When I fly, I grip the armrests with my wet palms and telepathically encourage the pilot not to crash. And when I swim, I stay away from people who might pull me under for sport.
Crashing and drowning are two of my biggest fears, so why in the world I volunteered to participate in a training exercise involving both can only be chalked up to my stubborn Finnish heritage or the fact that I'm a journalist and hate being left out of the fun.
The bright idea to train a Daily Astorian reporter and photographer originated with the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Astoria. A handful of Discovery Channel reporters were on base to film a three-week documentary. They wanted to fly with the HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews on search-and-rescue missions, but needed to practice basic survival skills for the remote possibility of a helicopter crash over water.
It only made sense to train members of the local news media at the same time. Great stories emerge without warning, so it's better to be prepared.
That's how Daily Astorian photographer Lori Assa and I found ourselves standing on the edge of the Astoria Aquatic Center pool decked out in blue flight suits, helmets, weighted vests and booties on a recent morning.
Our first task was to swim the length of the pool three times.
"It's not a race, just go with it," we were told. And above all, "Don't panic."
We jumped in, and our blue flight suits clung to us like wet wash on a line. Swimming with your clothes and shoes on gives you an idea of how far you can go during an accident, and whether you could make it to a raft, the Coast Guard rescue swimmers explained.
Any raft had better be pretty darn close if I were going to make it, I decided.
Next we had to tread water for two minutes, again in our flight suits. We were instructed to make large circles with our arms and legs. Another survival method is the "dead man's float," where you put your chest and face in the water and lift up when you take a breath. It's not recommended in the cold waters of the Pacific and Columbia River because you lose 70 percent of heat through your head, so putting it in the water increases your risk of hypothermia.
We tried swimming under the surface next. If jet fuel has spilled, it's safest to swim as far as possible under the water. When you have to come up for air, first push the water away from your face. Fuel will often ignite, and you don't want to get it on your skin or clothing because you'll burn with it.
In a real helicopter crash, crew members would all be carrying HEEDs or Helicopter Emergency Egress Devices - basically small metal canisters filled with 1 to 3 minutes of air to increase escape time. Sounds like a great deal, until you submerge your head under water and try to suck out a lung full of air. It takes a deep breathe to break the seal, and instinct tells us to breath in through the nose. I came up sputtering. I had to plug my nose to concentrate on breathing through my mouth.
Our last task was to practice egressing from a helicopter. This involved strapping ourselves into a SWET, or Shallow Water Egress Trainer. The contraption looks like the roll bars on a dune buggy. All the sides are open, except for a piece of Plexiglas with holes punched in the side to reduce water pressure.
While the SWET didn't look as scary as I had envisioned, escaping from it wasn't a piece of cake.
I sat on the hard plastic chair and put the flight seatbelts on over my shoulders and lap. The rescue swimmers tipped me upside down into the water.
My eyes were open, but I could only see the rushing water. I gave the seatbelt a quick turn to release the belts and did a kick-punch combination on the "window." In my rush to get to the surface as quickly as possible I ignored the directions. Window first. Then the seatbelt. Hang on to a reference point - a bar, the seat - at all times. In a real accident, if you let go of your reference point, the water rushing into the aircraft could cause you to get disoriented inside the cabin.
I let go of my reference point and instead of coming out the "window" I found a space between the bars and poked my head up. It was too small to get out; plus, I realized, two of my seatbelts never unbuckled.
I had to try again.
"Which way do you want to go?" one of the swimmers asked. The top of a helicopter is heavier than the bottom, so if a bird crashes, it turns upside down. Supposedly helicopters flip to the occupants' right when they crash, but in a December 2004 Coast Guard helicopter crash in Alaska, it turned left. It all depends on the weather and how much fuel there is and where it's located. I pointed to the right, and took a deep breath.
Keep a reference point. Window first. Reference point. Then the seatbelt. Reference point. This time I only punched out the window. In a real emergency, kicking around could injure other people. I gave my seatbelt a solid twist. I let go of the bar next to the seat and grabbed another pole. In a matter of five seconds, I was out. It felt more like a minute.
"Don't you feel proud now?" asked Lt. j.g. Amy Sandbothe. "Look what you did!"
I grinned. I knew that real Coast Guard men and women go through training that is far more rigorous. Anyone who goes up in a helicopter has to go through SWET training once a year, completing drills that involve losing your HEED and having your escape route blocked. Every six years they have to pass the D-5 Dunker, which is like a giant coffee can. An entire helicopter crew can fit inside, and there are real doors and windows they have to open and escape through.
This was just a little taste, but I did feel kind of cool - despite all the water up my nose.
Training for a helicopter crash really isn't so scary after all.