the department’s lead water egress instructor and safety pilot. Dinges is now the owner of Water Egress Training Systems (WETS) in Denton, Md., a provider of water survival and egress training, and builder of shallow water egress impact trainers, also known as a “SWETs.” Dinges is also the water egress instructor at the annual conferences held by the Association of Air Medical Services.

Rotor & Wing: What should water egress training include?

Groton, Conn.-based Survival Systems uses this dunker to simulate a variety of water egress situations—from being fully submerged and inverted, upright and afloat, and anything between. Its size allows crewmembers to practice hunting for alternative exits throughout a large cabin area. Survival Systems

Dinges: The training should include about two hours of classroom instruction, which consists of discussions on what makes us vulnerable to having to ditch, how to prepare to go into the water, and the specific steps to take once in the water. There should also be at least four hours of practical training in a pool using some sort of “dunker”—a device used to simulate an aircraft hull—where students put on full flight gear and experience being seat-belted in the device, impacted into the water, and end up fully submerged and inverted. Then, with safety personnel close by, train the student how to calmly orient themselves, release any restraints, exit the aircraft, and make their way to the surface. If the students have personal survival gear, such as floatation vests and [air] bottles, they should be taught when and how to employ them.

Rotor & Wing: Does a crewmember have to be able to swim in order to take the training or survive a water crash?

Dinges: No, I have worked with individuals that are non-swimmers, or have a fear of water. Given the time and the effort from the individual, I have been able to expand their confidence and comfort level when put into a water egress training scenario. Obviously, crewmembers with swimming abilities, or who have water experience, will probably have a better chance of surviving. That being said, non-swimmers who survive the impact/ditching, and are wearing a personal floatation device, can use proper egress techniques and have a good chance.

‘Impact’ Dunker

In spite of my total dislike for deep water, and a near-paralyzing fear of being strapped to something that has been tossed into a pool, I participated in a HUET exercise taught by Dinges for a group of EMS pilots and paramedics. For that recurrent training evolution, Dinges used one of his SWET (shallow water egress trainers), which simulates a two-person cockpit, complete with four-point seatbelts. Participants wore helmets, flight suits, boots and PFDs.

The simplest form of water egress training can be done with a homemade frame, a seat and a seatbelt. Here, a pilot prepares to be rolled inverted to practice a shallow water egress technique. Only spare helmets with all electronics removed should be used.

The training I participated in began with a refresher on how to handle a ditching. Step one is to keep your orientation at all times after impact, which is usually done by holding onto a boarding assist strap, or anything else near the exit. Step two is to release the seatbelt and intercom cord with the hand that is not holding onto the reference point. Step three is to exit the aircraft. Step four is to expel some bubbles, and follow them to the surface. And if you are wearing a PFD, the idea is to wait until you are clear of the aircraft before inflating it. This increases your chances of fitting through the door, and decreases the odds of snagging it on jagged or displaced parts of the wreckage.

Next, it was time to go down to the swimming pool to get wet. Dressed in full flight gear, I was belted into the “impact” SWET dunker, given some safety instructions, reminded of the steps, and told to give the “thumbs up” when ready.

After signaling that I was all set, Dinges’ crew flipped the device from the edge of the pool into the water, which resulted in a fairly good jolt (hence the name “impact” dunker), and leaving me upside down in about four feet of water. Three safety people were already in the pool, and ready to pull me, a notorious non-swimmer, out if I got into trouble. (No offense to them, but it did little for my comfort level.)

Any kind of water egress training should include practicing with issued equipment.  This pilot knows to conduct an inspection of his personal floatation device before and after each use.

Seconds felt like minutes while I was submerged and hanging upside down in the harness. But by remaining calm and following the steps I had learned in class, I was actually able to get out with no problem.

In a suburb of Washington, D.C., members of the Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Department do recurrent training in a homemade dunker they built themselves. Made of PVC pipe and equipped with a seat and seatbelts, it is supported by two officers, who will manually roll their co-worker upside down, and double as safety officers. And although it isn’t as sophisticated as most, it was certainly better than nothing. They also practiced using their PFDs, and conducted buddy rescue drills, too.

Of course, a real-world ditching will be more chaotic. Impacting the water will be more traumatic, you may be injured, the water may be too murky to see through, and the aircraft may be so deformed, doors won’t open and razor-edged sheets of metal may try to cut you to shreds. But I can honestly say that my comfort level with water crossings increased a bit, and confidence in my PFDs rose dramatically after receiving some water egress training. But whether the training comes from military service, in-house instruction, or an outside contractor, learning how to get out of a submerged helicopter is a must if you fly anywhere near water.

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