AUTHOR’S NOTE: After making this post, with the permission of Survival Systems USA, a longer, more refined version was accepted for publication in Plane & Pilot magazine.
“Brace, Brace, Brace,” I repeated in my head. Knowing impact was imminent, I crossed my arms, gripped my hands neck-level to the top of my belt straps and dug my chin deep into my chest.
I only managed one small, shallow breath before the plane flipped and rushing waters overtook me. My initial reaction was one of panic, but I knew that panic could lead to death. Instead, I did my best to stay calm until the violent motion of the crash ceased. The wait felt like forever.
When the movement finally stopped, I opened my eyes and was met by a sea of darkness. The door closest to me was apparently jammed. I felt around trying to orient myself. Keeping my left arm in the brace position, I ran my right hand down to my leg for reference and up to the rim of the panel in front of me. If I held onto that rim, I knew I could follow it down to the exit on the other side of the aircraft.
Pressing my feet firmly into the floorboard, I used my left hand to unlatch the seat belt and slowly began scooting towards the other door. My feet hit some kind of obstruction along the way. I had to lift them up and over it, taking care not to let them drag behind me. I had to keep my bearings.
When I reached for the door, it wasn’t there… maybe it came off on impact. So I curled the fingers of my right hand around its frame, pulled myself through and began swimming up to the surface of the water.
That’s how long it took from the moment water began flooding my sinuses to the moment I broke free on top. When I reached the surface, the wind, lightning and rain stopped, and the lights of the room were turned back on.
I had successfully completed my final run in aircraft ditching and underwater egress training.
This short video shows some of the training involved, as well as the final simulation described above –
The two day course, “General Emergency Duties,” is one of several offered at Survival Systems USA, Inc in Groton, CT. I had heard about it after reading an article in the NY Times and was immediately intrigued.
Physically, I found the experience less challenging than I anticipated. Psychologically, the course was quite difficult for me. All my childhood insecurities came flooding back – I’m not good enough. Not strong enough. Not smart enough. But exposing my insecurities and discovering what I really fear was a big part of why I wanted to do the course in the first place.
Last blog: Simulate a plane crash?
Some pictures from the day…
They encouraged anyone with anxieties about the aircraft ditching part to go first. At the time, I was nervous, but not super anxious, so I hung behind. Big mistake.
When I started watching the other students getting dunked, my anxiety levels shot through the roof. By the time they progressed onto the larger aircraft simulation device, all I could think was, “Nope.” Actually, it was more like, “HELL nope.”
Once it was my turn, I was a petrified mess. Instead of doing the Shallow Water Egress Trainer (aka, the “SWET Seat”) seat twice like most students, I had to do it four times – a couple extra until I could get it right.
Thing is, unlike the other students who were there because their companies required them to be, I was there because I wanted to be. I could have left at any time. But I didn’t. Although, after watching round after round of others being dunked, I definitely gave it some thought.
The second I climbed into the big blue Modular Egress Training Simulator (METS), I looked up at the instructor in front of me and said, for the first time in my life, “I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can,” he reassured me.
No, I can’t, I thought.
“What are you most afraid of?”
“I’m going to panic.”
And panic I did. The first time we hit the water and flipped, I went straight for my belt to unleash myself. My arms were flailing around looking for the door. There was nothing calm and methodical about my movements. I was all over the place.
But I got better with each run and, surprisingly, the final one in the dark with the wind, rain and lightning was the one that scared me the least. By that point, I was finally getting a handle on things. More importantly, I was finally getting a handle on myself.
While I contribute much of the reason I was able to complete the course to self-determination and refusal to fail, I also owe part of my success to an exceptional instructor. He calmed me, made me feel safe and stayed by my side the entire time. Despite my fears, the only danger I faced that day came from within.
Their halls are filled with lots of pictures of previous students, including a few big names-
(don’t mind the Monkey photobomb)
Here’s arguably the most famous couple in the modern aviation world, John and Martha King –
Other than underwater egress training, the course also included topics such as open water survival, high altitude decompression, fire fighting in a smoke-filled cabin, and First Aid/CPR/AED. It was a great experience and I recommend it to anyone interested in learning real world survival techniques and what you can accomplish when you do not let fear dictate your decisions.
For more information: Survival Systems USA
DISCLAIMER: I am in no way affiliated with this company. Just a very satisfied client.