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 Blue Line

 Canada’s National Law Enforcement Magazine

June-July 2004

                                (reprinted with permission)

Swimming Lessons for a Chopper Crew


by Troy Rudy

Tactical Flight Officer, Calgary Police Air Services Unit

I gasped for one last breath of air mere seconds before the helicopter turned upside down and crashed into the cold water. In the darkness I fumbled for the latch to open the door as I hung suspended upside down from my seatbelt. Finally free from the sinking cockpit I kicked my feet and splashed toward the surface. Fresh air filled my lungs as I floated on the surface of the… swimming pool?

It sounds like a crash scene from an action movie, but in actuality it was ‘Dunker Training’ recently completed by members of Calgary Police Air Services Unit at Pro Aviation Safety Training in Langley, B.C.

The Calgary area is not known for deep rivers and lakes, but since 1995, the police helicopter has been asked to assist in dozens of river searches and water calls. The unit is also trained to assist the Calgary Fire Department with water bucketing and rescue diver deployment into fast water and over larger lakes regionally.

Calgary Police acquired the McDonnell Douglas MD 520N in 1995. It was known to be one of the quietest helicopters in the world, designed to be small and light, which makes it more likely to quickly tip over if it hits water and sink rapidly. Pleased with the performance of the present helicopter, and planning for a second one, the service determined that more availability would increase demand so it considered contingency plans for training crews in underwater self-extrication.

On April 16th members of the Air Services Unit, - the HAWC1 pilots and flight officers - underwent survival training on how to properly ditch a helicopter into water and extricate themselves quickly. This underwater escape training was created specifically to provide aircrews with the knowledge, skill and confidence to deal with an underwater escape situation.

Pro Aviation instructors gave the members chilling examples where crews who survived crashes only to tragically drown within the confines of the aircraft because of panic and lack of training. Further time was dedicated to the training pool, where team members used an underwater egress trainer to learn how to remove themselves from their aircraft should it go down in water.

They were seat belted into a simulated aircraft cockpit, inverted beneath the surface of the water. Remaining calm and calling upon their training, they were able to locate and remove the door, grab a reference point, release the seat harness and pull themselves to safety. Sounds easy enough, until members are blindfolded by the instructors after several more practices, who surprise everyone by blocking one of the doors, forcing them to exit out the opposite side. That manoeuvre is a certain test of confidence and emotional control.

HAWC1 chief pilot Brendan McCormick, who was trained in underwater escape for his previous job, said it gives flight crews "that extra margin of safety."

"It doesn't matter if you're saving a person from the water or picking up a bucket of water," he said. "When you're over the water, there is just one engine standing between you and the water."

According to a recent Transportation Safety Board report, the majority of pilots who die after crashing into water are found inside the aircraft. Only a small number actually died on impact, leading researchers to believe many drowned after failing to find a way out. McCormick points out that they drown because they panic.

"When you're in the water, you tend to do that," McCormick said. "Just getting familiar with what could happen could make all the difference."

This is the first time many members of the air services unit received egress training because it is not mandated by the industry. Everyone was impressed and grateful for the opportunity. The Air Services Unit now has the skills to prepare for a successful underwater evacuation, but no one is looking forward to using this skill.

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