Helicopter Underwater Escape Training

From the BBC:

Five people were killed when a helicopter crashed into the East River of New York City on Sunday evening, police say.

Divers worked desperately to pull the five passengers from the helicopter but two of them died at the scene while the other three died in hospital.

The pilot managed to free himself and was rescued by a passing tugboat.

At a press conference, New York Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro called it a “great tragedy”.

“We are told the five people were all tied tightly in harnesses that had to be cut and removed,” he said.

There’s a reason why people who fly over water in helicopters for work take the training I describe here:

They do train us to escape from a helicopter that has ditched in the sea and turned turtle, and I wrote about when I did this course shortly after I arrived in Nigeria.  They rig up a simulated helicopter fuselage complete with seats and pop-out windows, you all climb in and take your seats, and then they dunk you in the water.  They do this 6 times, and for the last 3 times they spin the whole apparatus upside down, and you’re expected to unbuckle yourself and get out.  It’s a lot easier than it sounds, once you remember that the window on your right-hand side is still on your right-hand side even when you’ve been tipped upside down.

The training only makes a difference if the helicopter goes into the water in a reasonably controlled manner – if the rotors shear off and it drops like an anvil, forget it – but in this crash in New York the pilot managed to get out. This is almost certainly because he had the training and experience to know what to do, whereas the passengers had none. If they’d been trained, chances are they’d have got out. You’d still not fancy your chances, but there are numerous accounts of people escaping from a ditched helicopter thanks to their training and the statistics show the training is worthwhile. If I were a businessman who regularly flew helicopters around New York, I’d splash out the few hundred bucks for the course and make sure I sat beside the window.

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12 thoughts on “Helicopter Underwater Escape Training

  1. The only time I did dunk tank training it finished with a simulation of one of the detachable windows being jammed and the occupants of two rows of seats having to leave through one window. Sod’s Law dictated I was sat in the position next to the US window and hence would be the last out of the cab. The chap sat next to me had only been meant to drive out pay there but had been… persuaded to take part by the Chief running the training to fill up all the seats. As I was sat there, upside down I low light, awaiting my turn to get the hell out I became aware of my neighbour fighting with the safety divers in a panic. I don’t know how long it took them to pull him away – subjective time sort of dilated – but I am pretty sure I never before or since moved so quickly underwater as I did one they had.

  2. As I was sat there, upside down I low light, awaiting my turn to get the hell out I became aware of my neighbour fighting with the safety divers in a panic.

    Eek!

  3. Some people react naturally well to an emergency. Some can be trained. But a few will not learn and no matter what continue to present a danger to themselves and others.

  4. I guess doing the training in Nigeria is a lot easier, though. The windows pop out more easily because the bolts have been stolen.

  5. As I was sat there, upside down I low light, awaiting my turn to get the hell out I became aware of my neighbour fighting with the safety divers in a panic.

    My only real phobia is being in enclosed spaces underwater. Enclosed spaces OK. Underwater OK. Combine the two and I’m not a happy boy. Suffice to say that cave diving is not on my bucket list At All.

    But I’m sure that if I did this kind of training I could control it long enough to get through it, particularly since it’s the sort of thing that could definitely save your life later.

    I believe this used to be termed “manning up”.

  6. Having done the training too, I was led to believe that its benefit is largely psychological, in that it gives you 10 seconds of time where you are unlikely to panic because you’ve experienced it before with a certain amount of anxiety, and survived. It also begins to place an automatic response in muscle memory whereby you brace, locate your buckle, and orientate toward the direction of escape very quickly on the key points of a helicopter crash – I.e knowing it’s about to happen, then upon hitting water. This allows you to make the absolute most of your useful conscious time on being able to get out.

    I’ve wondered if it is actually any use beyond this- I’m unsure as to whether windows “pop out” in real helicopters. They’re not going to be hugely sturdy, but neither are they going to be the pringle-lids that are on these simulators.

    Passengers also have very little clue about how open aircraft doors because unsurprisingly, very few get to do it. Airlines do evac drills with volunteers to train their crews. Not done one but it’s on my bucket list as I’ve heard from those who have how beneficial it is.

  7. Once did something remarkably stupid. (Well OK. More than once. Lot more than once. Having a french wife for a start.) Pissing around in the sea at sandbanks, Poole. Swam under a boat. Problem being that boats moored in shallow water over soft sand get a hollow develops under them. I get under the boat, a passing wake & the boat sits down into the hollow. Doesn’t touch bottom so no problem with crushing. Just couldn’t swim out. Had to wait until it stopped bobbing up & down. Seemed an interminable wait on a lungful of air.

  8. Once did something remarkably stupid. Pissing around in the sea at sandbanks, Poole. Swam under a boat.

    Remarkably stupid, indeed.

  9. I’ve wondered if it is actually any use beyond this- I’m unsure as to whether windows “pop out” in real helicopters. They’re not going to be hugely sturdy, but neither are they going to be the pringle-lids that are on these simulators.

    When I did by BOSIET in Nigeria I had to give the window a right good shove, using both hands. In theory, I was supposed to do it with one hand while holding onto my buckle with the other. If I’d done that, I’d still be down there.

  10. “But a few will not learn and no matter what continue to present a danger to themselves and others.” Another argument for concealed carry.

  11. In reality, (for aircraft that air fitted out in this way) you have to locate a press stud fabric tab in The corner of the window, pull that to remove the seal and then beat your way out of it. Life jackets being used now have at least got the air pocket system that allows you about a minutes worth of re breathed air (if you remember how to use it correctly) and the latest types being widely rolled out even have an air cylinder – provided you’ve not been disembowelled by a bit of shattered rotor or kicked unconscious by the panicking guy next to you it’ll all be fine!*

    *ish

  12. if you remember how to use it correctly

    I seem to remember spending twice as much time trying to figure that thing out, and getting a lungful of water in the process, as I did sauntering out of the window and idling my way to the surface.

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