Stephen Horn, Antipodes Mouse Eradication Project Manager, retells his experience of the helicopter underwater escape training, in preparation for the mouse eradication happening this winter on Antipodes Island.
The risk of a helicopter crashing into water is very small but the statistics show that being trained in underwater escape through this course, is highly effective in increasing the chance of surviving. The two pilots (Tony Michelle and Darron McCully) and backup pilot (Dave McLaughlin) as well as the people that could act as observers in the back of the helicopter while we are baiting the cliffs, undertook a Helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) course last week at Garden City Helicopters in Christchurch.
The course involved a theory section and then five immersions in the simulator, which was suspended by a crane above a pool. Each dunking became more challenging with the aim of the course to teach people to remain calm in the situation and use practiced procedures to ensure they get out whatever the situation.
The first practice was a sighted dunking, straight down with six people in the helicopter simulator. Our team wore immersion suits during the dunkings similar to those we will wear while flying on Antipodes. Despite the morning theory session everything we learnt seemed to go out of my head as soon as we hit the water and started sinking. The key point was trying to stay relaxed and remain orientated. The buoyancy of the immersion suits pushes you straight up in the helicopter frame so it was important to only release the seat belt once the door frame had been successfully located and the door opened. After we all escaped from this first test the stakes were increased.
The second dunking was straight down but this time “blindfolded” by using goggles blacked out with paint. The third was sighted again but this time the helicopter cage rolled over upside down after hitting the water, followed by a repeat but with the blackened goggles. This proved to be difficult as I struggled to find the door handle in this position, only remembering that it was still in the same position relative to my leg after some underwater contemplation.
The final dunk was sighted, inverted and assumed one of the doors was blocked so required people to go out the door on the far side of the cabin. All very disorientating, as we also swapped seats in the helicopter each time, just to make it more confusing.
Everyone survived thankfully, and fully appreciate the difficulty in getting out of such a situation but feel much more prepared having been through the training.