June 21 - 25
The fun stuff was in the afternoon when we went into what they call the low altitude chamber. This was a chamber that holds about 18 students and 3 instructors/minders. You wear flight suits, helmets, and oxygen masks inside. The purpose of this chamber is to let you experience hypoxia (lack of oxygen) to see how you manifest symptoms. Not everybody reacts the same way. For our run they simulated going up to an altitude of 25,000 ft. They then had us take off our oxygen masks and do tasks - play patty cake for most of us. It was very strange and quite interesting. At first it was easy to play patty cake, but soon got much more difficult. After about a minute they changed the order in which we were to clap and pat to show us how hard it can be to think and move in a hypoxic situation. And, boy, was that hard - did they want us to pat our heads twice and clap hands once or was it the other way around?
The main symptom of hypoxia for me was extreme dizziness. I also turned very pale (almost somewhat purple-ish, they said) which I could see in my hands, but would be very easy for someone else to see in my face. Other people in the group felt cold or hot or euphoric or tingly. There can be quite a range of symptoms for different people. The most we were without oxygen was probably three minutes. Some people could go longer than others. As soon as we reached our individual limits we put our masks back on and started breathing oxygen again. The hypoxia symptoms cleared up quite quickly, although I did feel a little light headed for a little while. Once everyone was back on oxygen and feeling all right, they brought the chamber back to sea level.
While we were playing patty cake and acting goofy they were video taping us. We got to watch it afterward. It was rather amusing, but also very instructive to see yourself and others reacting to the lack of oxygen. I looked even more uncoordinated than I had remembered me being.
On Wednesday we had a lecture on first aid followed by some hands on training with some rather realistic dummies. Bleah. Following first aid, we had a very interesting lecture on night vision. The lecture was conducted in the dark with a PowerPoint presentation at very low light levels. At the beginning of the lecture we were shown a slide that looked completely blank to us. By the end of the lecture 45 minutes later our eyes had adjusted to the dark and we were shown the same slide. Lo and behold, it was a picture of a helicopter!
After that lecture we had a lecture on spatial disorientation. That was a prelude to a ride in the spatial disorientation trainer, more commonly referred to as the "spin and puke." I think that was just a name that they gave to make you think it was going to be worse that it really was. It was a pretty nifty machine. They said that it was made by the Walt Disney Company. If you have ever been to Disneyland and ridden on the teacups, that was what it was like. We were placed into individual pods that could spin. Each pod had a control panel with various buttons and levers. The floor on which the pods were attached could also spin. And, finally, there was a screen that went around the perimeter of the room which is round that would show a star field which they could also make the stars appear to spin. They controlled all the three spins separately to induce various sensations- spinning, climbing, diving, or staying still. Nothing actually seemed to spin too quickly. While we were partaking of the event, we were to perform various tasks when they requested. We had to do such things as punch buttons to indicate certain number sequences being shown to us or activate levers to indicate which direction we thought we were going. I found that I always got the direction wrong - I even felt at times that I was climbing or descending which this machine doesn't do. I felt like I was turning when I wasn't and vice versa. In fact, I think every time they told us what we were really doing, I had it wrong. Oh well, I already knew that I couldn't depend on the "seat of my pants" when flying. Always trust the instruments They had music playing throughout the event (Pink Floyd, to be exact - Dark Side of the Moon - rather appropriate, don't you think?) It was a slick little ride.
In the afternoon we had lectures on all the pool operations (a. k. a. evolutions) that we were to have the next day. We covered parachute operations when landing in water, how to get hoisted up by a helicopter, how to survive a helicopter crash, among other things.
Thursday was a big day for us and one that many of us dreaded. We had heard a lot of unpleasant things about the evolution regarding training for helicopter crashes (the helo-dunker). But, more about that later.
