Underwater Helicopter Egress

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

My first survival school course at Fairchild AFB in Spokane was a one-day course known as “Dunker” training, or underwater helicopter egress training. Basically if a helicopter ever crashes in water since it has such a high center of gravity they have a tendency to flip upside down and fill up with water upon impact, and there are a lot of reasons why that sucks. So in order to prepare for underwater helicopter suckiness the Air Force has developed a course to simulate such conditions and prepare aircrew for the situation.

When I reported at 630am I was informed that I was the only officer and would be the SRO (senior ranking officer), which basically means I’m the guy responsible for the other 11 guys in the course. The awkward thing about this was the fact that five of the guys where PJ’s (Para rescue jumpers) and were already underwater survival experts, basically my leadership role consisted of doing head counts and making sure no one got lost waking to and from lunch.

The day started off with some brief power point presentations and then quickly transitioned to the pool. We wore BDU pants (camo pants) with pool shoes, a cargo vest, gloves, and a helmet. First action was to prove we could swim by treading water for one minute with all the gear and then swim 15 meters underwater without coming up for a breath. The PJs later told me in their training they had to swim 50 meters underwater (the length of an Olympic size pool). Next was getting acquainted with the HEEDs (helicopter emergency egress device), which is nothing more than a small bottle of pressurized oxygen and a regulator. They put a brick in our lap and made us sit at the bottom of the pool and breath the regulator until it was empty. This was pretty simple, the next part was not. Now we had to breath a new bottle, only this time upside down. To do this I was assigned a partner that held my legs on the side of the pool, and an instructor that lowered me backwards into the pool with my back on the wall and my head touching the bottom. At first I panicked as water rushed up my nose chlorinating my sinuses, and the burning set in. There is something very unnatural about being upside down in water, your body’s reaction is to flip back over. It was truly a mental exercise in calming those panic senses down and convincing myself it was possible, I did eventually calm down, but I breathed that bottle as fast as I could.

The next part was the SWET chair (shallow water egress trainer)

which is basically a chair strapped to a bunch of PVC that you can buckle into. There are two trainers on each end that flip the victim different ways and then hold them there until they can effectively manage to get their regulator on, unclip the belt, and find the way out the swinging door. The foundation of this course is founded on the principle that if something were to ever happen you should first locate your air, then find your reference point, then release your belt and escape. Of these steps finding and keeping reference points is the most important. When upside down knowing that your feet are still on the floor and what is to the right of you are pretty critical points to understanding where you are in space. Most screw ups in underwater egress happen when people panic unstrap themselves, flail around the fuel silage and then have no idea where they are in space, let alone where the hell the door out is.

After the SWET chair the grand finale of the course was the famous METS device (modular egress training system). Basically a mock fuselage that simulates the inside of a variety of different helicopters.

Inside there are seven seats with spots for a pilot, copilot, gunner, and a couple of passengers. There are about 4 different types of windows and doors with different latches while the whole back of the apparatus is open. The entire contraption is suspended above the pool by a fairly hefty crane. It’s designed to be quickly lowered into the water and then rotate 180 degrees so everyone is upside down and submerged about five feet below the surface. The whole idea is to remain calm, find your reference points by feel and find a way out. Only for the METS there is no oxygen so you have to hold your breath.

Safety is not forgotten, and there is a safety swimmer and two divers in the pool. In addition the whole thing is video taped and if something goes wrong there is a guy monitoring that can lift the device out of the pool in a matter of seconds. So the deal is there are two seats by every exit, I was assigned a partner and we had to take turns being the one who opened the door. While the other one patiently waited upside down until the guy by the window did his thing and then would get tapped on the leg signaling that it was time to go. Each person had to operate an exit twice and then had to do it one more time blindfolded. This meant I had to do it at least five times.

For my first run I was the passenger. As the METS was lowered to the water and then started to rotate I tried to take my deepest breath. Once we stopped and were fixed upside down I sat there holding onto my seat while I could feel my partner trying to get his seat belt off. It felt like an eternity, although it was probably only about 20 seconds that I waited. I started to run out of air, I’m not sure if this has something to do with being upside down and being somehow physiologically compromised. Regardless I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it and debated about bailing, just then I saw my partner had left the cabin and forgot to tap me on the leg so I quickly followed. I was given praise for sticking with it at the surface as they watched the whole thing on video, but in a room full of PJ’s I kind of felt like the slow sibling who was being patted on the head for finally using the big boy toilet.

I found that when I was the one assigned to the door it was much easier to hold my breath, when I was task saturated and not to mention in control of my fate holding my breath became the last thing on my mind. It did get easier and by the time the blindfold came on I was already closing my eyes anyway as chlorine had pretty much burned off my retinas.

After my group went. The second group that had all the PJ’s went. They were clearly masters of the pool. To “practice”, or show off, not sure which they found a life size, life weight dummy and strapped it into one of the seats. They each took turns unbuckling themselves then finding their way across the cabin unstrapping the dummy and exiting with the victim in tow, further proving how badass theses guys truly are. In all it was a good day, and I’m constantly reminded that Dunker is one of the funnest things about SERE. I just can’t wait to see what the “non-fun” activates are.

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