Ditching training pays off

 - October 8, 2007, 10:39 AM

“One last thing. Delay taking your breath until the water reaches your waist, then follow the procedure the way we briefed,” said Survival Systems training coordinator Bobbi Lytle as we hung by a cable above the water in a big, blue “pretend” aircraft. I was strapped in the front seat with a four-point harness. At the command, “Ditching! Ditching! Ditching!” from training manager Tom Lazzaro, the cable unwound, the dunker splashed to the surface and turned upside down, and water rushed in from all directions. I took my breath as instructed, felt myself swept under and waited for the motion to stop and the initial panic to subside. Then I was on my own.

As we learned in elementary school geography, four fifths of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. So as “unlikely” as it may be, there’s a chance that any forced landing could involve ditching in a river, lake or open ocean. Even crews who scrupulously avoid overwater legs could get their feet wet in the event of a forced landing if there is a body of water directly off the departure end of a runway. And as one veteran corporate pilot pointed out, a river or lake could be the safest landing site following a power failure at night. At least you know it’s flat.

As FlightSafety International, SimuFlite and others have shown, the best way to prepare for the worst is in a realistic simulator. Unfortunately, most flight-training emergency scenarios necessarily leave off at the end of the flight, meaning they offer little or no hands-on guidance on how to get out of an aircraft after it has ditched. Tragically, many pilots and passengers have drowned in shallow water after surviving a ditching because they panicked and couldn’t clear the aircraft. Because helicopters frequently fly at low altitudes, often over water, they are particularly susceptible to ditching hazards.

That’s the raison d’etre for Survival Training Systems. The company was founded in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1982 to address the dearth of civilian training with respect to marine and aviation water survival. In 1999 the company opened a second training center at Groton-New London (Conn.) Airport. Within the aviation industry, Survival Systems’ customers include police helicopter crews, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, corporate crews and even private pilots and their regular passengers. For instance, Ken and Wendy Simons and their son, Dov, own a Piper Navajo as family transportation. All pilots, they took the Survival Systems ditching course a couple of years ago and, though they hope never to use their training, swear by its effectiveness.

Survival Systems isn’t the only program of its kind in North America, but it lays claim to being the most realistic. As part of its aircraft ditching course at Groton, the school uses its patented modular egress training simulator (METS), a sophisticated fuselage mockup with working doors, windows and hatches designed to be reconfigurable as several specific aircraft types. When at rest, the METS hangs by a hoist above its 30- by 40-ft indoor dunking tank. Upon splashdown, the METS operator can turn the faux fuselage at any angle on its side or completely upside down as part of each simulated ditching.

Other Offerings
The METS is the most impressive of Survival Systems’ training aids, but the ditching course represents only a part of the company’s overall course offerings. Also on the menu is a program on general emergency duties (GED). This two-day course combines the ditching course with CPR training and a program on the use of automated external defibrillators. The GED course covers other emergency scenarios, including hijacking, aircraft fires, first-aid application, labor and delivery, operations above 25,000 ft, hypoxia and rapid decompression. This program qualifies crews under FARs 121.417 and 135.331.

A sea-survival course stresses the philosophy that survivors must participate in their own rescue. The curriculum teaches how to cope with the physical and psychological stress of a North Atlantic ditching. Instructors teach personal rescue techniques, use of signaling devices and emergency equipment, group survival formations, life raft deployment and management and other critical skills. Remember in the film Castaway when a FedEx crewman tossed Tom Hanks a life raft as the aircraft was going down in a storm? He could have been a lot better off with even a modicum of survival training.

Also included in the Survival Systems course lineup are programs in land survival, fast-boat rescue operations (primarily aimed at maritime operations), personal survival techniques (also geared to seafarers) and an underwater patient evacuation course for airborne paramedics and EMTs who may be placed in the position of rescuing a stretcher-bound patient from a ditched medevac helicopter.

