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blank 06/27/14 09:08AM Aircraft Egress, Pilot Training

Aircraft Egress, Are You Ready?
Guest Blog

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Preparing for egress (escape) from a ditched aircraft takes some practice, rather it be from a land ditching or a water ditching. As an Aviation Survivalman with the U.S. Coast Guard, one of my many jobs was to perform or instruct egress training in both the fixed wing and rotor winged aircraft.

Over the years (twenty plus), I started adding different scenarios to my training curriculum that I felt would help to not only keep the (bi-annual) training from being redundant and boring, but would add a different perspective to my trainees. In other words, the normal training places the participant in his assigned flying position with a blindfold. When the instructor yells egress, everyone removes their seat belts, then using a hand over hand craw along the bulkhead, they find their way to the closest exit and depart the aircraft. The egress training is then signed off and back to their shops they go.

One year while doing water ditch egress training on a C-130, I decided to change things up a bit. I made the first run very simple. I had them strap in without blindfold and smacked the 245 bulkhead loudly with my palm and yelled, you just hit the water! As they were trained to do for years, they immediately released their seat belts and started their hand over hand craw towards their exit, and stepped out on to the hanger deck looking for the sign-off sheet. "Not so quick guys. Everyone back inside and let's do this with the blindfold on". At this point, everyone is thinking, this should be a breeze. Once everyone was strapped in and blindfolded, I had my assistants change some configurations in the aircraft. One particular change was to block the primary exits, and allowing only one exit point, the left paratroop door in the back of the aircraft. But it get's better. I rotated the handle that opens the paratroop door to the open position. In other words, they only needed to lift up on the door to open it. Oh, and did I mention the twelve roll seat pallet that was placed in the center of the cargo compartment?

Once everyone was back in position and strapped in, I slapped the bulkhead and yelled, you just hit the water. As I suspected, they all released from the harnesses and started their hand over hand craw along the bulkhead. Bang! I slapped the bulkhead a second time and yelled, "the aircraft has hit the water again and you are all dead"! I explained that if the aircraft came to a stop on the first impact, it would be very dynamic and would most likely result in full causality, especially for anyone not strapped in. However, on a typical, well executed water landing, the aircraft will skip two to three times. Such as throwing a flat rock to skip.

Once this was discussed, we strapped back in. After three slaps (yes my hand was starting to hurt), I yelled, the aircraft has come to a complete stop, EGRESS! So the cockpit crew slowly made their way down the steps to the main cargo compartment to the crew entrance door. I yelled out, forward crew entrance door is blocked and unable to open due to submersion! Here's where it gets interesting. I cannot tell you how many crewmembers got lost in that seat pallet! Even though they knew that the center aisle led through to the back of the aircraft, some actually started going in between the seats to get through it. One guy never did make it out and we ended up helping him. Once they made it to the paratroop door location, I called out that the right paratroop door was jammed and basically directed them through process of illumination to the "already unlatched" paratroop door.

Even though many of these crewmembers have flown in this aircraft type for many years and have probably opened that paratroop door a thousand times, everyone of them grabbed the opening latch and rotated it to the closed (locked) position. They pulled up on the door and guess what? It did not open! Then they rotated the latch to open and then back to closed and attempted again. After three or four attempts, I finally instructed them to remove the blindfold. It was then that they realized that the door was already in the open position when they got to it.

The point that I was attempting to make is that once we get a mind set, it is easy to forget that things are not always the way they should be or seem to be. The objective of my class was to interject possible realisms associated with an aircraft egress. Yes, it is very possible that the cockpit crew would have chosen the overhead hatch or the crew entrance door or even one of the cockpit windows to escape, but I wanted them to experience the concept of secondary exits and even triatory exits. If one exit is unusable rather it be underwater or just jammed, they needed to be familiar with all the exits and the cognitive path to each of these exits. I had them talking to one another, yelling out "forward crew entrance is jammed and unusable"! This information would be valuable information to the crewmembers that were fumbling around the cargo area. It tells them to stop heading for that exit, thus saving valuable time. Once the left paratroop door was opened, they were taught to yell out "left paratroop door is open"! They were instructed to remain at that door, guiding the other crew members to the only known (for sure) exit from the aircraft.

