CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
It was a sunny December afternoon.
Seventeen Marines and their corpsman flew in a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter, approaching the flight deck of the USNS Pecos off the California coast. They were supposed to fastrope to the deck. It was supposed to be a training mission.
The helicopter swooped toward the flight deck. The crew chief may have noticed they were coming in low.
What happened in the next seven seconds took seven lives of the 18 aboard. December 9, 1999, around 1 p.m. the rear wheel of the CH-46 caught the ship’s safety netting. When the pilot powered up, the steel net refused to yield. The helicopter rose for a moment then flipped and hurtled sideways into the water. In an instant, a training mission changed to one of the most memorable disasters in recent Marine Corps history.
Some who survived described a hellish nightmare of disorientation, debris, injuries and fuel in the waterlogged blackness of a sinking helicopter. Finding a way out proved one of the most critical, and perhaps most difficult, differences between life and death.
“Being a rotary aircraft, it will invert in the water,” said retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Don Hensley, chief instructor at Survival Systems USA’s Camp Lejeune Training Center. And in 2006, nearly half of all Class-A mishaps took place over water, according to Hensley. This can spell disaster for anyone, including a team of combat-loaded Marines, secured to seatbelts inside.
Hensley and a group of instructors run Marines through Shallow Water Egress Training, which teaches them the basics of surviving a helicopter water crash. Command Element Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit took the course Feb. 6-7.
“You flip a student upside down, their first instinct is to unbuckle and get right side up,” Hensley said. “They’re also likely to punch, kick and scratch somebody else. What this teaches them is to control that panic that could take over,” he said.
The training consists of several hours of classroom instruction and gear familiarization, followed by practical application in the pool. Students must not only master escaping, they master it upside down under water in the SWET chair, to which students secure themselves with a seatbelt before their instructor flips them into the water.
Students also learn rudimentary water survival concepts and to wear and use the Life Preserver Unit-32 and the Intermediate Passenger Helicopter Aircrew Breathing Device. The IPHABD, sometimes pronounced “eye-pea-hey-bid,” is an emergency breathing system that can give survivors up to about two minutes of air, hopefully just enough to extract themselves and get to the surface.
“The IPHABD is not a magic lamp,” said SWET Instructor Philip Gosselin. “It’s a tool. You’re the one who’s going to get you out of the situation.” Gosselin‘s status as a former Marine sergeant helps his students relate to him. “The most important thing is to get out of that aircraft,” he said.
More than three quarters of helicopter water crashes, or “ditches,” took place with little to no warning, giving passengers 15 seconds or less to prepare. Without time to prepare and plan, training and muscle-memory must take over, Gosselin said.
Like many Marines, Cpl. Wesley E. Holiday has ridden on several helicopter missions, but before Feb. 7 had no formal training to use the gear that could save his life. Holiday is the maintenance noncommissioned officer in charge with the 26th MEU's communications section and hails from New Palestine, IN.
"I had like 15 seconds to get on the bird (helicopter) and fly out," explained Holiday. "Basically what I was told, if you've got to use the tank (IPHABD), we don't have time to show you how. If you've got to use the floatation device, pull these."
Holiday said he's ridden CH-46 Sea Knights like the one from the 1999 disaster, and the Army S-67 Blackhawk, but before SWET, had no formal water-ditch survival training.
"This is really valuable," Holiday said. "All my Marines learned a lot in class. They make you see the whole picture and put it together in a way the average Marine can understand.
"We learned how to use all the gear, how to position ourselves to respond if we turn upside down," said Holiday.
"This training will even help if your land vehicle turns upside down. You learn to know where the exits are and reference points, that type of stuff. Before, I never knew to look for stuff like that."
A MEU is one of the quickest, most versatile, and at times most lethal options of exercising American political will. At the pointy end of the spear, the Command Element Marines could easily find themselves heliborne should the MEU need to act. 26th MEU Commander Col. Gregg A. Sturdevant feels it’s imperative his Marines learn all they can before getting underway.
One of the most important lessons, according to both Hensley and Gosselin, is for Marines to stay belted in until the right moment. Releasing a seatbelt too early not only turns that Marine into potentially dangerous debris, it removes any leverage he’ll need to open an emergency hatch.
Hensley said the greatest obstacle to the training was the Marines themselves.
“One of the most difficult things is getting students to come to us, getting command elements to see the value and send people through,” said Hensley.
The bottom line: this training saves lives, said Hensley. Whereas Marines in the aviation community regularly get water-ditch survival training, “The average Marine in the fleet plays the life vest lottery,” Hensley said. “He doesn’t know how to operate the equipment or how it functions.” The SWET training gives Marines an understanding of what this type of event is like and how to behave in those conditions to survive.
Benefits of the training will increase considerably when the new SWET facility opens, scheduled for March 31, 2008. The new training facility will have an array of equipment and simulators where the instructors will have full control over variables like water temperature and scheduling. Students will undergo a full two days of training in scenarios reflecting CH-46 and CH-53 ditches.
The new site will be the latest of only four such facilities in the Marine Corps, with others at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Okinawa, Japan.
The MEU picks up its major subordinate elements Feb. 14. It’s slated to complete predeployment training and get underway aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) Expeditionary Strike Group in the late summer.