If there’s one phrase that seems to strike fear into the hearts of flight crews more than “pediatric call”, it’s definitely “dunker training.” For those of you that may not be familiar with helicopter underwater egress training or HUET, it is a training where you are basically strapped into a floating chair mocked-up like an aircraft, flipped upside down in a pool, shaken around a bit, and told to get out. While HUET is by no means a favorite of mine, having been a public safety scuba diver for years, the water does not seem to be as intimidating for me as it is for others. That being said, there is definitely a certain innate intimidation factor that comes with jumping into a pool, strapping yourself into a floating chair, being tossed around a bit, and then trying to escape.
Keeping my philosophies on training at the forefront, those being: 1.) you perform how you practice and 2.) under stress one does not rise to an occasion, rather, they sink to their level of training, I recently jumped at the opportunity to attend a HUET class hosted by a neighboring agency. After all, it had been quite a number of years since I had first undergone my initial training, so I was probably due anyway and this would be the perfect opportunity for a refresher. Despite my employer’s generous offer to pay for the class, there were only two of us that took advantage of this immensely valuable training opportunity. That came as no surprise, though, as the mere mention of HUET seems to throw people into an instantaneous fight-or-flight response. That and, let’s be honest, such training is a bit outside the comfort zone of most of us, so if it’s not mandated, we’re not going to waste a perfectly good day off doing something we don’t have to do. As transport medical providers, we’ll take a critically ill ventilated balloon pump patient on a dozen drips and cram it all into a flying egg that physics says shouldn’t fly, all with without breaking a sweat, but the moment you tell us that you want to strap us into an upside down floating pool chair for the afternoon, we’re in the corner curled up in the fetal position.
I’m a bit out of the ordinary in the fact that I actually like taking HUET, however, it’s not that I’m like a kid at Christmas when I get to take the class. It’s more akin to an appreciation for the class, the skills learned and refreshed, and how they may one day save my life. I can distinctly recall my first HUET training. It was at an Airborne Law Enforcement Association, now Airborne Public Safety Association, regional conference back in the day, and I had paid for it myself. That and, while I’m certain there was some form of bribery offered, I somehow managed to convince a few of my coworkers to take the class with me. After-all, misery loves company, right? Anyway, participants went through a classroom component as well as several evolutions of the in-pool sessions both with and without a HEEDS or STASS bottle. To digress slightly for those that aren’t familiar with a HEEDS bottle, while there are a couple different flavors on the market, the premise behind all of them remains the same. It is a small self-contained scuba-type system that holds a few minutes of breathing air to, hopefully, allow an individual a better opportunity to escape an underwater aircraft.
While the finer details of my first class have since escaped me (there’s only enough room for so many penguins on the iceberg), the one thing I distinctly recall is my immediate purchase of a HEEDS bottle following the conclusion of that class. I was definitely intimidated enough by the thought of having to escape an underwater aircraft that I felt such a purchase was necessary. Being seat-belted into a chair and flipped under the water can do that to you. After I started carrying my HEEDS bottle I, of course, received quite a few comments from teammates, of course from those that had not participated in HUET, to the effect that such equipment wasn’t necessary as we didn’t fly over what most people categorize as big water. This is where I feel the primary seed of complacency related to this issue is planted: the notion that you have to fly over big water to justify such a valuable, potentially lifesaving, tool. Truth be told, we didn’t fly around big water. We did, and still do, however fly over inland lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds of every shape and size….and they’re EVERYWHERE. While not big, any one of these can cut off an individual’s access to air just as effectively as big water. So, to me the argument that one doesn’t operate near large bodies of water is invalid. At the end of the day I, of course, ignored the comments since I had air should I ever need it.
Aside from the aspect of physically getting one’s self out, the other major take home point from HUET training is the importance of maintaining a reference point. This equates to holding onto something stationary, usually your seatbelt, while maintaining a mental picture of both the aircraft interior and your location therein. In the highly likely instance that your aircraft lands in the water in anything but an upright position, this mental picture and reference point should help orient you and to visualize where emergency exits are in relation to your location. The idea of a reference point and muscle memory keep me thinking though. In HUET, one is typically seated in a single-place floating chair with the option of exiting to a direction of your choice. That’s all well and good, but what happens when you are seated in the rear-most forward-facing seat? While one’s HUET training would kick in, there’s typically no door immediately next to this rearmost position, at least in our aircraft, so muscle memory gained exclusively from training will no longer serve you well. What if the exit closest to you is inaccessible and you have to swim cross-cabin to egress? This is where your training is just the beginning and it is up to YOU to practice. Each shift since my training I’ve made it a habit to sit in the helicopter for a few minutes, look around, and mentally picture how I would egress from a given seat position. I think about what my reference points would be, be it a cabinet or an equipment rack, and then, with my eyes closed, see if I can locate them. For those that have ever gone through firefighter training, this is akin to the exercise where your SCBA is taken from you, tied in knots, returned to you, and with a blacked out mask, you’re told to un-tie everything before donning it again. It’s all about maintaining a mental picture of where things are and the task you have to accomplish.
As with many new or refreshed skills, I’ve noticed that lessons learned in HUET have carried over into my personal life (I know I’m not the only one that looked at stranger’s arms differently once I learned how to start IV’s). I now think about how I would get out of my car should I find myself in a river or pond, for example. Where are the door handles? What if they don’t work? Stay calm….a panicking person uses up air faster. If I can’t release my seatbelt, do I have a way to cut it? Always have a plan-B waiting to be executed.
It’s understandable that I have some opposition, but I am very passionate in my belief that all aviation medical personnel should partake in regular water egress training. Like any skill that is rarely called upon, it is perishable and should be regularly refreshed. Moreover, the excuse that a skill will seldom, if ever, be used is no excuse at all. In fact, that very excuse should be even further justification to regularly train that skill. While I understand most of us will never be able to convince our employers to send us to a full-sized aircraft ditching simulator (I may regret it but I’d love to do this someday), you can fairly realistically simulate a ditching experience, and the associated stressors, with a minimal amount of cost and effort. Lastly, and probably most importantly, it has been repeatedly proven that preparation is a distinct advantage in any situation. Much like the adage your parents used to tell you: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and there is no greater truth to that than in a situation where your own survival is at stake.
Safe flying everyone!
Bryan performing HUET in a SWET chair:
Listen to a podcast episode related to this topic here.