April 2, 2020 By Kendra Kincade
Two days of rotary-wing underwater egress training with the Royal Canadian Air Force
As I look around at the people strapped in beside me, I think one thought before I’m flipped upside down underwater, “I’m not ready to die.” The water rushes in around my feet and I take a huge breath and hold it in as the helicopter spins, driving us all underwater.
I never imagined I would one day find myself in this position – but here I am. I have joined a group of six military members of the Royal Canadian Air Force on a Rotary Wing Underwater Egress Training (RUET) course. The company providing this extreme training to our team is RelyOn Nutec, which sells its simulators all over the world. We are taking our training where the company was founded, Halifax, NS.
All military members who work on a helicopter have to take the RUET course. Over the course of two days, we learn how important this training is in order to increase the likelihood of any possible survival in the event of ditching a helicopter. The training is broken up into two parts: The mornings in the classroom and the afternoons in the simulator.
The classroom covers several lessons, including (1) hazards of overwater operations; (2) what to expect in the rollover phase; (3) the importance of proper equipment; (4) how much time you may have to prepare in the event of an emergency that results in ditching; and (5) threats and survival facts. On day two we learn about potential complications with getting snagged underwater, training approaches, cold-water effects, and scenario briefings. All this information was strategically designed for one thing: To prepare us for what was about to come.
I walk into the simulator and look around. It’s housed in a huge cement pool with a crane dangling the body of a helicopter in the air over the middle of the pool. The lights are on, the pool is calm. It looks innocent enough.
The training is designed to build egress skills one step at a time. Step one turns out to be educating us on what it would feel like if we landed in cold water. They suit us up and dunk us into what they affectionately refer to as the hot tub, which is kept at a balmy 4-degrees Celsius. Ever wonder what that feels like – ice water. It feels like freezing cold ice water. Our instructor said that this course builds transferable skills, but I think this skill must be if you want to prepare for a polar bear dive.
Once the tub activity is complete, we jump into the pool to start our egress training. They teach us how to breathe through the emergency breathing system (EBS), essentially is a cylinder filled with pure air supplied through a mouthpiece. We then lay in our instructor’s arms so he can promptly dump us upside down and backwards under the water. Learning to flush and breath through your EBS upside down is a whole new skill – and it hurts. This pain is a prelude of what’s to come. After preparing in the pool, it’s time to go live in the helicopter.
We watch, some with a little anxiety, as the helicopter lowers down to water level allowing us to climb in. I look over at the two scuba divers who will jump in the water ahead of us. They are here to watch us and help out if we struggle. It makes me feel a bit better. This is how I come to find myself strapped in a seat watching water flood around me.
I start spinning sideways and I see the water flood the pilots a second before it rushes over me. The painful burning fills my nose immediately and I am completely disorientated. Okay, what am I supposed to do? I need to follow the directions from my instructor. I wait until we stop moving, knock out the window with my elbow, place my hand on the windowsill, so I know where to exit, unbuckle my seatbelt with the other hand, and escape! As I surface that first time I’m in a bit of shock. I did it. The pain in my nose and sinuses is harsh, but the thrill of completing the activity outweighs it all. I look around and see everyone else popping up as well. We all survived.
The scenarios get more and more intense over the two days. Mastering the EBS is important because the instructors add hazards and obstructions forcing people to stay under longer. During the last run, I’m amazed at how far we have come. This time I’m sitting on the helicopter and trying to look around. It’s dark now and hard to see, but I know one person is sitting on the side with a gun, another is on his knees by the side door. The pilots in the front have to work around scenarios designed to trip them up. I look sideways and see the waves pounding in the pool below. It really looks like we are in the ocean, with the sound of booming thunder. Lighting is flashing through the sky as the rain pounds down. This time, finally, I’m excited to go under. I know it’s the last run and I’m trained enough to know exactly what to do.
I see the water rush up and I’m not filled with dread. I do what I have been trained to do. Upon surfacing, I feel strong winds hit my face and the waves are crashing over me. I hear yelling. The pilots are calling to us from the front of the helicopter. I start swimming over to them but I’m very slow in the waves. All of a sudden, I feel myself being pulled quickly to the group. As soon as I am within reach, a member of our team grabbed my vest and pulled me toward them. ‘One!” I hear yelled out through the storm, followed by, “Two! Three! Four!”. “Five!” I yell quickly, proud to be a here with them. I feel like part of this team now and that indeed they would leave no man behind.
As a reward for all our hard work, we get to jump off a 15-foot platform into the raging, tempestuous water. From below I look up and think, easy! Then we climbed up. I watch as one team member after another jumps exactly as instructed into the water and swims to the raft. Hands crossed on their chest, looking straight ahead, crossing their ankles as they jump. They are so impressive to watch. They look exactly as you might imagine them to be – professional, strong, brave, well trained military members of the RCAF. I’m going to jump just like them, I think to myself waiting in line for my turn, which comes all too quickly. I go to the edge and get ready to jump. I can’t. My body won’t go. My heart is pounding and I can feel it in my ears. I am so scared. I don’t want to do this. I know I have to. I can’t walk away no matter how much I want to. I attempt it again.
The instructor behind me is yelling at me, “We’re going down! Jump! The helicopter is going down!” I look down and see my team in the water, the wind is blowing so strong, whipping water in their faces. They are hanging onto each other, waiting for me. I have to go. I try again but my body won’t do it. I actually want to cry because I’m so mad at myself. Faintly, and then louder, I hear my name being chanted from below. They are calling my name, cheering me on even while they are being thrown around by the waves. They are not inflating the raft yet; they are going to wait for me. I can’t make them wait any longer. I jump.
I want to say I was as professional and looked just like they did but that would be a lie. It was not pretty. I would describe it as more of a flailing around jump with arms and legs waving about, perhaps made even more distressing by the unintended scream that belted from my body. I smacked into the water, swam to the team as fast as I could, and link arms with them. They waited for me. They are my team. I truly believe they would leave no man behind.
Back in the class for wrap-up I ask Capt. Susan Ireson if she thought the course was fun. “Absolutely not,” she says and we all laugh. “I’m thankful for the training. I really am because I’m not sure what I would have done in a real ditching. But truly, there is not a single part of this I enjoyed.” Maj. Martin Jean had a different point of view, “Actually, I do enjoy it because it’s in a safe environment with divers all around, so I can try some things that might make me more comfortable in a ditching.”
Whether you like this training on not, everyone is much more likely to survive an underwater ditching should they ever be in one. This course has allowed me to be exposed to a part of what our Canadian military members in the RCAF go through; and to have the opportunity to gain another level of understanding of just how much the military members put their lives on the line to serve our country. I salute you all.
Being an honorary member of the military, I didn’t know how I would be received on this course. I didn’t know if the people on the course would welcome me or if they would think that I was in the way of their training. Now that it is complete, I want to say thank you to the brave and strong military members who became my team for two days. Thank you for looking out for me like you do for each other. By simply being yourselves, you have given me a gift to be able to experience the military loyalty, dedication, teamwork and perseverance.