“You get to see how people handle stressful situations. This unifies the team.”
Montana Woods, 19, a pre-med student at the University of Connecticut, had been told what to do. Yet, as the water rose above her head, she was seized by fear and panic. Upside down, water filling her sinuses, it was difficult to remember how to escape.
Woods and seven others — two university students, four trainers from a personal training company and the owner of a paving company — spent the Saturday before Thanksgiving surviving mock plane crashes at an indoor pool in Groton, Conn. Unlike the 120,000 students who had gone before them, this group had no overt need for aquatic-survival training. They all worked safely on land. What they wanted to learn was how to be leaders and to work as a team.
The class of three women and five men were clients of Survival Systems USA, which has been teaching aquatic survival since 1999 out of a boxy blue building across the street from Groton-New London Airport. The company has instructed employees of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the National Guard, the New York Police Department, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Army, among others.
In teaching survival skills to people who might have occasion to use them, “We’ve seen residual effects along the way: improved morale, self-esteem, capabilities people didn’t know they had,” said Maria C. Hanna, president of Survival Systems USA.
Until recently, she said, “we’ve never stopped long enough to say, ‘You know, this is something that can appeal to a market in a different way, using the tools from aviation to help people develop themselves.’”
Hanna is hoping to market her company’s services as a team-building activity. This was the second time Survival Systems had given the new class. Since the curriculum was still being tweaked, it was offered at no cost in return for students’ feedback, but soon the six-hour, one-day experience will retail for about $950 per person, a price comparable with the company’s other one-day programs.
The building’s crown jewel is a Modular Egress Training Simulator, a plastic and metal craft that can be arranged to resemble the cockpit of almost any helicopter or small plane on the market. A purpose-built crane lifts it up and lowers it into the pool. Other equipment in the cavernous space can replicate the downwash from rescue helicopters and generate rain, darkness, 120-mph winds, smoke and fire.
During a preliminary tour, Woods saw the simulator for the first time.
“I looked at it, and I realized it would start filling up,” she said. “I’m a lifeguard, I surf, so I shouldn’t be scared of this but personally, water deaths are my least favorite deaths.” In high school, Woods read Sebastian Junger’s “Perfect Storm,” about the sinking of a fishing boat, and ever since she’s retained a visceral image of drowning.
The instructor talked to the class about teamwork, leadership goals and safety procedures for the activities ahead. After a lunch of pizza, the students walked eagerly to the pool deck. Everyone wore flight suits, water shoes and helmets. It was dark and foggy. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blared and a disco ball lit the room.
“All we need is a roller rink,” one of the personal trainers joked.
The classmates jumped without hesitation from a 14-foot platform into the pool. Life vests inflated, they were given the duration of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” to find a way to stay warm while floating. It turned out to be: Assume a carpet formation, arms linked, legs under the arms of the two people across from you.
Taylor Cintron, 19, an economics major at UConn, was put in charge of the next task, boarding an inflated life raft. Before the last person was on, “Singin’ in the Rain” started playing. Wind and water blasted the raft. Cintron yelled orders over the squall. Everyone got aboard and, after some scrambling, the life raft’s tent-like roof was closed against the rain.
The pop music was supposed to ease anxiety. It appeared to be working.
“I’m less scared than I thought I was,” Cintron said during a break. “I hate touching people,” she said, but “this is OK, I trust everyone that I’m with. It’s not touching for no reason.”
Finally, each person was strapped into the simulator, submerged and flipped. In this exercise there are three rounds. First: You reach for the window frame, undo your seat belt, pull yourself out and swim to the surface. Second: Add a closed window to the puzzle. (You’d do the same in a submerged car, only you might need to break the window.) Third: Pretend your window is stuck and, by holding onto the seats and the console, cross to the adjacent window.
An instructor is poised behind the participants the entire time, ready to whisk them to the surface if anything goes wrong. Although no one has drowned during the training, the fear remains.
“Last time I took my staff here, two or three backed out,” said Greg Drab, 40, owner of Advantage Personal Training of Mystic, Connecticut, which had sent the four trainers to the class. “After the second exercise, a couple people had hit their threshold.”
If Drab had been paying retail, this would be more expensive than the $50 ropes course he’d done with employees in the past, but even at $950, he said, it would have been worth it.
“You get to see how people handle stressful situations,” Drab said. “This unifies the team.”
Everyone in that Saturday’s class escaped the simulator successfully, but it took Woods longer than she would have liked. Standing by the pool, still dripping, she said she felt “a little more at ease with my whole fear. I know as long as you follow the procedures there’s nothing to worry about. In every situation there’s a moment of panic and you have to squash it.”
Within the team-building industry, Survival Systems’ course would fit into the category of extreme experiences, like driving a race car at 150 mph or flying a fighter jet, said Merrick Rosenberg, chief executive of Team Builders Plus, which is based in Marlton, New Jersey, and has taught classes to Fortune 500 companies since 1991.
Rosenberg said he distinguishes “team-bonding” activities from those with “deep learning or cultural transformation” as their goal. In a team-bonding experience, he said, like the Survival Systems’ class, participants “overcome self-imposed limitations” and learn trust, communication and leadership, but they don’t re-enact and critique workplace dynamics as they would in the more interpersonal “deep-learning” exercises. Team Builders Plus offers both.
Rosenberg said survival-skills classes appeal to some more than others.
“There are specific types of groups that like high-risk activities,” he said, citing lawyers and people in sales, public relations or marketing.
People in social work, nursing, finance or engineering, he said, might not be as keen to face the fear of drowning.
“I would think this is a very millennial experience,” he said. “It won’t appeal to everyone, but for the people who match that demographic, they’re going to have a blast.”