CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Brace for impact. Tuck head if in the 2 point harness, fold arms across chest while holding shoulders if in 3 or 4 point. Hold your rifle by the small of the stock; muzzle down on the aircraft. Kevlar on, blackout goggles obscuring all vision. Deep breaths; hyperventilating now and the airframe hits the water and you roll upside down and the sound goes out and water floods your nose and your mind goes in about a thousand directions in a heartbeat as the adrenaline hits your system and now it’s time to see if you were paying attention in class after all. Welcome to the “Helo Dunker.”
Marines and sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit went to the Underwater Egress Trainer beginning May 14, 2012. The training has been steadily gaining weight as the Marine Corps places more emphasis on crash survival since the 1999 crash of a CH-46D off of the USNS Pecos at sea, resulting in the deaths of six Marines and one sailor. The training is designed to help give individuals experience in escaping a crashed aircraft the only way it can, by simulating it with as much realism as possible.
“The more realistic the training, the better chances there are of survival,” said Robert Pitchford, site manager at the Combat Training Pool.
The training begins in the classroom; a three-hour class familiarizing students with the nomenclature and application of the safety equipment they will be using, including the oxygen supply and life vest that every Marine wears during over-water helicopter flights. Parts of the lecture also went into the types of escape hatches aboard different aircraft that Marines could expect to embark upon, the dangers of decompression while on compressed oxygen, and a variety of other subjects.
Next, the Marines headed out to the pool deck, to get their first look at the trainer itself, the module designed to simulate a helicopter hitting the water and flipping over. The trainer looks like an amusement park ride; a metal cylinder with seats of varying types running down the inside walls, all suspended from a gantry crane mounted in the ceiling of the facility. The Marines and sailors familiarized themselves with the types of harnesses and escape hatches before practicing the escapes.
Marines put on their helmets, and with no small amount of trepidation, began the practical application portion of the training. Training begins with the details, the correct procedures for exiting an upside down seating position and breathing compressed oxygen, before combining these into one exercise all in the shallow end of the pool. Marines and sailors, buckled in a chair simulating hitting the water and rolling inverted, had to brace for impact, establish control over their position, blow and clear their regulators, find a window, eject the frame, unbuckle themselves, and swim clear, all with a blindfold on.
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast, and trust in the equipment. The biggest mistake people make in the water is doing everything too fast and getting hurried. Slow down, be confident, and trust your equipment,” said Pitchford.
After practicing the basics, the Marines were introduced in groups of five or six to the trainer, strapping in, and doing a series of five drops. Marines practiced with no oxygen, with blindfolds, with flak jackets and rifles. During the successive drops, Marines switched seats, to practice with each of the types of exits, simulating exits on CH-53s, CH-46s, and MV-22s. Some Marines initially had problems adjusting to the idea of breathing compressed air while being suspended upside down, but most eventually made it through their hang-ups. “It was new to me because I had never been underwater and upside down. It was unpleasant,” said Cpl. Calvin J. Eberhardt, a 26th MEU administrative clerk.
In the end, the Marines and sailors were certified to use the safety equipment and to execute the emergency procedures. The egress training was one of many training opportunities and qualifications that MEU Marines and sailors must complete before and during their predeployment training for their upcoming float with the USS Kearsarge Amphibious Readiness Group. “We fly over water all the time, and there’s always the possibility of a crash,” said Gunnery Sgt. Melvin L. Livermon, 26th MEU administration chief. “I feel like it gave me the basics I need to survive.”