Two days of rotary-wing underwater egress training with the Royal Canadian Air Force
As I look around at the people strapped in beside me, I think one thought before I’m flipped upside down underwater, “I’m not ready to die.” The water rushes in around my feet and I take a huge breath and hold it in as the helicopter spins, driving us all underwater.
I never imagined I would one day find myself in this position – but here I am. I have joined a group of six military members of the Royal Canadian Air Force on a Rotary Wing Underwater Egress Training (RUET) course. The company providing this extreme training to our team is RelyOn Nutec, which sells its simulators all over the world. We are taking our training where the company was founded, Halifax, NS.
All military members who work on a helicopter have to take the RUET course. Over the course of two days, we learn how important this training is in order to increase the likelihood of any possible survival in the event of ditching a helicopter. The training is broken up into two parts: The mornings in the classroom and the afternoons in the simulator.
The classroom covers several lessons, including (1) hazards of overwater operations; (2) what to expect in the rollover phase; (3) the importance of proper equipment; (4) how much time you may have to prepare in the event of an emergency that results in ditching; and (5) threats and survival facts. On day two we learn about potential complications with getting snagged underwater, training approaches, cold-water effects, and scenario briefings. All this information was strategically designed for one thing: To prepare us for what was about to come.
The simulator I walk into the simulator and look around. It’s housed in a huge cement pool with a crane dangling the body of a helicopter in the air over the middle of the pool. The lights are on, the pool is calm. It looks innocent enough.
The training is designed to build egress skills one step at a time. Step one turns out to be educating us on what it would feel like if we landed in cold water. They suit us up and dunk us into what they affectionately refer to as the hot tub, which is kept at a balmy 4-degrees Celsius. Ever wonder what that feels like – ice water. It feels like freezing cold ice water. Our instructor said that this course builds transferable skills, but I think this skill must be if you want to prepare for a polar bear dive.
Once the tub activity is complete, we jump into the pool to start our egress training. They teach us how to breathe through the emergency breathing system (EBS), essentially is a cylinder filled with pure air supplied through a mouthpiece. We then lay in our instructor’s arms so he can promptly dump us upside down and backwards under the water. Learning to flush and breath through your EBS upside down is a whole new skill – and it hurts. This pain is a prelude of what’s to come. After preparing in the pool, it’s time to go live in the helicopter.
We watch, some with a little anxiety, as the helicopter lowers down to water level allowing us to climb in. I look over at the two scuba divers who will jump in the water ahead of us. They are here to watch us and help out if we struggle. It makes me feel a bit better. This is how I come to find myself strapped in a seat watching water flood around me.
I start spinning sideways and I see the water flood the pilots a second before it rushes over me. The painful burning fills my nose immediately and I am completely disorientated. Okay, what am I supposed to do? I need to follow the directions from my instructor. I wait until we stop moving, knock out the window with my elbow, place my hand on the windowsill, so I know where to exit, unbuckle my seatbelt with the other hand, and escape! As I surface that first time I’m in a bit of shock. I did it. The pain in my nose and sinuses is harsh, but the thrill of completing the activity outweighs it all. I look around and see everyone else popping up as well. We all survived.
The scenarios get more and more intense over the two days. Mastering the EBS is important because the instructors add hazards and obstructions forcing people to stay under longer. During the last run, I’m amazed at how far we have come. This time I’m sitting on the helicopter and trying to look around. It’s dark now and hard to see, but I know one person is sitting on the side with a gun, another is on his knees by the side door. The pilots in the front have to work around scenarios designed to trip them up. I look sideways and see the waves pounding in the pool below. It really looks like we are in the ocean, with the sound of booming thunder. Lighting is flashing through the sky as the rain pounds down. This time, finally, I’m excited to go under. I know it’s the last run and I’m trained enough to know exactly what to do.
I see the water rush up and I’m not filled with dread. I do what I have been trained to do. Upon surfacing, I feel strong winds hit my face and the waves are crashing over me. I hear yelling. The pilots are calling to us from the front of the helicopter. I start swimming over to them but I’m very slow in the waves. All of a sudden, I feel myself being pulled quickly to the group. As soon as I am within reach, a member of our team grabbed my vest and pulled me toward them. ‘One!” I hear yelled out through the storm, followed by, “Two! Three! Four!”. “Five!” I yell quickly, proud to be a here with them. I feel like part of this team now and that indeed they would leave no man behind.
The jump As a reward for all our hard work, we get to jump off a 15-foot platform into the raging, tempestuous water. From below I look up and think, easy! Then we climbed up. I watch as one team member after another jumps exactly as instructed into the water and swims to the raft. Hands crossed on their chest, looking straight ahead, crossing their ankles as they jump. They are so impressive to watch. They look exactly as you might imagine them to be – professional, strong, brave, well trained military members of the RCAF. I’m going to jump just like them, I think to myself waiting in line for my turn, which comes all too quickly. I go to the edge and get ready to jump. I can’t. My body won’t go. My heart is pounding and I can feel it in my ears. I am so scared. I don’t want to do this. I know I have to. I can’t walk away no matter how much I want to. I attempt it again.
The instructor behind me is yelling at me, “We’re going down! Jump! The helicopter is going down!” I look down and see my team in the water, the wind is blowing so strong, whipping water in their faces. They are hanging onto each other, waiting for me. I have to go. I try again but my body won’t do it. I actually want to cry because I’m so mad at myself. Faintly, and then louder, I hear my name being chanted from below. They are calling my name, cheering me on even while they are being thrown around by the waves. They are not inflating the raft yet; they are going to wait for me. I can’t make them wait any longer. I jump.
