Dunking Training in Ottawa

Submitted by Chris Hobbs on Wed, 11.01.2012 - 00:00

On Saturday, I completed a 6 hour dunking course, a course designed for pilots who fly over water.

We had three hours of theory on Thursday evening starting with about 12 of us sitting at desks in the Rockcliffe groundschool room looking attentive. We each had a pile of equipment on the desk in front of us, including a lifejacket in a bag as it would be on a trans-Atlantic flight. The instructor asked how many of us had ever put on a life jacket. The answer was that, while most of us had life jackets in our aircraft, none of us had ever put one on. Or even taken one out of the bag.

We were then given 30 seconds to put the life jacket on and inflate it, starting NOW. No one succeeded. Given that I've sat through the demonstration on the commercial flights dozens of times, the results were a bit depressing. Only one of my two Carbon Dioxide cylinders worked and this, again, was apparently typical: I had to inflate the other side by mouth.

We then sat motionless through three hours of ground training. The instructor, in his 15'000 hours of flying, had ditched twice so he knew what he was talking about. His assistant was ex-navy and knew nothing about aircraft ("let go of the steering wheel before hitting the water") but knew a lot about getting people out of things under water. The instruction was magnificent: the sort of thing that you'd never think of by yourself (take your feet off the rudder pedals before you hit the water: the nose wheel will slew violently to one side when it hits the water and the resulting pedal movement will break your ankle).

We split into two groups for the practical session: one on Friday evening and one on Saturday morning I went on Saturday in a group of 7 pupils. "This is high-stress, under-water egress training. It is not suitable for people suffering from claustrophobia, pregnancy, heart trouble, ......." it said on the sign. The instructors had installed their equipment in the deep, diving area of the pool at Carleton University and we turned up dressed in old shirts, trousers and SHOES. Heavy shoes of the type we fly in.

The first exercise wasn't too bad: they threw lifejackets into the water about 10 metres from the edge a nd told us to get them, put them on in the water and inflate them. This time, neither of the Carbon Dioxide bottles worked on any of the jackets and so we all got out-of-breath blowing them up while trying to tread water. At no point in the course were we actually asked whether or not we could swim, a serious omission I think. We then had to huddle together for warmth, particularly protecting one chap who had supposedly broken his ankle in getting out (perhaps he didn't get his feet off the pedals). We then formed a long snake, getting to know one another better by gripping each other around the waist with our legs and paddling backwards with our hands.

We then met the first "cockpit" and the two frog-men who spent the three hours at the bottom of the pool waiting to rescue us if we fell prey to panic and didn't get out. We were strapped individually into a frame with a normal aircraft seat and shoulder harnesses and were then dropped into the water, being tipped over forwards and twisted to disorient us. We had to ensure that we didn't take our harness off until we had found the door frame and then we had to release ourselves and get out.

Fairly simple although very disorienting. The instructors then put windows onto the "cockpit" which had to be pushed out first, using both hands in the same corner. If you pushed elsewhere, you weren't strong enough. Of course, you couldn't push anything if you had taken off your harness because you had nothing to push against (Newton's third law).

Once we had mastered this we moved on to the more mechanised equipment. We were strapped individually tightly into a cylinder not much bigger than me with pictures of aircraft instruments on the front wall to make us feel at home. We then practised finding the door handle by following our right leg, opening the door, pushing it out and then releasing our harnesses and getting out. We were then hauled up to the top of a 45 degree slope ("almost vertical" when you're at the top looking down) and released. Hitting the water, the cylinder started to fill and sink immediately. In the later runs the cylinder was spun about both axes on hitting the water. Completely disoriented, one had to get out. It's amazing how simple instructions are forgotten when one doesn't know which way up one is. At one point my T-shirt floated above my harness release mechanism and prevented me from getting at the release for a few (I feel, crucial) seconds. On another occasion I was pushing very hard on the wall of the cylinder, just to the side of where the door was. No use, nothing moved.

After a few goes in this, we progressed to the final stage: the two seater. In pairs, we got into a cockpit about the size of a Cessna 150 and were again hauled up the45 degree ramp. The cockpit was released and, as it hit the water, it tipped over forwards and sank immediately, rotating forwards as it went. We'd been told to count slowly to 2 to let the bubbles dissipate, then to find the door frame by feel, find our seat buckle by following our thigh, release ourselves and pull ourselves out of the door, feet-first. A life raft was floating not far away, the wrong way up. We had to get to it, invert it and get in.

On the second attempt, doors were added to both sides of the cockpit with special door handles which fell off immediately if pulled the wrong way. Apparently in real accidents, the most common result is two door handles broken off - being upside down, the pilot tries to force his or her door handle the wrong way until it breaks and then goes across and similarly breaks off the passenger's door handle. Thus ensuring that no one will get out of the doors: egress would then occur by pushing out the front windscreen with one's feet (before removing the seat belt!).

For the final test, which I didn't do, one instructor got into the passenger seat with an air bottle. Once down the ramp, he "became unconscious". The pilot had to get out across the comotose passenger, opening the passenger's door, and then go back to get the passenger.

At the end of this we were exhausted. Totally exhausted. Alison, observing from the sidelines, took a whole reel of pictures. I think (1) she should have done the course as well as me but apparently, now she's seen it, my chances of getting her to do it are similar to those of a snowball in a hot place and (2) it would have been sensible to arrange a flying holiday to the maritimes after rather than before the course.

I spoke with our Chief Flying Instructor this afternoon. He asked me whether I was now more confident about flying over water. I told him truthfully that I was now a lot less confident. Knowledge always reduces confidence.

This was an excellent course which every pilot, passenger and car driver (cars do run off bridges) should attend. The course was practical, the instructors were knowledgeable and the content of the course was well designed and well rehearsed. And no one drowned.


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Chris Hobbs