After interviewing many survivors of aircraft crashes, I realized that everyone had their own story about how they made it out. No event is the same. There were roadblocks that they came upon and because they trained for the event, they were better prepared to survive the event. On one particular interview with a pilot and a crewmember of a ditched helicopter, I was able to determine two factors that hampered their escape from the inverted aircraft. The helo was stationed aboard a CG Cutter for a deployment. After receiving some maintenance, the helo was taken on a test flight by two pilots and one aircrew member in the back of the HH-65 helicopter. Because it was a test flight, the aft crew door was kept in the open position. After completing rotor checks they decided to do a controlled spin (slowly) left and right to check the rudder. Everything went fine on the first check, but then the co-pilot requested to do the spins for his own training purposes. He completed the left turn, then reversed the rudder to come right when the helicopter lost control and continued to rotate faster and faster causing it to land sideways the water. They were only about twenty-feet off of the surface, so the impact was mild but the onset was very quick. The flight mechanic in the back of the aircraft was sitting right next to the opened door. He closed his eyes as the salt water slammed against his face but he did not have time to take a gulp of air prior to being met by the incoming water. The water pushed him back and basically pinned him against his seat. Once the water equaled out (compartment was full) and the helicopter completed it's inverted roll, he attempted to release his seat harness which was now stressed with his weight against it. Suddenly, his many years of egress training kicked in. HEEDS! He reached down and removed his Helicopter Emergency Egress Device bottle, placed it to his mouth and blew what little breath he had left into the regulator to clear it. After choking down some salt water in the process, he was finally able to take a couple of gasps of dry scuba air. Once he was able to establish his airway, he placed his feet against the door and pushed himself back while releasing the seat harness. With his eyes still closed, he used a hand over hand motion and worked his way to the opposite side of the aircraft. He grabbed the crew entrance door handle and stopped. He thought to himself, if I go out this door, the investigators will question why I did not go out the open door that I was sitting next to when we went in. So he then started working his way back across the aircraft. At about half way, he realized that he had moved clear across the helo and half way back to his seat position and his eyes were closed! He opened his eyes and saw the opening needed for his escape and hand over handed his way out of the airframe and popped up to the surface.

In the mean time, the pilot was having trouble with his door. It was jammed! In a panic, he tried to climb backwards out of his seat to get to the back of the aircraft. The opening was not big enough and he had one other obstacle, his seat harness was still on! Then he remembered the HEEDs. He reached down and pulled his Helicopter Emergency Egress Device out and was able to clear it and immediately started breathing the fresh scuba air. Once he was able to get an airway, he was able to calm down and make another attempt to push his door open. It would not move. His next exit was the back of the aircraft. Using a hand over hand technique, he was able to climb into the back of the aircraft. Once he got to the back, he had the presence of mind to do a sweep with his hand to ensure everyone had gotten out. He then proceeded to the open crew entrance door and came to the surface. It's estimated that he came out of the helo about fifteen seconds after the flight mech made his exit.

So what did we learn from this event? I found it intriguing that the flight mech had his eyes closed throughout his visit to the other side of the aircraft and halfway back. When I asked him why he thinks he did that, he replied that he always went through the SWET (shallow water egress trainer) and HEUT training with his eyes closed. He figured that if he ever went in, he wanted to be able to escape even at night. So he kept his eyes closed every time he did the training. He had done the SWET training about eight times and the HUET about three times in his career. When I asked him about going to the other side of the aircraft, he said he could not explain that one.

I am a very strong believer that cognitive learning is the most valuable learning theory. He trained over and over with his eyes closed, his cognitive learning kicked in when the actual event happened. He did just as he trained himself to do. This is why I say it's best to train with visual awareness as well as blindfolded. It will either be daylight or dark when an event happens so you have to prepare for both events. Had he opened his eyes sooner, he would have seen his open exit and made an uneventful egress. Another area of discussion was the opening of the second crew entrance door of the aircraft. Had he opened that door, it is believed that it would have caused a significant loss of buoyancy in the airframe and would have probably sent the aircraft quickly to the ocean floor.

When training for egress, it is best to use realism in the training. Do it with blocked exits (a common factor in aircraft egress), Use a blindfold or darkened glasses to inject night time egress, and without blindfold for daytime. Visualize your escape if inverted, practice hand over hand escape. Keeping in mind that once you let go of a reference point in the darkness, you are lost. Practice seat belt release and proper placement of the belts once you release them. Seat belts are a primary snag hazard during an egress especially when wearing a life vest. Practice staying at the exit and shouting to the other passengers on which way to travel for the exit. Practice taking your survival gear out of the aircraft with you. Can you reach your life raft? If the life raft is in the back seat, can you or your passenger lift it over the seat before or during the egress? These are all areas that should be covered in a egress training session. Once you have made your escape, let other know. This not only helps them know which way to go for the exit, it also encourages them to know that an exit has been found and that the person at the door is there to help them out of the aircraft. As a side note, like a burning building, it is never recommended to re-enter an egressed aircraft. You can reach in from the entrance, but never go back in.

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