I want to say I was as professional and looked just like they did but that would be a lie. It was not pretty. I would describe it as more of a flailing around jump with arms and legs waving about, perhaps made even more distressing by the unintended scream that belted from my body. I smacked into the water, swam to the team as fast as I could, and link arms with them. They waited for me. They are my team. I truly believe they would leave no man behind.
Back in the class for wrap-up I ask Capt. Susan Ireson if she thought the course was fun. “Absolutely not,” she says and we all laugh. “I’m thankful for the training. I really am because I’m not sure what I would have done in a real ditching. But truly, there is not a single part of this I enjoyed.” Maj. Martin Jean had a different point of view, “Actually, I do enjoy it because it’s in a safe environment with divers all around, so I can try some things that might make me more comfortable in a ditching.”
Whether you like this training on not, everyone is much more likely to survive an underwater ditching should they ever be in one. This course has allowed me to be exposed to a part of what our Canadian military members in the RCAF go through; and to have the opportunity to gain another level of understanding of just how much the military members put their lives on the line to serve our country. I salute you all.
Being an honorary member of the military, I didn’t know how I would be received on this course. I didn’t know if the people on the course would welcome me or if they would think that I was in the way of their training. Now that it is complete, I want to say thank you to the brave and strong military members who became my team for two days. Thank you for looking out for me like you do for each other. By simply being yourselves, you have given me a gift to be able to experience the military loyalty, dedication, teamwork and perseverance.
Don’t miss out on this special episode! Get ready for a dose of perseverance as we visit with Teara Fraser and learn how she goes on a small airplane at 30 years old, falls in love, and starts the first female Indiginous owned airline. What lessons can we take into our own life from her drive and dedication to helping the Indiginous community through aviation? Let’s find out.
Tara Foss of Black Swan Helicopters describes how pilots adjust roles with the time of the season
COVID-19 struck the aviation industry hard. Turmoil and uncertainly have many people worried about their future and the pandemic has created a change for almost everyone in the industry. So many aviation professionals are facing layoffs while others are working from home. Still others are out there fighting on the front line, like the pilots and flight attendants who are risking their health to ensure others make it home safely.
Tara Foss is in a different situation. She is not looking at being laid off or even slowing down. She is just gearing up for the Spring activities of many helicopter pilots. With all the craziness around us, it is important to not lose sight of the essential role that helicopter operations play across the country.
Foss is the chief pilot for Black Swan Helicopters which is based out of Berwyn, a village in northwestern Alberta located approximately 35 kilometres west of the Town of Peace River. The 2016 Census of Population conducted by Statistics Canada pegs Berwyn’s population at 526. Black Swan provides flight services for the oil-and-gas industry, wildlife managers and regional firefighters, as well as commercial charter services throughout Western Canada. Led by president Linda Johnson, the company was founded in 2002 and it is also a Transport Canada approved AMO, providing service for Robinson, Bell and Airbus helicopters.
In the colder months For half of the year, Foss is helping to fight wildfires while the other half of the year is primarily spent either surveying animals or in the mountains. Every winter, surveys are conducted to count moose, deer, caribou, and sometimes bison (depending on budgets). Helicopter companies like Black Swan are primarily hired for these services through contracts with the government of Alberta.
Working with biologists, Foss flies grid patterns so that they can look out both sides of the helicopter and literally count the animals they see, while also determining their gender. One way they do this is by looking for a white patch to see if the moose is female. They are doing this to get an accurate count to know the number of animals in the region.
The Bell 206 helicopter flies a couple hundred feet above the ground allowing for viewing out the bubble window – male, female, juvenile, standing, laying down, the biologists have a set list of things to keep track of. The surveying typically runs between January and February depending on the weather and depth of snow. There are several helicopters up at the same time to ensure they are not recounting the animals and so that it’s done in the same temperature and conditions.
This year Foss also spent much of her winter at Silvertip Lodge where she flew helicopters for a heli-skiing operation. It was her first year in this role and she loved the experience, describing it as the most challenging flying she has ever done. Her job was to fly the Bell 206 support helicopter. In this role, she did weather checks, flew snow safety guides and picked up skiers that were either hurt or too tired to finish their skiing down the mountain. She also flew guides up to the weather station or repeater to check or repair them. It’s important that the weather equipment stays in working order as it transmits information like temperature and conditions back to the lodge. The repeater is used for guides and pilots to relay their position and any problems back to the lodge.
In the warmer months As for her firefighting role, the Spring season typically starts in April when forestry workers can access locations. A typical worker will be flown into a forestry lookout tower mid-April and may stay there all summer, coming out sometime in late August or September. Foss is also one of the many pilots responsible for taking care of the tower people while they are stationed in place. Groceries, water, mail, anything they need is flown in on a regular basis ensuring their comfort and survival.
Foss and her co-workers are often assigned to a Helitack (HAC) crew. This means they are on call with a five-minute time limit to be airborne if a call comes in from dispatch. If no smokes are called in, the crew will usually go out on loaded patrols. The helicopter will often fly with a full load of firefighters – just in case they spot something on patrol. They receive their map from Peace River forestry and patrol for smoke. If smoke is spotted, a crew leader will make the decision if they can contain the fire or if they need to call for more resources.
Foss is the only female pilot with her company and I asked her why she thought more women were not helicopter pilots. “Probably lifestyle – I don’t know if many women want to be in the bush and rolling 45-gallon drums of fuel. You can be sitting in 35-degree weather with the bugs or, in the winter, it can be freezing in -35 degree weather. Not everyone wants to do that,” says Foss. “All that being said, I wouldn’t trade what I am doing for anything in the world. I love it. It’s a feeling of freedom when you are flying. I don’t know how to describe it… I just feel free when I’m in the air. It’s where I belong.”