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COPA - July 2001

Aviation Egress Systems Course

by Bryce Gibney

Some time ago I read an article written by Captain Ken Armstrong concerning an aircraft water evacuation course that was offered in the Victoria area. I searched my dog-eared copies of COPA magazines and could not locate the particular article. It crossed my mind from time to time as I flew over Georgia Strait to my vacation home on Vancouver Island. The water never bothered me - I am an excellent swimmer, scuba diver, and proficient boater. In all facets of marine sport I never felt uncomfortable, even in scuba emergency situations. I do, however, know something about panic underwater. The idea of ditching my plane in the ocean seemed to be potentially much more trouble than my POH indicated, or my private pilot licence course material covered. It seemed like a good idea to revisit this course on safely evacuating a ditched aircraft.

I tracked Ken Armstrong down in Arizona where he was test- flying helicopters (some people have tough jobs!). He spoke of the course, and reiterated how valuable he felt it was for all pilots on the coast. Ken passed on the telephone number for Bryan Webster of Aviation Egress Systems. I contacted Bryan, and he gave me the course outline and equipment details. They run the program several times per month, so I booked a full day course at his facility in Victoria for a couple of weeks hence.

Bryan Webster is a pilot for Federal Express. He has a multitude of experience in flying small aircraft, and designed his course to provide a service that simply doesn’t exist for civilian pilots anywhere on the west coast. The course consists of ground school in the morning, followed by the practical water work. He provides substantial written backup from both government and private sources, and various props and training aids including video footage demonstrating just how quickly a good situation can turn into a disaster. The mechanics of floatplanes, amphibs, and wheeled aircraft are individually explored. The exit strategy is discussed, and life vests and other safety equipment are demonstrated and used. How would you like to put the life vest from your plane on in the dark, with perhaps a cabin full of cold water, aviation fuel, and broken glass to contend with? Now is a better time to determine how that gear works and fits! We learned the shocking statistics on surviving a ditching. In approx. 10% of the cases, the pilot gets out and the only real loss is equipment. In 6% of cases, the pilot is killed in the accident/ditching. In 84% of the cases, the pilot/passengers drown trying to get out of the aircraft! That means that 84% of the fatalities can be reduced by proper training! Time to pay attention.

The pool session arrived soon enough, and our class of 6 students and 3 instructors prepared to get wet. They offer two simulators – a single seat unit and a dual seater. We started off in the single seater after familiarization with the scuba safety gear. The cockpit is raised at a 45 degree angle on a hydraulic hoist, and hurled into the pool. It is surprising to see just how fast the unit can sink As the students gain dexterity the instructors throw some real life situations their way, such as inverting the aircraft, jamming the cabin door shut necessitating an alternate exit strategy and the like. All six students did a minimum of 3 dunkings in the single seater. We then moved on to the dual unit. This is a custom made unit to provide training for the pilot to safely evacuate his passengers. I felt that with my background there was a reasonably good chance of personal survival, but after this experience that came into question. It was almost a certainty that my passengers wouldn’t get out alive. We each role-played the rescuing pilot who had to evacuate his passenger, sometimes through the window. What was overwhelming was the disorientation when the craft was upside down. We learned that in many cases the door handle is actually snapped right off inside the plane, because the pilot simple tries to pull “up” to open the door and in fact is pulling the opposite direction. It was very difficult to find our unconscious passenger’s seatbelt and extricate him from the craft. You have to find a knee, and grope your way up to find the belt. This occurred in an 85 degree (F) swimming pool with some visibility. Imagine the difficulty in actual emergency conditions with zero visibility and freezing water! Bryan and his crew were patient, thorough, and professional in every aspect of this training. We did many repetitions of the egress training, taking turns to work through different conditions. They provided life raft training, and proper use of air regulators. There was an opportunity to work both ends of the pool at the same time with different equipment.

The majority of students taking this course to date have been commercial fliers. The float plane companies immediately recognized the benefit. In my opinion, this course makes sense for anyone from a student pilot to a frequent passenger in a small aircraft. One fellow in our session was a helicopter pilot, and Brian had a staff member available for this specialized training. We all agreed that it was terrific training, and great value. Cost? The course cost me two tanks of fuel in my Cessna 177RG. It may very well save a life. Hard to dispute that value.

What do I now know that I didn’t before? Plenty. It turns out I didn’t know anything before so the cupboard was bare! First off, life vests are intended to be worn. I purchased a pair of Mustang inflatable life vests, and outfitted them with automatic emergency lights. They fit well, are comfortable, and I shall wear them whenever over water. Secondly, take a close look around the cockpit of any plane you fly. When you hit the water this is the wrong time to orient yourself. That GPS on the dashboard may become a missile, as will any loose cargo items. The headset won’t do you any good in the water, and a microphone in your mouth may damage your face on impact. Planes sink in a hurry. I purchased a “Spare Air” from my local scuba shop. This is a thermos sized emergency regulator that will provide several minutes of underwater breathing time. It fits nicely in my flight bag. Don’t count on flaring your aircraft. The “glassy water” syndrome will get you first time every time. High wing and low wing arguments have pros and cons both ways. Keep some type of belt cutting tool handy. Handy means on you. You don’t want to be stuck in a seatbelt that is jammed while your plane is sinking. Pick out your swell direction on the ocean from as high an altitude as you can. It won’t be apparent down below 2000 feet. Crack your door prior to impact – the fuselage may bend on impact preventing you from getting out. Don’t lock your baggage doors inflight – ever! Nobody can steal your stuff in the air. You may have to go back in that door to save a passenger. You will not remember to take the keys from the ignition. Water is cold. Hypothermia will set in if you are fortunate enough to survive. Ensure that the life vests you carry will keep your head out of the water. Don’t delay in preparing your passengers for a ditching. Let them know they are going swimming. Establish your glide. Use your radio. Aim for shipping lanes and vessels that can rescue you. Fly the damn plane.

How has Aviation Egress Systems changed the way I fly? Well, the last time I returned from Tofino I elected to maintain my 9500 feet over the Georgia Strait. I paid for that glide range to go over the rocks, so why would I give it up prematurely? Altitude is once again my friend. I am now picking out ocean swells from altitude. I am paying attention to surface vessels that didn’t warrant my prior attention. My preflight notice to my passengers is more thorough, and I am simply a more aware pilot. I intend to go back for a refresher in a couple of years. Panic is a waste of valuable time, and this course deals with it in advance. I shall stay current. Just yesterday a Beaver on floats dumped into Lake Washington in Seattle. It was a textbook case for Aviation Egress Systems. The two pilots involved had to escape their aircraft exactly the way Bryan teaches in his course. One door was jammed, and the other pilot carried out his rescue precisely as they had been taught in Bryan’s course last week! This was an invaluable experience for me, and a life-saving experience for the Beaver pilots yesterday. In my opinion you have no business flying over water, particularly carrying passengers, without this type of training.

Aviation Egress Systems

Victoria, BC, Canada
Phone: (250) 704-6401
Booking Hotline: (250) 704-6403

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