Ditching: Getting Out
Try this thought experiment: Imagine the act of ditching an airplane in water; just try to visualize it. If you're like me, your mind's eye defaults to a daylight scenario. You don't think about doing it at a night because there's nothing to see and that's the problem with putting an airplane into the water at night. That and getting out of it alive.
This is no small challenge, making the outcome of last week's Westwind ditching off Norfolk Island all the more remarkable. It was done at night, reportedly in 6-foot seas. If you've ever bobbed around in 6-foot seas, you know it's no picnic in daylight. At night, it will be distinctly miserable in 60-degree water.
Apropos of the Westwind ditching, I got a taste of this in 1999 when I took a training course in ditching egress from Survival Systems Training, which specializes in training for the commercial offshore helo market. SST offers a broad course aimed at water egress and survival. I went through the program with a medical helo crew whose company had recently lost a helo and all hands after a night crash in Penobscot Bay.
Most of us don't think much about water egress because we don't do much overwater flying and will probably never face the challenge. The survival skill that SST and other companies teach is simple to grasp and execute, once you know what to do. The idea is to remain belted in until the aircraft comes to a complete stop in the water and before unbelting, find the door latch or exit release and open it. Then, with one hand on the belt release, use the other to find an external reference on the fuselage and extract yourself after unbelting. That's it.
Well, one other thing. They warn you about "cold water gasp," the tendency to inhale deeply when you're submerged quickly. If you're prepared, you won't gasp. If you aren't, you could aspirate enough water to drown right in your seat.
To teach these methods, SST uses a giant dunker configured like a helo cabin, including space for a litter. They drop the thing into a large, deep indoor pool whose water temperature is about 70 degrees, I recall. That's neither cold, nor warm. We got shivery after a day in the water. The thing about helicopters is that because the engine and gearing are high on the airframe, they almost always roll inverted after impact. So SST's training—which does invert the cabin upon water contact--teaches to wait for the roll to stop, then exit the inverted aircraft. Other than a lot of water up the nose, this task is learnable and doable.
But try it at night. We did and it wasn't fun. After most of the day doing inverted egresses, the graduation exercise was a night egress. And I mean full-up, black-as-hell night. When we were strapped into the dunker and the lights clicked off, I heard the guy in the seat next to me mutter under his breath, "oh, s**t." I was too scared to say anything. An instant later, down we plunged into the pool. For me personally, it took all the discipline I could muster not to panic and to follow the guidelines we had been given, this in a pool with no sea action and with divers standing by and the complete knowledge that there was no way we could drown. We did as we were told and bobbed to the surface, desperate for just a glimmer of any kind of light. At night, in a real sea situation, it's hard to imagine how black the darkness can be, but it is total.
We had it easy compared to the med crew in back. They had not only to get themselves out, but also a 6-foot litter with a simulated 170-pound patient strapped to it. They did—a couple of times. One interesting thing was that when we began the training, one of the flight nurses sat out most of the day, being too fearful and claustrophobic to suffer the dunking. Her anxiety was aggravated by the realization that she would lose her job if she didn't complete the course.
The instructor was utterly sanguine about this. He told me that by the end of the day, he would have her extracting the litter from the upended dunker in the dark. He did and she did. As a pilot friend of mine occasionally says, hey, this training stuff really works.
So as for the Westwind crew, they were either well trained or lucky. Or maybe both.