Underwater survival training for Navy fliers is simultaneously appreciated and loathed. Bottom line? It saves lives.
NAVAL AIR STATION WHIDBEY ISLAND — The pilot sat strapped to a chair, held in place as if in the back seat of a helicopter. Beside him, on a mock wall, was a closed window.
Wearing opaque goggles, he couldn’t see the window — or anything. The chair was on a rotating stand in a swimming pool. A petty officer spun a large wheel, flipping the chair backward. The pilot was now underwater, upside down.
Another exercise in the test had begun.
The pilot was to disconnect himself from the buckled straps, wriggle free, open the window and pull himself through, movements intended to simulate what he might need to do in an aircraft that had hit the sea at night.
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Every four years, the Navy requires its pilots and those who fly with them to renew their skills in escaping from downed aircraft or surviving an ejection and parachute descent into water. The class is held in one of several schools like this one on Whidbey Island.
The course is both appreciated and loathed.
The pilot who was flipped upside down on this day, Lt. Cmdr. Kelsey Martin, struggled briefly with the buckle that held the straps across his torso. He soon broke free and swam through the window without the assistance of the rescue swimmer watching alongside.
“I was not looking forward to this,” he said later but then added that the training is very valuable. “I say that because I know four guys who have ejected over water, and all of them lived.”
The ordeal with the chair that flips upside down was one exercise of several.
The final exercise involved being seated wearing opaque goggles in a simulated helicopter as it was dropped into 12 feet of water and rotated upside down. Several pilots and crew members would have to escape at once, while safety divers watched, ready to rescue anyone if needed.
That exercise, like the overturned chair, taught crew members to choose an exit and then to rely on “reference points” to get there, firm handholds inside the aircraft with which to pull themselves, handhold by handhold, toward an opening.
The two-day course seeks to drill reactions into aircrews for surviving the most likely dangers they might face.
Martin is an E/A-18G pilot. Jet pilots do not fly helicopters, but they sometimes are passengers and are required to complete the helicopter training, too.
Cmdr. Richard Folga, the school’s director, said every year, no matter how much attention aviation squadrons pay to maintenance and safety, naval aircraft experience catastrophic failures. Pilots and aircrews end up in the sea.
“No one plans for this kind of mishap. People don’t go to work one day expecting that they will have to eject. But it happens. … They have to be ready.”
That statement aligned with the experience of Lt. Jonathan Farley, an F/A-18 pilot who volunteered in 2007 to serve as a downed pilot for a training exercise. He was picked up by an MH-60 helicopter crew.
As the helicopter returned to an aircraft carrier with him in a back seat, the exercise turned real.
“I wasn’t paying attention; I was along for the ride,” he said. Then he saw multiple warning lights flash in the cockpit’s instrument panel.
The helicopter was going down.
Without time to prepare, Farley was trapped in a sequence straight from the dunk-tank course.
The pilot up front maintained enough control to put the helicopter onto the surface softly. But it immediately flipped over. Cold water rushed in and closed around the passengers and crew. They were sinking, upside down, just as Martin did at his recent course.
“I did exactly what the training had taught me,” Farley said. “I grabbed a reference point, drew my breath right before the water went over my head and unbuckled.”
As he slipped free from his seat, he could see nothing. He pulled himself toward where he thought he might escape, but lost his way. He does not remember finding the exit, but he must have. Just before his lungs gave out he was on the surface, the last man out.
Everyone survived: two pilots up front, three crew members and the two passengers. A second helicopter had been flying with the MH-60. Its crew plucked the survivors from the sea.
Farley spoke of the survival course in the same tone as many of those who know they will have to attend the class again. “I hate it with a passion,” he said. “But if you are in a bad situation and have trained for it, then you revert to your training and what you know. It is why I am alive.”