I Tried an Underwater Crash Simulator to See What It’s Like Inside a Sinking Helicopter
No surprise—it’s terrifying.
Water rushed in as I sat there strapped to my seat. In a flash, it rose to my chest, showing no signs that it would mercifully ease up anytime soon, at a level from which we could simply stand up and walk out of the helicopter crash simulator I was buckled into. I took as deep a breath as I could and closed my eyes, taking one last glance at the front of the cabin as it steadily, almost gracefully, pinwheeled into darkness.
In the moment, I still felt like I could see the seats in front of me, a ghostly apparition by all the rushing water enveloping my head. You don’t dare open your eyes down there, though—the visuals might be confusing, and you risk exposing your eyes to fuel or hydraulic fluid. Better to preserve them for when you’ll need them, at the surface, and rely entirely on the only sensation of any use down there anyway: touch.
My nasal cavity filled uncomfortably as I flipped upside-down; that was the least of my worries, of course. My feet started to lift from the floor due more to gravity than buoyancy, until I pressed them back down—or rather, up. As instructed, I waited until the movement stopped before attempting to do anything, in order to avoid disorientation. Like most instructions I received that day, it was difficult to follow—a challenge suppressing your raw, feral instincts that are screaming out to save your life.
When a helicopter is forced to ditch in the water, there are few “if you’re lucky” possibilities—little chance that it’ll just bob up and down for a while as you escape; no seals that will keep tons of water, at 70 pounds per cubic foot, securely on the outside; not much hope that it’ll even tip over somewhat slowly. A chopper's inherently top-heavy design all but guarantees the opposite—most of a helicopter’s weight, including the heavy turbine engines, the transmissions, and the rotor blades, sits squarely above the fuselage, with the thin shell that comprises the cabin hanging airily below that mass. Unless the helicopter has floats, there’s nothing in its design working in your favor—as opposed to, say, an airplane or a car, which can float at least a little. In fact, you pretty much couldn’t design something to flip onto its belly in water faster than a helicopter if you wanted to.
Your only option, of course, when you do ditch is to get out as fast as humanly possible. That’s how I found myself strapped in to this simulator at Survival Systems USA, Inc., in Groton, Connecticut. The company’s crane-hoisted device—dubbed the Modular Egress Training Simulator—provides intensely high-fidelity simulations of water landings in both helicopters and airplanes, complete with total inversion amid driving rain, high winds, and intense noise. The company and its instructors cater mostly to military, law-enforcement, and search-and-rescue personnel, thought it also works with a variety of helicopter-intensive businesses such as the oil and gas industry.
I came by in the wake of the fatal helicopter crash on March 11 in New York City. In that tragedy, five young thrill-seekers died when the tour helicopter they were flying in lost power and crashed into the East River. Though the pilot made it out safely, thanks to his conventional quick-release seat restraint, the passengers couldn’t extricate themselves from the tightly tethered harnesses used to keep them in place during the open-door flight, and they all drowned. I happened to be flying with that group at the same time, though on a different helicopter; I also went through the same safety briefing the victims did by. In the aftermath of the accident, as part of my reporting, I reached out to Survival Systems to learn a little bit about what the passengers might have faced. To get even a hint of what that was like—and since I’m in helicopters fairly frequently as a photographer—I enrolled in a daylong version of the company’s egress-training course, which I took alongside a dozen far-braver-than-I National Guard soldiers from New Hampshire.
The course begins in a classroom, where the instructor walked us through the conditions encountered in a water landing, the physiological reactions to such exposure, and the basics of water survival that we’d soon replicate in the pool. Then it’s into the water, where the repeated and progressively more challenging exercises help prepare students to keep their composure, work methodically and deliberately, and take the steps necessary to survive. With the help of additional instructors (and under the watchful eye of trained divers there to intervene in a pinch if something goes wrong), we wrestled through the unsettling experience of being inverted, submerged, and locked into a seat while struggling to keep fear and panic at bay in what may as well be in a shark cage—one with razor blades spinning above your head at near-supersonic speeds, to boot. The training begins with shallow-water training in small chairs that a pair of instructors flip over with you strapped in, as you pop off the simulated window, release your harness and swim out. Once we'd mastered that, we progressed to the far more intimidating METS—where the hints emerged of the horror my fellow photo safari-goers experienced as their own helicopter pitched over in seconds and filled with freezing-cold water.