We started off proving that we wouldn't drown during any of the exercises. We had to swim 4 lengths of the pool doing a different stroke each time. We wore flight vests (which is the vest that you wear when flying that contains inflatable floaties, flares, a radio, spare water, compass, knife, etc. - the basic utility vest) , helmets, gloves, boots, flight suits, and pressure suits (fancy chaps that inflate when encountering high forces when flying). Our vests were uninflated and, yes, all the gear was a bit heavy. But, I am pretty floaty in general. If I were lying on my back, I had no problems - I could float for hours with minimal effort even with all the gear on. After the swimming we had to tread water for 2 minutes (doesnšt sound long but remember all the gear we are sporting). Then we had to "drown proof" for 2 minutes. Drown proofing is basically a dead man's float. The helmets are quite floaty. If you relax, you can float (mostly) and just lift your head when you need a breath. Or that is the theory. I found that I wanted to tread water to keep all of me out of the water. I probably worked harder than I had to. Once we were done with all of that we got to inflate our vests manually (i.e., blow them up - let's just say that if is a bit difficult to inflate a vest when you are out of breath) and relax a bit floating in the water. When everyone was inflated, we demonstrated the proper huddle up, which is gathering together in groups of 4 in order to conserve body heat in cold water. After all of this, we were allowed to start the real evolutions.
The first thing we did was haul ourselves over to a parachute trainer. We were hung up wearing all the gear described before along with a simulated parachute. We had to demonstrate the proper procedures for equipment handling as one is fixin' to land in the water: IROK - Inflate your vest; Release the raft; Options - take your gloves off, remove your oxygen mask, lift your helmet visor (you do none of these options over land), release the 4-line steering of the parachute; Konnectors (yes, it should be connectors, but one type of connector that is used is the Kochs fitting (pronounced Cokes), so the original acronym is Kochs rather than Connectors. However, the Kochs fitting are only used on jet aircraft equipment. So, the acronym is really Connectors, but the C never switched to a K.. OK - more detail than you needed.) Once you were done with the main bulk of the procedures, they sent you down a zip line into the water. When your feet hit the water, you had to undo the last buckle of your parachute and get out of your harness. Yup, it was fun zipping down as if on a parachute.
Once we were out of our parachute we had to swim over to a life raft, get in, and discuss with the instructor/safety diver, the survival procedures: floatation (don't forget to hook your life raft to your vest so you don't lose it if you fall overboard); first aid, shelter, communication, water, food. This practice was basically a repeat of Monday's activities in the water, but always good to repeat to reinforce what you need to know.
Following the life raft we did the "how to get out of your harnesses if you are being dragged through the water by your still inflated parachute" training. That was definitely fun. And, yes, they dragged us back and forth across the pool while we practiced the proper unhooking clips and wriggling out of things procedures. We started out face down and had to turn over and undo all the buckles of our parachute harness (in the proper order, of course) and then get out of our parachute harness.
Once free of our parachute we got to practice being hoisted up by a helicopter. No real helicopter at the swimming pool, but a big crane that would lift you about 20 feet up in the air. The first run we did on this was the simple one. We just had to hook the giant hoist hook to our vest, attach the safety strap, and get pulled up. The most important thing to learn on this was don't touch the hoist hook until it is down into the water. Apparently it will build up a big charge flying through the air and the last thing you want is to be zapped by your rescue device. Sounds like sage advice to me. We did a second run on this later in the day.
After the hoist practice we started the practice for the helo-dunker. I would like to say for the record that I did not particularly enjoy this evolution. This evolution was in the shallow end of the pool. There was a scaffolding type structure in the water that was probably 10 or 15 feet in length. We had to pass three specific runs with this device (but we got as many tries as it took (yippee)). For the first run we stood in the water next to the side of the scaffolding apparatus wearing a mock seatbelt (attached to a tether that was held by the instructor). Upon the bailout command (Bailout, bailout, bailout!) you were to take a breath, go under water, undo the seatbelt, go inside the scaffolding, hand-over-hand down the apparatus to the far end, open the door (yes, it had a handle lever that you had to actuate), then swim on the outside of the apparatus to the side of the pool. The total swim distance was probably 25 yards. They make you swim far in this run to simulate crashing in deep water. I was at the end of my lungs (remember all that gear that we are wearing?), but I managed to swim the distance.
The second run of this evolution consisted of being strapped into the seat on the top of the apparatus (seatbelt and shoulder harnesses). At the bailout command they dumped the seat over and you had to undo your belt/harness (from the upside down position), hand-over-hand to the far end of the apparatus, open the door and pop out. The first time I tried this I never could find my buckle. I eventually had to twist my body around to pop my head above water and take a breath. I was rewarded with a second try.
