Slam Dunk

I don’t care how well you think you are ready for an emergency, nothing beats professional training to make sure.

My wife, Staci, and I often fly our Cardinal RG over water to favorite diving destinations. And so it was that we were sitting in a classroom of Survival Systems USA, Inc. (SSUSA) in Groton, Conn., to attend the company’s one-day Aircraft Ditching Course. The instructor, Bobbi Lytle, was a diminutive, bubbly young woman, well qualified for the job. The 10,000-square-foot facility includes modern classrooms, offices, garage area for all the open water equipment, complete locker/shower rooms, and a 40 feet by 30 feet pool with a depth of 14 feet.

The first half of the day was devoted to classroom work. Lytle used everything from Power Point to video to actual demonstrations to drive home the point of how serious this business is. But she did it in a fun, relaxed style that made learning a joy.

The comprehensive material covered water survival, search and rescue, aircraft ditching and associated hazards, and factors for underwater escape. As the class progressed, it became clear that we would have a lot to think about in the water sim (or, more correctly, the Modular Egress Training Simulator).

After lunch, we were sent to our respective locker rooms to change into flight suits and water shoes. We had been thoroughly briefed as to what to do and what to expect. They told us that water rushing into our noses would be the worst part, and noted that once we did the first of the required five dunkings to get the certificate, the worse would be over. With Lytle in the sim, and divers in the pool, we were ready. Think of it as “Fear Factor” without eating the bugs.

The drill is that when they call “ditching, ditching, ditching” the sim is lowered into the water. Once it is partially submerged, it then flips over while fully submerging. Meanwhile, you assume the appropriate brace position for your station in the aircraft. When the violent motion stops, you then open the door, locate a fixed point outside of the door with your hand, release your straps with the other hand, and escape. You do the belts last because releasing the belts first will cause you to leave a familiar point in the aircraft, and robs you of all leverage to open your door. Hmm, how many people undo the belts first as soon as the plane ditches? I would have.

For the first run, our doors were off. Additionally, we placed our hand in the proper grab spot outside of the sim so all that’s necessary is to release the belts and escape. This is a nice way to get acquainted with the new sensations and the water in the nose. The worst part was the water in the nose, but the escape went well for both of us. The next run was more interesting. When we were ready, we hit the water and went inverted. Now we had to open the doors. Staci got out fine. But when I pushed on my door, it wouldn’t open. Crap! I instantly realized what it feels like to not be able to get out, running out of breath, and feel the panic creeping in.

This is where the training kicked in. I stopped, shrugged off the fear, reestablished my reference points, and repeated my steps. This time I got the door open and escaped. Lytle said that when I ran into trouble, they were confident to let me continue because they could see me thinking and working it out for myself. Had I panicked and tried to do the wrong thing, I would have been ushered out.

The following runs allowed us to learn how to cross the cabin and escape out of the opposite door, right side up (required), and inverted (by my request).

With the sim session done, it was removed so we could spend pool time practicing water survival techniques, raft boarding and handling, and being lifted out of the water in various devices from collars to baskets. A written test was all that was left for us to receive our training certificates.

I’m convinced that if I had ditched in my plane before this training and we flipped over and flooded, I most likely would have drowned trying to escape. In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to know how to swim to take this training. You don’t. Certainly knowing how to swim helps after you escape, but it’s not required to escape or survive afterwards.

At a cost of $795, the course is cheap at twice the price. There is absolutely no way you can realize the value of this training unless you attend the program or survive an actual ditching. In either case, I assure you that understanding the worth of a ditching course would be a slam-dunk.


Guy R. Maher has been in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours, he flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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