Helicopters Magazine

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Helicopter Down, Pt. 2!

Strapped into an upside down ditched Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, I struggle to draw a breath of good air.


January 15, 2014
By Carroll McCormick

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Strapped into an upside down ditched Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, I struggle to draw a breath of good air. I blow to clear my regulator and take in a bubbly mouthful of water. I bite down and blow again, but suck in another gurgling mouthful. The third time won’t be the charm. I’m going to need air soon and I don’t want to spoil my afternoon with a lungful of water. I put my hands on my head and an instructor pops my harness and knocks out the window next to me. I wriggle out of the submerged machine.

A group of oil and gas industry workers  
A group of oil and gas industry workers practise how to survive a real helicopter ditching. (Photo courtesy of Horizon Line Films)


 

I surface and wallow over to the instructor, John Stone, for counsel. “If you can’t clear your regulator by blowing through it, purge it with air from your air cylinder,” he says. Instantly, I recall those very words from his morning lecture. Why didn’t I remember that? Well, that’s why it’s called learning.

What I was learning was how to escape alive from a helicopter that has ditched in the ocean – something that plenty of people have failed to do after surviving the initial crash.

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Stone is the director for military and aviation programs at Survival Systems Training Limited (SSTL) in Dartmouth, N.S., where I spent a day this past May taking SSTL’s Offshore Helicopter Safety HUET/HUEBA course. HUET stands for Helicopter Underwater Egress Training. HUEBA stands for Helicopter Underwater Emergency Breathing Apparatus.

SSTL has been teaching survival training courses since 1982 and has taught tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel. It works to the training standards and practices of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and is the only Canadian training agency that meets the standards of the United Kingdom’s Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization.

Many Canadian companies and government departments require that all of their employees – pilots and passengers alike – who fly over water have this certification. Workers on offshore oil platforms must take a five-day basic survival training course, of which the Offshore Helicopter Safety HUET/HUEBA training is a component.

Raising the roof  
Raising the roof of the life raft is difficult in a simulated nighttime storm. (Photo courtesy of Horizon Line Films)


 

On this day, I was with six other trainees, including an engineer, an oil worker from Alberta and non-destructive testing specialists from Scotland and Newfoundland. We began with a morning of classroom theory with Stone, a 30-year veteran of the Canadian Army who has extensive air, land and underwater skill sets.

Stone covered a lot of bases, including the critical phases of flight, emergency equipment inside helicopters and underwater breathing apparatuses. He drove his points home with visuals such as a clip showing a helicopter ditching, a training video of how to deploy and enter a life raft in high winds and a smart phone video of people abandoning a Super Puma that ditched immediately after takeoff from an oil and gas platform in Nigeria.

We became familiar with the features of a Helly Hanson Nautilus HTS-1 cold-water immersion suit. It is de rigueur for everyone who flies to and from rigs off Canada’s East Coast.

When in the helicopter, Stone tells us, “Review the steps you will take if there is a ditching. Where are the exits? Are they push or mechanical release windows? Where are the primary, secondary and tertiary exits? Get in the habit of reviewing this. Things can go wrong very quickly.”

Really? Stone rolls a YouTube showing a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter clattering toward a fast-moving ship, and its doom. I review the clip later with a stopwatch. From the time the CH-46 crosses the stern, dips, backs off, catches a wheel on a heli-deck safety net, keels over, drops like a piano into the water and vanishes, only seven seconds elapse.

surfaces after shallow water  
The author surfaces after shallow water training with compressed air. (Photo courtesy of Horizon Line Films)


 

“If there is a problem in the landing phase, the pilot does not have a lot of options. You are likely going in the water,” Stone says. He warns us to be alert to mechanical emergencies, including fire, smoke and engine failure. “If you hear or see something unusual,” he admonishes, “Zip up, put your hood up. Don’t wait to be told. That may never come. Don’t worry about whether the next guy is doing it. Just do it and review your primary, secondary and tertiary exits.”

