REMINISCENCES | Helicopter Underwater Escape Training in Western Australia

Photo: Royal Navy

Besides the normal helicopter training that flight personnel have to undergo, those that regularly fly over water are also required to do extra training in the form of underwater escape training.

In the event of a helicopter having engine failure the pilot can (usually) put the craft into auto gyrate and perform a somewhat controlled crash landing. It has been found that when helicopters crash land on water, even those fitted with floats flip and turn upside down more often than not.

Over the years, when a helicopter comes down on water, it has been found that many lives are saved if the personnel have the correct training and follow procedures. Consequently, all those people that regularly use helicopters over water, such as oil rig workers and marine pilots, are now required to undergo a HUET course every two years.

When I worked in Queensland in the 1980s there were only two places in Australia where civilians could obtain a HUET course: Darwin and Melbourne. As I worked mainly in the northern ports, the normal method of pilot transfer was by launch. However I occasionally relieved at Hay Point where the normal transfer was by helicopter, so I was suddenly phoned one day to make up the numbers for the next HUET course in Darwin.

Brace! Brace!

Subsequently, one helicopter pilot and five marine pilots arrived in Darwin to undertake the course at the underwater escape training facility. I was the only one of the six that had never had this training so naturally was a little apprehensive. The simulator consisted of a mock up of a five seat JetRanger aircraft similar to the one we used for ship-to-shore marine pilot transfers and sitting in it was just like the real thing.

Prior to the dunking, we went through a series of lectures and briefings on what to expect and instructed on procedures. The pilot would call “Brace! Brace!”, then those sitting next to a door had to open the door latch and leave it so that the door was slightly open, then it was head between knees and wait for impact.

Once the water was up to your ankles, which was pretty well immediately, take a big breath and hold on. The aircraft then rolled over and filled with water very quickly. Count to eight before attempting to get out, this was supposedly time for the rotor blades to stop, and not chop you up once out of the cabin.

The restraining seat belts in helicopters are over both shoulders with a central chest release catch, which makes it easier to release both straps in one simple movement by hitting the central button. Once clear, swim to the surface – easy! There is always a diver underwater as a safety precaution, should anything go wrong and he can drag you out of the cabin.

As I had done a fair bit of scuba diving, it was in fact simple. Under water, just open your eyes and even without a mask you can make out shapes, although a bit blurry, but still see the light and which way is up. Most people can hold their breath for 30 seconds to a minute so 12 to 15 seconds is easy!

“Undo the door, take a deep breath, count to eight, helicopter rolls, fills with water, push door open and escape”

For the exercise we were dressed in overalls, boots and hardhat, true simulation as if you were going to work. We went through a couple of daylight dunkings, one with the door jammed so you had to push the plexiglass out and get out through the window opening. Everything was textbook – no problems. Now for night time simulation with blacked out goggles, a much different scenario.

The mock up cabin was on a chute and when released you slid into the water at a fair rate. “Brace, Brace”, undo the door, take a deep breath, count to eight, helicopter rolls, fills with water, push door open and escape. Now do it with blacked out goggles and you don’t know which way is up. The main instruction for a night-time escape is always have one hand gripping the seat between your legs, then you have a reference point, then always grip something else before you let go like the door or door frame and go hand for hand until you are clear.

The last exercise was three of us in the back seat but one door is jammed, so all three had to exit from one side. I was the “new boy” and I reckon it was a jack up as I drew the short straw to be last out.

The instruction was: at the command “Brace, Brace”, you grip the underseat with the left hand and grip the guy on the right on his knee as we had to get out by the right side door. When the cabin flips upside down and fills with water you stay suspended upside down by your seat straps until you feel the guy on your right has gone, then hit your safety belt release and hand for hand along the seats until you reach the door and get out. Remember, you’re upside down and wearing black goggles.

Petrified at the thought

When the guy on my right had gone, my right hand was then free to hit the safety catch, which I did, but then made the fatal mistake of letting go of the seat with my left before I grabbed the next seat with my right. Suddenly you are totally disorientated, under water in the dark and holding your breath not knowing which way is up or down.

Next, I felt my head hit the grating, which I knew was the floor, but at this stage your brain seems in a fog and works at half pace, so the cabin is upside down. Now to work out which is left and right and which door is open to escape by, meanwhile you are hanging on to that deep breath desperately trying to figure out how to get out!

Then I hear a voice saying, “take a breath”: you don’t believe it, and it takes your brain an age to work out, that if you can hear someone then your ears and mouth must be clear of the water. Unbeknown to me, what happens is when they flip the cabin, it’s then raised about eight inches which allows air to be at the top! The diver then says to remove your goggles and exit.

At the debrief, they said I would have got out OK as I was doing the right thing, even though I’d made the first mistake of letting go with both hands. However, they don’t want to take people to the next level of stress, while holding their breath, trapped in a cabin.

After the course I never had any fear of flying or crashing over water. However in the 10 years I had in Western Australia and regularly having to undertake a HUET course, I met some people who were petrified at the thought of doing the course and so if they refused, they were no longer able to be employed. Such is the power of “workplace health and safety” requirements of today.

For more news, opinion and vessel reviews as part of this month’s Offshore Week, click here

Alex Lang

After being a Master with Maritime Carriers, New Zealand, Alex was a pilot for 28 years. Starting at the Port of Tauranga, he then moved to Queensland, Australia, piloting in Townsville, Lucinda and Abbot Point as well as relieving at Cairns, Mourilyan and Hay Point. Finally, he had 10 years at Dampier in Western Australia.