The second time around I found my buckle. I then confidently started feeling my way towards the door. I quickly realized that I was going the wrong direction (have to go to the far end, naturally). So, I turned around and started hand-over-hand-ing to the right door. Unfortunately, this caused my harnesses to get all tangled around the seat. I was about three quarters of the way to the door when I was called up short. Helicopter - 2; Shannon - 0. The third try for this run was the charm. And, then we had to do it blindfolded (yes, blindfolded). We wore goggles that were blacked out. By this time I was well acquainted with my buckle and had no issues. I bonked my head when I got to the door since I couldn't actually see it. But, I found the handle and got out. Whew!
One thing is for sure - this device really prepared me for the helo-dunker. But, I think the most important thing I learned is that I donšt particularly want to ride in a helicopter that is going down over water. . .
Following all the fun and excitement of finding one's seat belt buckle while upside down, we went back for our second run on the helicopter hoist. This time they had the giant sprayers on that simulate the prop wash from the helicopter frothing up the water. And, this time we didn't get to use the giant hook to hook on to our vest, we had to properly attach the float (a. k. a., the strop (not a strap. . .)) and safety strap (not a strop) around our body before getting hauled up. Quite a bit of fun. I am definitely ready to be hoisted by a helicopter.
And, then, it was helo-dunker time. . .(Dramatic music in the background, please). We would ride this fun ride in groups of 5 or 6. The basic premise of this skill lesson is that when helicopters crash into water they sink quickly and turn upside down. So, what we had to do was pass three trips (out of six) of dropping into the water and turning over and getting out. The first trip you pretty much got out the closest window to you. Mine was just to my right. Not too difficult - but I sure had my hand on my seat belt as soon as the water hit my ankles. The second time you had to proceed as if your primary exit was blocked which meant that you had to go out an exit across the helicopter. I had to travel a distance of about 10 feet before I reached my assigned exit. The tricky part is deciding when to take your last breath. The last time was if you were crashing at night (of course). We were blindfolded. For this trip I was seated in the front left cockpit seat, which, by the way, collapses upon impact. I had to cross the cockpit and exit the opposite window. They had two safety divers on the bottom of the pool to help you out if you couldn't get yourself out. Plus, if they couldn't get to a person that needed help, they had communications capability so that they could call for an immediate and swift raising of the dunker. We never needed to be raised, but I won't say that everyone got through the first time without help. I was able to pass all three tests the first time. All I know is that there was no way I wanted to be dumped upside down and sink any more than I had to. . .
After the helo-dunker we were dragged across the pool again with a different harness set on (the jet Kochs fittings as opposed to the regular everyday fittings). We again had to demonstrate our getting out abilities.
The final evolution for the day was the "you are covered and tangled in a parachute and have to get out" training. It was nice to have something relatively simple to end the day. All told, we were doing pool operations for about 5 hours. I was certainly ready for lunch by the time we were done. And a nap.
We finished up the week on Friday with more parachute operations. This time it was learning the procedures if you are landing on land. I didn't get jump out of a plane or do any parasailing but did get to parachute in a pretty nifty virtual reality trainer and we had lots of jumping and dragging practice. The virtual reality trainer is much less harsh on the body than the water operations. I am certainly not complaining, but all those parachute buckles gave me some nice bruises. The simulator was quite sophisticated. It was able to simulate parachute malfunctions such that we had to do the proper procedures to recover a good chute. I am proud to say that I was able to land my parachute within 100 feet of where I wanted, which was, by the way, near a fire on a beach. Looked to me like they were having a luau. . .
After the nifty simulator, we went out to a gravel patch to learn how to fall when you touch ground. Lots of falling. You first master the correct falls jumping off a curb, then you try from a 2 foot ledge. Once you have that you jump from 4 feet up. You sure can tell if you aren't doing it right. Finally, you hang on a zip line and fall when they tell you to let go. Gravel isn't the softest thing to fall into, but it sure beats boulders.
Finally, we were dragged across the ground (by our classmates), similar to the way we were dragged in the water, simulating the problem of landing and then being dragged by an inflated chute. If you didnšt already know - water is softer than land. If I didn't have bruises before, I sure had them now. I will have to wear long sleeves and pants for at least a week. . .
And that was pretty much my week. Friday afternoon we had a short welcome brief by our flight instructors for the flying portion of our training at Pensacola. All in all, quite a busy and interesting, if not somewhat abusive, week.
© Shannon Walker 2004
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