MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. -- A grim possibility of being lost at sea haunts every helicopter flight over the ocean.
That's why nearly 50 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit took steps Jan. 8 and 12 to minimize the risks associated with over-water flight during training conducted here at the Aviation Survival Training Center.
The training focused on fleeing a submerged, inverted helicopter and proper use of the Helicopter Emergency Egress Device (HEED). The training and underwater breathing device increase a Marine's odds of surviving an over-water helicopter mishap.
"As MEU Marines, we'll be spending a lot of time in helicopters," said Col. Thomas D. Waldhauser, commanding officer, 15th MEU. "We need to have the skills and confidence to survive any over-water mishap we may face."
The instruction teaches situational awareness when riding in a helo, according to Mark Hath, a civilian Navy diver and water survival instructor. "If a crash is survivable, I'm going to survive, and I think our students will now, too."
Both sessions start in the classroom. The importance of scouting the helicopter is stressed both days. "Reference points" must be identified before every takeoff, according to Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Pitts, an aerospace physiology technician and instructor.
"Look for stationary objects like pipes and seats when you first board an aircraft," he said. "These things can guide a survivor to an exit in dark water. Make sure you know where every exit is; you never know when your primary one may be blocked or stuck."
The students also were told to leave seat belts fastened until violent movements have stopped. Also, they were instructed not to kick while swimming to safety after a crash. In tight quarters and dark water, a swimmer accidentally may kick another Marine trying to escape.
After a brief series of tests ensuring everyone was ready for the practical portion, Marines headed into the helo-dunker tank. The dunker, a cold steel contraption suspended two stories above a deep training tank, intimidated many seeing it for the first time.
The dunker is a simulated CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Windows line each side with four seats under each set of windows.
Once belts were fastened, an instructor shouted, "brace for impact." Marines bent at the waist and grabbed under their knees, thereby preventing their spines from compacting like an accordion on impact.
The dunker hit the water with a jarring thud and began sinking. Marines clung to windowsills and other reference points as water quickly washed up around their feet, then waist. Finally, the dunker was fully submerged. Marines scurried to release seat belts and pull themselves through empty window frames. They surfaced with ease.
The second time, the dunker jerked, rotating 180 degrees before anyone could attempt an escape.
The trainees didn't know which way it would turn until the rotation began. Those on the side going in first looked on pie-eyed as they disappeared backward into the water.
Once upside down, disorientation hit. Those who forgot to get reference points now flailed about trying to get out. Everyone made it out, but those who remembered to mark reference points exited earlier.
Goggles covered with opaque paint simulated the darkest waters for one last dunk. Once again the bird sank, but this time, most everyone remembered to grab a reference point or two. Despite the blindfold, heads popped up faster than before.
"The blindfold was kind of scary at first, but the reference points I selected before we ?crashed' enabled me to get out fast," said Cpl. Clayton Berry, an intelligence analyst. "I feel more comfortable in the water. I used to be a little worried (about crashing), but this cuts that worry in half at least."
Those successfully completing the three dunks continued on to HEED training.
The small aluminum bottle holds three to four minutes of air. It's carried in a Marine's life preserver vest when aboard an aircraft. With a snap release, it can be accessed quickly to provide enough air to escape a mishap, but without proper training, it can be as dangerous as it is lifesaving.
"It is very important to understand that air is greatly compressed at depths," Hath told the class. At 30 feet below the surface, the air contents of a whole room are compressed into just a few square feet. One breath from a HEED bottle is like breathing all that air when at that depth. The air will expand to its normal volume once a person surfaces. The lungs could explode if the proper techniques aren't applied.
"You should come up slowly," Hath warned, "while exhaling slowly all the way to the surface. A good rule of thumb is to never come up faster than your smallest bubbles."
After the advisory, the class hit the pool for HEED exercises followed by more dunking in 6 feet of water. A helicopter chair equipped with a seat belt sat on top of the water with the support of a rectangular-shaped frame under the surface. Once again, the importance of reference points was stressed.
The fun began the third time up. With the HEED in its place on the life vest, the chair flipped over. The Marines released themselves and swam underwater to the exits. This time, instructors blocked the exits.
Grabbing a reference point with one hand, the trainees deployed their HEED bottles and swam out the other end of the rectangle.
The final trial brought another scenario. Once upside down, the Marines reached for theirs belts, which were stuck. They deployed the HEED underwater and upside down, then unsecured their seat belts and swam out.
The pool training was over, but the true tests may be yet to come. The 15th MEU is heading into a six-month predeployment training period before deploying for another six months.
During that time, many Marines will fly numerous hours in helicopters, many times over large bodies of water.
"The classes really helped get us familiar with the possible situations we could face in case of a mishap," said LCpl. Darrell L. Hall II, 21, a data network systems specialist. "Now I'll be able to stop, think and get out rather than panic."