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What to do when your helicopter ditches

Andark Dunker Blog

Your helicopter fails you and leaves you dunked upside-down! What do you do? Don’t panic! True but obvious. However, you need to learn what else to do.  I went to Andark Diving and, along with chaps from Starspeed, Castle Air and some fixed wing and speed boat pilots, was taught what to do in such an emergency. A learning experience indeed.

We were dunked several times both at 45 and 180 degrees, first without windows, then with windows, which we had to jettison and finally with a STASS breathing bottle. It is much harder than you would expect, or than I expected. I’m a normal to good swimmer having done it all my life, I’m fairly fit and I have a NAUI scuba diving certificate. I was expecting the whole thing to be a breeze, but in fact it is something that you need to experience to really understand.

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The first time we went fully upside-down (180 degrees) I did it all wrong. Undid my harness and went down (that is up!) and found myself on the roof of the dunker, where there are a few inches of breathing space. At least, though, that tells you that you are in the wrong place, and it is possible to take a breath of air and swim across, out of the window and into the pool and up to survival!

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The second time, I was next to the window, which made it easier to see which way was up, and my hand was on the window catch release. There was some slowness from me getting the window out, which made me worry about the man behind me, waiting for me to get out, but once that was done it was easy to pull myself out and swim up to the surface.

Version 2The third time we took down the STASS bottle – the breathing bottle. This is an interesting piece of equipment because it is of lower pressure that a normal oxygen cylinder used for diving and after I had been using it for a moment I became convinced it had run out of air. In fact it had not, and I was able to use it again. Once you get used to using the STASS bottle it is actually a great help and I think this is a wise addition by the CAA. It gave us an extra helping hand and slightly reduced any tendency to panic.

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As well as the dunker we did dingy and life jacket training. Of course we all think we know how to use life jackets as we use them in normal over water flying, but how often do we inflate them. In my case this was the first time, and trying to swim over to the dingy and then climb into it wearing an inflated lifejacket is an interesting experience.

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I’m glad I did the training. I think I am now much better equipped to deal with a ditching in the helicopter. That will still be a terrible experience, but at least now I know to try and relax, slow my breathing, think about what is likely to happen and how to resolve it. Everybody should be able to survive a ditching, but they are much more likely to do so if they have already had a similar experience and had training on how to deal with it when it does.

For the full story on how to survive ditching and training at Andark Diving, plus more pictures of the day see the Summer 2016 edition of Helicopter Life magazine out in June 2016.

 

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