Sunday, February 12, 2012

Training for when a pilot's world turns upside down

Sunday, February 12, 2012
By C.J. Chivers, The New York Times

NAVAL AIR STATION WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. -- The pilot sat strapped to a chair, held in place as if he were in the backseat of a helicopter. Beside him, on a mock wall, was a window. The window was closed.

The pilot wore opaque goggles. He could not see the window, or anything else. The chair was attached to a rotating stand in the chest-deep water of a swimming pool. A petty officer spun a large wheel, flipping the chair backward with a gentle whoosh. The pilot was now underwater, upside down.

Another exercise in the test had begun.

The pilot -- feet near the surface, head near the bottom, sightless -- was to disconnect himself from the buckled straps, wiggle free, open the window and pull himself through and out, a series of movements intended to simulate what he might need to do in an aircraft that had struck the sea at night.

Every four years, the Navy requires its pilots and those who fly with them to renew their skills in escaping from downed aircraft or surviving an ejection and parachute descent into water. The refresher class, depending on where each student is based, is held in one of several schools like this one, the Aviation Survival Training Center on this Navy base in coastal Washington state.

In the peculiar way that demanding and slightly frightening training is often viewed by those who undergo it, the course is simultaneously appreciated and loathed.

The pilot who was flipped upside down on this day, Lt. Cmdr. Kelsey N. Martin, struggled briefly with the buckle that held the straps across his torso. He soon broke free and swam through the window without the assistance of the rescue swimmer watching alongside.

Later, he offered the common sentiment.

"I was not looking forward to this," he said, before adding: "This training is actually very valuable. I say that because I know four guys who have ejected over water, and all of them lived."

The ordeal with the chair that flips upside down -- known as the Modular Shallow Water Egress Trainer -- was one exercise of several.

Lt. Cmdr. Martin and his classmates also had to pass a swim test wearing boots, flight suit and helmet, demonstrate that they could inflate a life preserver with a breathing tube while treading water, and complete several situational exercises, including escaping from a parachute harness that, via an electric pulley, dragged each man backward through the water as he tried to undo the harness's buckles.

This drill was meant to replicate the experience of being pulled across the ocean surface by a parachute driven by high winds, which could drown a pilot who had survived an otherwise successful ditching.

The final exercise, the so-called dunker, involved being seated wearing opaque goggles in a simulated helicopter as it was dropped into 12 feet of water and rotated upside down. Several pilots and crew members would have to escape at once, while safety divers watched, ready to rescue anyone who became stuck.

That exercise, like the overturned chair, taught crew members to choose an exit and then to rely on "reference points" to get there -- firm handholds inside the aircraft with which to pull themselves, handhold by handhold, toward an opening.

The course, which lasts two days, seeks to drill reactions into aircrews for surviving the most likely dangers they might face.

Lt. Cmdr. Martin is an E/A-18G pilot. Though jet pilots do not fly helicopters, they sometimes are carried as passengers within them, and are required to complete the helicopter training, too. Two journalists from The New York Times were also required to complete a recent course before receiving permission to fly inside carrier-based F/A-18s for coverage of the Afghan war.

Cmdr. Richard V. Folga, the school's director, said the reasoning behind the training is locked in aviation math. Every year, no matter how much attention aviation squadrons pay to maintenance and safety, naval aircraft experience catastrophic failures. Pilots and aircrews end up in the sea.

The Navy sometimes loses as many as eight or 10 jet aircraft a year, he said. And so, after one day in a classroom receiving instruction and doing practice drills, the crews head to the pool for a long session in the water, in case one day the math catches up to them.

Cmdr. Folga said he knows some officers attend with dread.

"If I could guarantee that you would never need this training, I would say, 'OK, sit in the back and use your iPhone and do whatever you want to do, while the rest of us work,'" he said. "But these exercises are all based on real incidents and sometimes on recurrent real incidents."

He added: "No one plans for this kind of mishap. People don't go to work one day expecting that they will have to eject. But it happens. And when it happens, they have to be ready."

That statement aligned with the experience of Lt. Jonathan D. Farley, an F/A-18 pilot who volunteered in late 2007 to serve as a downed pilot for a rescue-training exercise on the West Coast. Lt. Farley was picked up from the ground by an MH-60 helicopter crew.

As the helicopter returned to an aircraft carrier with him in a back seat, the exercise turned real.

"I wasn't paying attention; I was along for the ride," he said. Then he saw multiple warning lights flash at once in the cockpit's instrument panel. A crewman near him pointed toward the water, and then assumed a brace position.

The helicopter was going down.

Without time to prepare, Farley was trapped in a sequence straight from the dunk-tank course.

The pilot up front managed to maintain enough control over the crippled helicopter to put it onto the surface softly. But it immediately flipped over. Cold water rater rushed in and closed around the passengers and crew. They were sinking, upside down, just as Lt. Cmdr. Martin did at his recent course.

Lt. Farley followed the only instructions he knew. "I did exactly what the training had taught me," he said. "I grabbed a reference point, drew my breath right before the water went over my head and unbuckled."

As he slipped free from his seat, he could see nothing. He pulled himself toward where he thought he might escape, but lost his way. He does not remember finding the exit, but he must have. Just before his lungs gave out he was on the surface, the last man out.

Everyone survived: two pilots up front, three crew members and the two passengers. A second helicopter had been flying with the MH-60. Its crew plucked the survivors from the sea.

Lt. Farley, who said he is not a strong swimmer, spoke of the survival course in the same tone as many of those who know they will have to attend the class again. "I hate it with a passion," he said. "But if you are in a bad situation and have trained for it, then you revert to your training and what you know. It is why I am alive."

First published on February 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

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