Think of it as an underwater amusement park ride that requires you to find your way out while upside down.
That’s the stress a group of Army pilots from Joint Base Lewis-McChord felt this week when they traveled to a special Navy training facility for a refresher course on how to survive a helicopter crash at sea.
It could have been the chlorine headache speaking, but the pilots emerged from the pool saying they felt more confident in their ability to survive an accident.
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“It was tough. There’s no substitute for being put in the dunker and being turned upside down and having water up your nose and then having to find your way out,” Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chris Muir, 40, of JBLM’s 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.
That he and nine other Army pilots were tested with Navy survival equipment served as an acknowledgement that JBLM’s helicopter squadrons might see more work over the Pacific Ocean in coming years. It’s a reflection of JBLM’s role in the Defense Department’s shifting of more resources to East Asia since it started reducing its footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The biggest thing is, we want to be ready” for assignments with the Navy and Marines in the Pacific, said 16th Combat Aviation Brigade Deputy Operations Officer Maj. Keith Benoit. “What we don’t want is to try to rush everybody through” survival training in an emergency.
Technically, Army pilots are supposed to take an over-water survival course every few years on a schedule similar to their counterparts in the Navy and Coast Guard.
But the demands of keeping robust Army aviation crews in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and other places have combined to make the water training a lower priority. Most pilots at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island this week hadn’t participated in a water-based course since they graduated from flight school.
For Muir, that was 2003.
Even if the Army doesn’t send them to Hawaii or Japan, pilots said the training was helpful in the event local training flights take JBLM crews over the Puget Sound. Many of them of them previously served in land-locked states.
“Seattle has some of the busiest airspace in the country. Eventually you’re going to be over the water. This makes you more comfortable,” said pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Shawn Witt.
He and his teammates swam in a warm pool at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island with coaching from expert Navy divers, doctors and corpsmen.
Normally, the pool is full of sailors assigned to the fleet of Navy electronic warfare jets and maritime patrol planes that fly out of the Whidbey air base. Army and Air Force Special Operations teams are regulars, too.
“We’re giving them survival skills. God, you hope they never have to use it, but if they do, they have it,” said Lt. Cmdr. David McEttrick, the director of the Aviation Training Survival Center at Whidbey Island.
The Army crews showed some trepidation early in the morning of the training. They wore full flight suits in the water and worked through increasingly complex challenges, such as opening a window under water. Later, they were asked to do the same tasks while wearing dark goggles that limited their vision.
Each of them went into the dunker at least five times. The longest time a soldier spent underwater was about 20 seconds.
Sailors also gave them small canisters of compressed oxygen that the Army pilots would use for an overwater mission. In an accident, the pilot could open the canister and breathe through his mouth while trying to get out of a helicopter.
Witt took the canister and jokingly asked Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class Joshua Christie how long the oxygen would last.
“If it’s me at the bottom of a pool, being calm, I can get 10 minutes,” Christie replied.
“What about me (breathing) at a high rate of speed?” asked Witt, acknowledging he wouldn’t be as calm as the sailor at sea.
“Maybe five minutes,” Christie told him.
Christie’s answer sounded dark, but the pilots responded with laughter in keeping with the exercise’s serious but friendly atmosphere.
Witt, for example, made a few errors exiting the mock helicopter airframe after sailors spun him upside down. As a result, he had to do extra rotations through the machine until he got it right. His buddies joked that he made the mistakes on purpose because he was enjoying himself.
The sailors supervising the training enjoyed the Army pilots, noticing the camaraderie they showed as members of a single unit. The soldiers grew noticeably more confident as the hours passed.
“You can look in their eyes and see that recognition when they understand it, when they know, ‘If I get in this situation, I can do something about it,’ ” said Navy Petty Officer First Class Holly Farrell, 40.