In a crash, presence of mind is key—the same presence of mind that allows you, for instance, to overcome instinct in a skid in the snow and actually lift off the brake so you can regain control and avoid a crash that you’d otherwise plow straight into. But in the pool, you’re forced to suppress panic for far longer, as you go through the steps you must in order to escape.
Hence my struggle in my first dunk. Once the rotational movement of the helicopter ceased and I was fully upside-down, as my left hand floated over the quick-release four-point harness holding me in place, I reached my right hand out to find the lever I knew was there and knew would release my window. But after fumbling fruitlessly for it for a second or two, I assumed that was it—I’d never find the lever. I calmed myself, and remembered my instructions: “Use reference points. Your right leg is adjacent to the lever. Put your hand on your knee and extend it out toward the window.”
Of course, it worked. I found the lever just as I could feel my breath-holding ability begin to give. I punched the window out and it dropped like a stone to the bottom of the pool. Making sure not to take my hand off the window frame—do so, and you’re lost immediately—I popped the harness, swam out through the hole, and broke the surface seconds later with a gurgling gasp for air.
It was a terrifying experience from beginning to end—one I’d endure at least a dozen times that day—yet it was also the best possible outcome for a helicopter water landing. Assuming, of course, you have the knowledge and training required to extricate yourself in an emergency, and that your safety equipment is correctly designed and installed. The passengers in New York had no such training—our safety briefing was perilously brief and incomplete—and our harnesses, makeshift -construction-grade affairs not approved by the FAA, were not escapable. We were anchored to the helicopter with locking carabiners attached to tethers behind our backs. They were out of reach and would have been impossible to unlock under duress. Their experience, therefore, would have mimicked my own only up to a point, absent the possibility of successful escape (or rescue by a watchful safety diver).
Add freezing cold water that would have caused them to gasp almost immediately, followed by a struggle against a fiercely tightened tether, and the situation proved hopeless. Perhaps some tried to use their knives to cut the tethers, but even that would have been an intensely difficult proposition, given the thickness of the straps and the fact that we weren’t properly instructed on how to use them. Eventually, they all succumbed. As Survival Systems instructor Dan McInnis said, “There is nothing fast or painless about drowning.”
Knowing how intense my own experience was in Connecticut, I can’t begin to imagine what the last few seconds for those poor souls was truly like. Even midway through a simple simulation course, I’d had enough; I quit. Some individuals sail through this sort of training, especially if they have scuba-diving experience, considerable open-water swimming or surfing time, or are, like the Guard soldiers in the pool with me, used to being trained in high-risk environments. But after three inversions in the METS, I became increasingly wary of the experience in there, even though my training and muscle memory had begun to take.
Training using the emergency breathing device—a small scuba tank helicopter pilot’s frequently carry on flights—doubled the fear factor. To learn that process, we first had to lower ourselves, inverted, against the pool wall while holding our breath and feeling the water fill our nasal cavities. Once there, we extracted the regulator, purged the water from it, then had to settle our breathing down to a normal pace before we could come up. Once through that process, we’d go into the floating chair for three cycles, and then the METS for three more.
After the first try—when I couldn’t stay down for the duration—I excused myself from the proceedings, essentially done with the entire prospect. I had what I needed for my story. Of course, the Survival Systems personnel have seen that before, and within a few minutes of talking me through the training, they got me back into the pool, where I steadily progressed through the stages in spite of myself. The final METS submersion, of course, was the hardest: full immersion and rotation, wait for the movement to stop, insert and purge supplemental breathing, then scoot upside-down across two rows of benches to the window on the other side of the fuselage. Then find the latch, release it, punch out the window, and swim to safety. I had to dig deep to talk myself in for that one, but managed to do it—marveling at the how the details of my training and practice kicked in even without conscious thought. Even buckling myself in at the start of each trial became second-nature.
In the end, I came up relieved it was over and that I made through...but along with relief came the conviction that there are many, many problems with a helicopter flight that allows untrained tourists to hang from a not-remotely-detachable harness over water. I got in my car and drove home, furious.