Aviation Safety Letter 2/2003

Time for Underwater Egress Training?

Underwater egress training
Photo courtesy of Aviation Egress Systems.

Testimonials are often used by sales people to pitch all kinds of products, from magic pills to fat-free cooking ... Of course, we as consumers must use our own intuition and judgment to see if these are genuine, or simply instruments to push the deal through ... But in our business, a testimonial about how such or such service actually saved one or more lives isn't something to sneer at. This is why I keep supporting companies who have put time, effort and resources into offering underwater egress training to the industry.

A Canadian underwater egress training company on the west coast had recently trained company pilots from a small float-plane operator in the US, when two of those trainees found themselves submerged and inverted in water during a dual training flight. The two pilots were able to quickly egress from the cabin. They unquestionably credited the training they had received as invaluable, and largely responsible for giving them the confidence and skills needed to face this real-life emergency.

One of the real advantages of many underwater egress training companies is that they can travel to you, as opposed to you having to travel to them. They have transportable dunkers, which they bring to a local public swimming pool. This drastically reduces the training costs — your training costs. They also usually include a comprehensive ground school portion, which addresses survival issues, lifesaving equipment and how to use and take care of them.

Explaining the underwater crash panic which takes place is not enough; pilots should experience it for themselves in a controlled environment, similar to practicing emergencies in a simulator. Most people get disoriented and would have great difficulty getting out unless they experienced the training upside down in a pool. Ms. Kathy Fox, Assistant Vice-President of Air Traffic Services at NAV CANADA and recipient of our 1999 Transport Canada Aviation Safety Award, happens to be an active Flight Test Examiner, a competitive precision pilot and a very strong advocate of aviation safety. She experienced the practical exercises in a pool in the summer of 2002. Here's what she had to say about the training:

"A dozen or so immersions in both single and dual dunkers made me experience first hand how one can become perilously disoriented and fixated when upside down under water. I left the course feeling exhausted, but more confident about my ability to survive a ditching. I think this practical egress training is essential safety training for any pilot who flies on or over water." — Kathy Fox

An instructor also shared his concern about the C-13 life vests such as the unit found in many Canadian registered aircraft. His personal experience while training is that less than 10% of pilots have ever felt one of these life vests out of the plastic package, or even given them much thought! This could pose a problem when two people are hurt and three more are non-swimmers, and they all depend on the pilot for guidance while floundering around a sinking aircraft. He suggests that all pilots who operate over water familiarize themselves with that very important safety item, and better yet, consider wearing one in flight.

Also check you life vest's last certification date. If it is more than a few years out of date get it inspected, as it may let you down when you really need it. Other styles of inflatable vests, which are wearable and comfortable, have recently been approved for aircraft use and may become more accepted by pilots and passengers. One final point the instructor wants to make, which I also endorse, is that every Commercial floatplane operator in Canada should attempt to have all their crews properly trained in underwater egress procedures.

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