First I was afraid, I was petrified.
I used to really like flying around in helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I took a helicopter underwater survival course.
Just keep swimming!
Chris and I have logged hundreds of helicopter hours. Mostly we fly over water but sometimes over jungles in parts of South America, Africa and Indonesia. Before the HUET course (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) I worried more about ditching into trees than oceans. Now? I’ll take my chances with the branches. Ignorance about the danger was bliss. I want my bliss back, damn it - make me stupid again!
We often shoot in potentially dangerous environments. The requisite safety training without exception has been mind-numbing, and dangerously boring. Before this class I figured that boring must be a mandatory element in training, as predictable and dull as the phrase ‘Safety comes first with XYZ Company’. Yawn pie with snore sauce. It’s disappointing because life and death subjects sort of naturally fall into the attention holding if not down right exciting realm, particularly if the life in question is yours.
But no. I’ve yawned through chemical leak and refinery explosion procedures; been easily distracted by a bug on the floor during lifeboat evacuation training and actually drifted off to sleep at some point during the ‘What to do if the compound is overrun by terrorists’ video. In my defense, I had seen a slightly better terrorist attack video the month before in Nigeria and this one, seen in a stuffy unair-conditioned trailer deep in the jungles of Columbia was actually ‘En caso de ataque’, with really bad photography and fuzzy English subtitles. My personal safety plan was to be well rested so I could run fast en caso de ataque.
That’s not to say I don’t take personal safety, well, personally. Chris and I both have our own PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). I have two pair of glam steel-toed boots, and about half a dozen pairs of safety glasses. I travel with these plus my own hardhat because I can’t stand the thought of my hair being where someone else’s greasy/lousy head has been. ICK.
The morning session consisted of classroom instruction where we learned things like even if the temperature isn’t cold, get your ass out of the water asap because hyperthermia can kill even if the water is 85 degrees. But mostly I remember the helicopter crash videos. Real helicopters, real people, really terrifying, I-can’t-believe-how-fast-they-sink videos. Holy hovercraft – when helicopters get into trouble there is no glide time, they drop like stones into the water, usually while spinning like a dervish and sink IMMEDIATELY. After seeing those videos, there was no chance of anyone nodding off during the survival instruction.
The afternoon was spent in the pool where everything got very real. I made it into the life raft OK, but it wasn’t pretty (see video, I’m the one in blue overalls) and I had no problem treading water for 5 minutes or putting the life vest on while floating. Then it got crazy. We all took a turn in the individual training chair before being hauled repeatedly up into the air in the helicopter simulator. We were strapped in, dropped into the water and turned upside down. FIVE TIMES. Each time we had to 1) brace for crash landing, 2) find and open the door or window, 3) unbuckle our harness, 4) swim out the opening. Sounds easy - until that water starts rising up over your nose and you're flipped upside down.
The disorientation was shocking. Each time I swam out of the simulator I had to stop and let myself drift a second to determine which way was up. Whoa. That’s in a clear pool only a few feet underwater with divers there to help if needed. We were told that about 1 in 30 people panic underwater during the runs. When panic sets in, people start struggling and that usually results in the instructors getting kicked and hit trying to pull the person to safety. I’m soooo glad that didn’t happen to me!