After lunch our little group heads for the indoor pool. This is where theory gets put into action, where we get an opportunity to develop some motor memory of what we must do, without panicking, in a real ditching.

We pull on survival suits. A helicopter abandonment exercise is first on the menu. We climb into a full-scale simulator of an S-92 that a technician has lowered a foot or two into the pool water. SSTL uses the S-92 because it is Canada’s airframe of choice for ferrying offshore oil and gas workers. Stone and Peter Gibbs, a decorated ex-Royal Navy aircrew and now an aviation safety consultant, join us. Divers in the water watch us closely.

SSTL technicians turn on big fans, a wave generator and a rainmaker. It’s all Hollywood, but the Force 8 (35-knot, or 56 km/h) winds, two-foot waves and driving rain in the darkened pool room quickly force me to engage fully in the task.

I push down on a release lever and push out the big window over a reserve fuel tank, crawl out and roll into a bucking yellow life raft. As I hold it close to the S-92 fuselage, a student sails by. Recalling a scene from a video Stone played, I call out: “Should one of us go to the other side of the raft to keep it from flipping?” “No,” the student replies. I’m sure that’s not right, but this isn’t the time to argue.

We all pile in and wrestle the roof over us. Having lived through the ditching and abandonment of what Stone refers to as a “really bad boat,” we are now in the third phase of a ditching: survival. Gibbs asks, “Now what do you do?” Someone replies, “Get some seasickness pills into us.” Another student adds, “Turn on a couple of personal locator beacons.” (But not all of them. Save some batteries for the long haul.) The fourth phase, were this a real accident, would be to await rescue.

Next up is a practice session with the little air cylinders attached to our survival suits. These are called HUEBA LV2 SEA (Low Volume Second Stage Survival Egress Air), mandatory survival gear for the offshore oil and gas industry and the Canadian military. A HUEBA contains 1.5 cubic metres of air, enough for about 21 breaths.

egress the inverted S-92 simulator  
The author (right) and Jasmine Lacoste-McCormick egress the
inverted S-92 simulator. (Photo courtesy of Horizon Line Films)


 

Emergency breathing systems are intended to give occupants of a submerged helicopter more time to egress. Therefore, it is remarkable that although the military has been using emergency breathing systems since 1988, the oil and gas industry kicked and screamed for nearly a decade before finally allowing HUEBA to be part of the survival kit in 2009. And only beginning in 2013, thanks to SSTL, have students begun training with HUEBA in full-scale simulators.

One by one, we strap into a shallow water trainer to try out the HUEBA. While waiting my turn to be rolled upside down, I play with my HUEBA. Breathing compressed air is utterly new to me. I roll face down, bite down on the mouthpiece and violate a lifetime habit of holding my breath underwater. In a huge leap of faith, I breathe in, and eureka! I get air! When my turn in the shallow water trainer comes, I pull in a few breaths before being rolled upright to sputter happily at a grinning Gibbs.

We will do four ditching runs in the S-92 simulator. In the first run we land on the water, jettison our windows and simply hold our breath before we roll inverted and egress. We use the HUEBA for the other three runs.

On my knees in my sopping wet survival suit, I loosen my seat straps, climb up on the stroked-out seat that “collapsed in the crash” and buckle up. It is slow, deliberate work in the simulator’s dim interior.

Gibbs hollers, “Ditching, ditching, ditching,” and the simulator drops into the water. Keep a hand on the seat as a reference point. Push out window, don’t bang on it. Then keep hand on the windowsill so I don’t get disoriented.

Another one of Stone’s lessons crosses my mind only later: “If you inflate your suit in your aircraft, you have signed your own death warrant.” No matter, because that little yellow pull-tab buried somewhere in my survival suit was not even on my list of priorities.

The S-92 settles, and then rolls upside down. I find and fit my regulator between my teeth, start breathing and push out my little window. I egress. This is like leaving the Gemini spacecraft to do a spacewalk! I corkscrew, weightless, through the water. Survival!


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