Because of the great distances we cover over the ocean, all flight crew members (pilot, flight officer or enlisted crewman) must be trained in survival swimming and water egress as well as general aviation physiology. All Navy Aircrew go through Naval Air Crew Candidate School (NACCS) in Pensacola, FL and are required to go through recurrent training every for years at an Aviation Survival Swimming and Physiology (Swim & Phys) training facility.  Unlike our civilian counterparts, aircrewmen must be excellent swimmers, and be able to egress underwater through several different devices.  They also must go through the hyperbaric chamber and be exposed to the effects of hypoxia.  Airline flight attendants don’t go through this type of training.  In fact most airline pilots don’t either. 

So here are the typical apparatus that a Navy Aircrewman must navigate through to initially get qualified to fly (and re-qualify to maintain their flight status).  The first device is called the hyperbaric chamber.  If you’ve seen the movie ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’ the scene where they are playing patty cake or working on other simple problems is quite accurate.  This device exposes a person to the affects of what its like to be in an oxygen depleted environment and teaches them how to recognize the signs of hypoxia (light-headedness, disorientation, lack of concentration, and greatly diminished sensory perception) and the steps they must take to correct the situation (donning an oxygen mask and returning their blood O2 level back to normal). A lot of folks like this part of the training. You can get feel pretty silly and laugh a lot due to the lack of O2.

Altitude Chamber

The part that many start to get nervous about are the water egress training devices. The first of the devices is the gunbelt trainer or the underwater logic trainer. This is designed to simulate being able to unlock doors and open latches in order to egress out of an aircraft. Training like this keeps people from panicking when faced with a problem underwater where they must think logically in order to accomplish their task. The video below shows an example.

Gunbelt Trainer

The device that creates fear in most is the Helo Dunker. This device simulates what happens to an aircraft when lands on water and submerges. (since helicopters are very top heavy, they typically flip over and sink, but the same can happen in fixed wing aircraft especially if the wings are separated from the fuselage). The crew member must ride this device 4 times. The first time, they are to egress through the closest exit. That may be the door, a window that must be opened or whatever. Its pretty easy. The 2nd ride, everyone changes places and this time everyone must leave through the same exit. This is where people can start to panic. Humans can hold their breath a lot longer than they think they can. Exiting this apparatus only takes less than 20 seconds, but the first time, it can seem like eternity if you’re the last person out. The 3rd ride everyone changes seats again and this time they are wearing goggles blacked out to simulate nighttime or no visibility while they exit through the closest exit. This requires you to remember where you are, and keep a reference point with one of your hands so you can count your way past seats and feel your way out. The last ride is blindfolded and everyone goes out the same exit. This is where many people panic. My first time I went through this, I got kicked in the face by a person who trying to get out and began to panic when they lost their grip, got lost and had to be pulled out. (If you have to get pulled out, you’ve got 2 more chances to ride it and exit successfully or you are dropped from the program).

The whole evolution is monitored by safety observers and divers who can pull someone up within seconds, but for the initial training session, it can be daunting.

The old version of the Helo Dunker

The latest version of the Helo Dunker

After the last ride in the dunker, the crew member must swim to an inflated raft and run through series of tasks until they are to be rescued by a helicopter (simulated). The person must swim to the strop that the helicopter will drop, wrap it around themselves, ensure they aren’t tangled in the lines and be lifted up. (Boy can this give you a major wedgie).

Helo Hoist (strop)

The basic requirements for someone to enter the training are that they must be physically fit, pass a flight physical and be able to pass a class 2 swim test prior to going to the school. The standards are the same for all members regardless of if they are active duty, reserve, their gender, etc. The ocean doesn’t care about those things…thing thing that matters is if you’ve received the training to help you be able to survive a ‘bad day’.

So the next time you’re on a commercial flight, pay attention to when the flight attendants say “the aircraft has 6 clearly marked emergency exits, your nearest exit may be behind you”. Actually make sure you know where you’re closest exit is because in the cold, darkness of submerged water, it’s not a good time to figure it out.

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