I had read the course descriptions and listened to the briefings before strapping into the METS for the first time. I was intellectually prepared for what I had to do, but there is no way to prepare emotionally for the first time you are “trapped” under water and have to find your way out of a confined space. For me, of course, it helped that I had two experts in the front and rear of the METS and a pair of safety scuba divers standing by outside, just in case. As I broke the surface, I heard the cry, “One clear,” followed by similar verbal assurances that all four of “my passengers” in the rear of the aircraft had also made it out okay.

“If we can get our trainees to remember just the basics, we would save a lot of lives,” said Lytle after my first successful escape. Those basics include: hit the water in a braced position (for the pilot, this includes hands on the controls); stay braced and strapped in until movement stops; be able to find the exit release without looking based on physical reference points, such as your knee or thigh; release the door/exit and grab hold of a grip outside the aircraft; then, and only then, release your belt with the inboard hand and pull yourself through the exit. If you can’t immediately tell which way is up, wait for your natural buoyancy to point you in the right direction, or look for bubbles from the sinking aircraft. If necessary, release a few bubbles from your lungs. And exhale on your way to the surface.

If you cannot reach an exit handle from where you are sitting, grab hold of a predetermined reference point such as the instrument panel or glareshield. Then with your feet on the floor, “walk” your hands and feet to a predetermined spot where you can reach an exit. This is called a “cross-cabin” exit and I practiced a few of these since I fly a Bonanza with only one door–on the right side. Most often, your predetermined first destination will be another seat, such as the copilot’s seat. Sit in the seat (the copilot should have already left, if not, sit on his or her lap) and use a reference point to locate the exit release–or grab outside the fuselage if the exit is already open. Only then should you pull yourself through the exit.

“Never, never, never try to ‘swim’ to an exit,” is the Survival Systems ditching mantra. You are almost certain to lose your way. “You don’t normally swim around your aircraft cockpit or cabin, do you?” admonished Lazzaro. “Your buoyancy is going to get you every time. If you’re upside down, it’ll carry you toward the floor. If you’re nose-down, it’ll carry you aft in the cabin. In any case, you won’t be where you think you are. Remember, you won’t be able to see.”

The importance of this basic tenet was illustrated when one of the paramedics developed a mental block about the sequence of action in his cross-cabin evacuation from the rear of the METS. Twice he released his belt before establishing a firm handhold on the seat across the aisle. Both times he reverted to trying to swim to the exit. Both times his buoyancy caused him to float in different directions and he had to be pulled from the METS by the instructors. The third time was the charm. After the METS sank to the bottom, the paramedic proceeded crablike, hand-over-hand, foot-over-foot to the seat in the opposite aisle, then pulled himself out the open window. He broke the surface smiling, nodding enthusiastically and shaking his head, all at the same time. “Now I’ve got it,” he sputtered.

Another ditching mantra is, “The three most important people to save are ‘me, me and me.’” That’s not as cowardly as it may sound. What it really means is to get in position to rescue yourself first–usually by getting an exit door open and clear. Then work to rescue others. If your right-seat copilot is incapacitated and the only door is on that side, sit on his or her lap if necessary, open the door using your reference points, then release the copilot’s harness and push him or her out. Get the exit door open before attempting to free passengers in the back of the cabin. If they’ve been properly briefed, it is hoped they will already be gone before you get there.

The value of the ditching course is twofold. Knowing the basic fundamentals of how to get out of a sinking aircraft cannot be underestimated. Like many procedures involved in aviation safety, they are not necessarily intuitive. Recurrent training is certainly desirable. The dated Survival Systems training certificate is good for two years.

Perhaps even more important than the actual knowledge, however, is the experience of having been in the situation. True, the unexpectedness of an actual ditching would infuse a level of panic that does not exist in the training environment. But the sensation of feeling the water closing over your face and the pressure building in your sinuses as you sink cannot be experienced any other way. Having been through it once–even under controlled conditions–a pilot would be several steps ahead of those who hit the water cold turkey the first time.