A fighter jock can be forgiven for sniffing at the shallow inadequacies of general aviation pilot training: It takes but 60 to 80 hours to graduate from witless passenger to certified aviator, the briefest flash of time that necessarily ignores much of what a pilot should-or would like-to know.
One aspect of training that gets short shrift-okay, no shrift-is crash survival, specifically ditching. Military aviators endure a grueling, soggy dose of this training, both in dunker tanks and occasionally in live water exercises. GA pilots, on the other hand, are referred to section 6 of the Aeronautical Information Manual and told to have a nice day.
Recognizing this, several companies offer ditching and water survival training of various sorts. Still, this training has proven expensive and difficult to come by for all but the most dedicated pilots who probably already have some interest in the survival field.
A new company, Survival Systems Training, Inc., recently began offering sophisticated dunker/ditching training for GA pilots. Although SSTs program is easily accessible, at $495 for a day-long course, its not cheap. Heres our report on what SST offers.
Survival Systems is actually new only to the U.S. It was launched in 1982 by Albert Bohemier, a Canadian military aviator. It has facilities all over the world, with its newest U.S. center within walking distance of the Groton, Connecticut airport.
Much of SSTs training is aimed at the offshore oil industry, which relies on helicopters for resupply and transport. Because these helos operate in hostile overwater conditions and surviving a helicopter ditching without training is chancy, the rest of the world requires offshore workers and aircrew to undergo the sort of training SST offers. (The U.S. doesnt require it, nor do U.S. oil companies.)
Not surprisingly, then, the training is geared to helicopters, many of which carry survival equipment that GA airplanes typically dont. Nonetheless, SSTs dunker simulator-tagged with the inevitable acronym of METS for modular egress training simulator-is nicely configurable to nearly if not precisely mimic a GA airplane.
In any case, when youre inverted underwater, minor details such as door latch design and control placement fade to insignificance. SST offers various courses tailored to the crew attending but for aviation ditching, the course is a full day, with classroom in the morning and dunking in the afternoon, followed by a debrief.
We attended the course with a couple of helo medics and a firefighter from Maine. In addition to the dunker trainer, SST conducts live sea training in nearby Long Island Sound. Again, cost is $495 for the day. Sign up for both the dunker and follow it with the sea training within a year and you get the second course for $395.
The training begins with a brisk classroom run through of survival theory, including the pro forma basics on hypothermia, dehydration, sea survival tables and so forth. Clearly, this is intended as the most elementary of primers for the afternoon pool session and not extensive-or even basic-survival training.
This session focuses sharply on whats likely to happen when you exit a warm aircraft into a cold sea and it includes an eye-opening video on whats called cold water gasp reflex, a phenomenon that limits breath hold time to a fraction of what it is after the body adjusts.
Our instructor-Thomas Lazzaro-gave a show and tell on such survival equipment as immersion suits, flares and mirrors, personal flotation devices liferafts and HEEDs/EBS emergency breathing devices without going into detail about any of it. We thought this was appropriate for a one-day course, giving students working familiarity with this gear with no pretense of expertise. But thats not to say we didnt find some shortcomings in the classroom session. In our experience, agencies such as the Coast Guard and local EMT/SAR units have little understanding of how GA airplanes operate, what the pilots know and dont, how they make risk judgments and what equipment might be aboard the airplane.
In our view, SST suffers the same short sight, which is admittedly understandable since its primary market is commercial helos and larger aircraft and little airplane GA is but a secondary market, and a tiny one at that.
For example, theres no discussion about how to put the aircraft into the water in the first place, dealing with judging sea state and aircraft configuration issues. In our opinion, this subject is poorly covered in the AIM and long overdue for an overhaul. SSTs VP for operations, Keith Stedman, told us that his instructors generally arent pilots and arent comfortable with any aspect of flight ops other than evacuation and egress.
How you get the airplane into the water is up to you. Once youre in the water, youre in my world. Thats where our training starts, Stedman told us. Fair enough.
