Underwater Egress Training Pays Off

When you can say, “Been there, done that!”

The mock-up that Survival Systems uses in its pool simulates an aircraft fuselage. Courtesy Martha King

The weight-shift-control sea aircraft I was about to learn to fly in California was on an inflatable boat tied up to the dock. As I looked it over, I could see that, with the wing and engine mounted on top, it was very top-heavy. The biggest problem I expected to have was that the water-rudder controls were backward from airplane rudder controls—step on the left pedal to go right and the right pedal to go left. You could tell yourself that, and it worked great when you were making a decision in advance to turn on the water. But when you were correcting an unintended turn, it was hard to overcome years of habit in an airplane.

I reacted to an unexpected swerve on the water using airplane habit, and in a heartbeat, I was in the frigid water of Shasta Lake underneath the wing of the light-sport aircraft. Instantly, my training kicked in. I kept on my seat belt until the water quit moving. Then I released the belt, took off my helmet, which was plugged into the intercom, and moved away from the wires and wing until l had a clear path to the surface. I then relaxed, and buoyancy automatically took me to the surface. I felt completely in control. When my head popped out of the water, my instructor, Dennis, was greatly relieved. He was blown away when I spotted him next to the wing, and I asked him, “Are you OK?”

I had felt no anxiety about running out of breath. My previous training at Survival Systems was the reason for my confidence. They had seen to it I would be prepared physically and psychologically for just such an experience. When John and I arrived at their training center in Groton, Connecticut, in a short morning session, they explained to us what we needed to do to respond successfully to an unexpected dunking. Stay in the seat with the seat belt fastened until the water stops moving—that way you knew where you were and the moving water would not take you someplace strange, such as under the instrument panel. Just hold your breath as required until you got out a window or door and were clear of the aircraft. Then allow buoyancy to take you to the surface. The remaining time was spent getting our minds and bodies to trust that we could do this.

Survival Systems used a fuselage mock-up in their large pool. We started in the pilot seats with a hand through the open cockpit door, clutching the top of the frame. Then the fuselage was dunked below the surface, and we made our way out of the opening we had our hands on.

The whole time we were protected by scuba divers to rescue us if needed. Happily, it never became necessary. The whole time, neither John or I nor our training partner, Gregg Maryniak, had the hint of a problem.

Over some 13 dunkings, we progressively learned to escape to the surface while being tilted sideways or upside down, having to open a door or window, and waiting for someone to get out of the way after moving from a jammed exit to another one at the rear of the fuselage.

Over time, we completely lost our anxiety about holding our breath. We discovered we could comfortably hold it far longer than we ever thought.

Read More from Martha King: Sky Kings

So, when it came to escaping from the submerged aircraft to the surface of Shasta Lake, I was not concerned. My feeling was: “been there, done that.” The training by Survival Systems had proved its worth in risk mitigation regarding flight over water.

Indeed, there are many risks in aviation that are mitigated by the principle of “been there, done that.”

For the past 33 years, John and I have flown jets that require annual simulator training. For the past 18 years, we have done our training at FlightSafety International in a simulator in which the controls, knobs and switches are all identical to the ones in our old Falcon 10. A few years ago on a trip in the Falcon, the “OIL 1” light on the annunciator panel came on. It felt like we were back in a simulator session. Whenever a light on the annunciator panel illuminates, we go to the abnormal-procedures checklist and find a reference number associated with that light. Then we go to the tab with that number, which gives us the checklist. When the “OIL 1” light is accompanied by oil pressure less than 25 psi on the gauge, we are sent to another tab which has the “engine failure in flight or precautionary shutdown” checklist. We simply followed that procedure just as we had done many times in the simulator.

Systems failures are not the only times when “been there, done that” is helpful in aviation risk mitigation. One time when we were doing an ILS approach into Wichita, Kansas, the weather was much lower than forecast, and dense fog was reported. As we entered the clouds, I commented, “This is just like FlightSafety.” When we reached our decision altitude, there was not a thing to be seen. With the same serenity as flying in the simulator, we initiated a missed approach and flew to Hutchinson, Kansas, and calmly landed there, following the procedure we had practiced.

An especially valuable use of “been there, done that” is preparing learning pilots in a single-engine airplane for an engine failure right after takeoff. A pilot has to know when a landing within a few degrees of the current heading is required and when an “impossible turn” back to the runway could work. Pilots need practice making and executing the decision.

A “been there, done that” mindset takes the stress out of abnormalities and emergencies—and that can be lifesaving. When I was taking my dunker training in Groton, I had no idea when I might need the skills I was learning. But when I went swimming four years later in the ice-cold Shasta Lake, it was just another case of “been there, done that.”

This story appeared in the March 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Martha King and John King take turns writing Sky Kings. They have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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