Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Every four years, I go through water survival training at the Marine Survival Training Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is run by the University of Louisiana. MSTC actually offers a few different courses for folks who make their livings in offshore waters, and ours is known by the acronym "HUET": Helicopter Underwater Egress Training. It involves, along with classroom instruction, strapping oneself into a helicopter mock-up cabin elevated above a pool, then riding along as the cabin is dunked into the pool, then turned upside-down. It's then up to the students to stabilize themselves with handholds, locate the emergency exit, operate the emergency exit, release the seat belt and shoulder harness, and escape from the "aircraft."
I think it's safe to say that most of our pilots and mechanics do not look upon HUET training fondly.
HUET isn't designed just for pilots; oil companies and service companies send their employees, those who ride as our passengers, to the training as well. This year, for the first time, I was the only pilot in the class, although a PHI mechanic was in the class with me. The morning hours were devoted to classroom instruction, and with a number of first-timers to water survival training in the group, the air of trepidation was heavy.
Oh yeah, there was another first for me: I was the oldest in the class, and the one who'd been through the training the greatest number of times. Getting older is weird.
We had a break for lunch, and then reported to the pool building for the training. Several of the students looked nervous, but one woman in particular looked scared as hell. I overheard her talking to a classmate and learned that she was a single mom, and that her upcoming offshore position was her chance to break away from a life of dead-end, minimum wage jobs.
The kicker, of course, was that she had to successfully complete HUET training before getting her chance to gain a better life for herself and her children.
Her group went into the "dunker" before mine. I saw the look on her face, and I felt terrible for her.
"Please let her make it," I thought.
In the training, everyone gets six rides in the simulator. The first involves only partial submersion, staying upright, when the students are responsible for deploying the emergency exits. The second brings actual immersion of the cabin, and escape from the simulator.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rides are when things get really interesting: the cabin is submerged and turned upside down. Maintaining orientation by using handholds instead of vision, and pulling oneself out instead of trying to swim are crucial memory items.
I watched the young woman go through her first two rides. She looked petrified, and she hadn't been turned upside down under water yet. I wondered how she'd respond. I feared it wouldn't go well, and it made me sad. Four more rides in the simulator, and two hours on the clock, and she'd be on the way to a better job and a better life.
But looking at her face, and watching her body language, I had the feeling her journey was coming to a sad ending.
Her group came out of the water, and the group before mine went in for their first two rides. I maneuvered along the side of the pool to where she stood. She was on the verge of tears.
"It's kind of intimidating, isn't it?" I said.
She looked at me. "You're a pilot. (We're required to go through the training in uniform.) It probably isn't intimidating to you."
"That's because I've done it for years. But geez, the first time, I cried."
She laughed. "You're lying!"
I laughed too. "Well, okay, but I felt like crying."
She sniffed. "So it gets better?"
That was all I could offer for moral support, though. Our groups got separated again.
And then it was her group's turn again, and she was the last out of the simulator, assisted by two safety divers wearing scuba gear. Her first upside-down egress obviously didn't go well. She stood at the platform at the end of the pool and cried. I couldn't hear her, but I'm pretty sure she was saying, "I can't do this."
The youngest of the instructors leaned toward her face and talked to her, quietly. I have no idea what he said to her, but I could see the kindness and the patience in his face, and the end result was that she agreed to give it another try.
Out of the eight people onboard the simulator on the next ride, she was not the last out. She was next to last. An improvement. And, the safety diver wasn't holding her arm. She looked scared, but I thought I saw a glimmer of hope on her face. On her fifth out of six rides, she was still next to last getting to the surface.
On her last dive, though, she popped up in the middle of the pack. She smiled as she swam to the edge of the pool. The instructor fist bumped her and said "Good job!"
About that time, I imagined her going home to tell her kids that Mama was getting her new job for sure, and maybe taking them to their favorite place to eat in celebration. My sinuses started giving me fits.
Damn pool water.