Still, we think better information than that offered by the AIM is available and could be incorporated into the materials provided, with the instructor referring to that material as a starting point. A $500 course that doesnt at least address this question leaves us wanting.
Further, would like to see more detail in the written handbook. The version we were given was clearly oriented toward operations in Canadian waters and was essentially a course outline sans much detail. We would like to see SST add more to it or perhaps customize it for the light airplane drivers theyd like to attract to this course.
Into the Pool
Where SSTs training truly shines is in the dunking pool, a 30X40 foot, 14-foot deep above-ground facility housed in a hangar-like room behind the classroom. The dunker is suspended above it on a rapid-acting winch with a brake that allows the operator to quickly invert it or haul out, in case of an emergency.
As an additional safety measure, two instructors remain inside the dunker and two scuba-equipped divers hover in the water outside the dunker. When we trained, the dunker was configured with a variety of doors-a Sikorsky S-76 on one side, UH-60 on the other and sliding doors and push out windows in the aft section. Each trainee gets at least one shot at each door and window, including crossing over to simulate picking another exit if one is jammed.
Before getting us wet, instructor Lazzaro filled the cabin with smoke and fire from an overhead fire pan. Yes, its obvious that this is a simulation but its unnerving, nonetheless; the only way to navigate the cockpit is by feel and then gingerly, providing realistic training for whats ahead. In teaching water egress, SST doesnt fool around with baby steps. Lazzaro got us strapped into the dunker, belted down and after a briefing, we were unceremoniously dumped into the pool and inverted. We were briefed to hold our brace position until all motion ceased, then to methodically find the door release before releasing belts and exiting.
SST teaches the accepted method of finding a known reference surface-a door ledge, window frame or the like-and carefully tracing it to the door release. Once the door is clear, you use one hand to find a reference outside the cockpit, followed by belt release and a swim to the surface. Its easier described than done. In our view, the initial challenge to overcome is the raw fear of being dumped underwater strapped into a constrictive metal structure followed by having what feels like the Chesapeake Bay fill your nose.
Nothing you can do about that, Lazzaro told us, so you might as well get used to it.
Training proceeds with the victims switching seats and performing exits from various seats, while upright, sideways or inverted. The paramedics were expected to extract both themselves and a patient on a backboard; no mean feat considering the buoyant board has to be manhandled through a small window.
Egress scenarios escalate to the final challenge: A night-and we do mean pitch black-egress from an inverted helicopter, the only part of this exercise that gave us serious pause. Frankly, the prospect is daunting. But if the training procedure is followed, it can be done, even by a neophyte passenger. We wouldnt call it pleasant, but accomplishing it is undeniably satisfying.
We were also given the opportunity to board rafts, trained in methods to help others aboard and got a taste of being winched aboard via basket and horse collar, with the METS standing in as a helicopter hovering over the pool. If a Coastie helo ever lowers a horse collar, well know how to get into it. (Most pilots cant do this without training.)
Were not convinced that this is a must training for every pilot. But we think its a good investment for any owner savvy enough about survival to carry rafts, personal flotation devices and other gear and who expects to depend on that stuff for jaunts over the Great Lakes or the Caribbean. Anyone contemplating a North Atlantic trip should definitely attend.
Despite what we saw as minor weaknesses in the classroom portion, we liked SSTs quick survey of available equipment followed by the dunking exercises. SST does a terrific job with the rather more difficult task of letting trainees experience underwater egress under conditions challenging enough to be realistic but not so difficult that you might…well, drown. (The company claims more that 800,000 dunkings with no fatalities.)
Were not sure how ready a market SST will find among notoriously cheap GA pilots, given the stiff price tag. Nonetheless, if the company tunes the curriculum a bit and markets wisely, we suspect theyll find takers. Frankly, we found the exercise fun and challenging and, as intended, a real confidence builder thats well worth the investment.
-by Paul Bertorelli