Watery classroom teaches life-saving lessons (video)

KATY — The whole thing happened in an instant: the helicopter dropped into the water, a flood came rushing in, and I had just seconds to knock out a window with my elbow, unlatch my seat belt — all while upside down — and escape to safety. It was  just a drill,  but the panic my classmates and I felt was real. And we did it over and over.

Welcome to Helicopter Underwater Egress Training.

It teaches how to escape from a helicopter if it crashes into the ocean and begins filling with water. My 15 or so classmates at a facility near Katy were heading for jobs offshore, and I was preparing for a media visit to a Shell Oil Co. installation in the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ll make those trips by helicopter — hence the mandatory training known as HUET.

“Virtually every operator requires it now,” said Mark Denkowski, vice president of accreditation and credentialing at the International Association of Drilling Contractors.

The risk of fatalities from helicopter crashes is real for offshore workers. According to a Centers for Disease Control report published last year, 49 deaths related to offshore oil and gas operations from 2003 to 2010 involved helicopters.

Photos: How to escape from a sinking helicopter

In 2009, 16 people died when a helicopter carrying workers from a BP facility crashed into the the North Sea. At least three died off the coast of Ghana last month when a helicopter en route to an offshore rig went into the water.

The CDC report recommends that offshore workers complete underwater escape training, as does the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, which includes most of the major oil and gas companies.

When I started covering the energy industry, one of the first things people in the energy industry asked was whether I had taken HUET.

I’ve learned it represents an initiation of sorts, as a shared experience that few enjoy. About a half dozen people had already told me that the class was terrifying.

The place where I trained is run by Falck Safety Services, which provides safety training worldwide for personnel in the oil and gas industry as well as other high-risk sectors. “We’ve had people come back and say they ditched, and the training is absolutely what saved them,” said Falck’s chief operating officer, Thomas Böhme, a former pilot in the Royal Danish Air Force.

Neither of the two top federal regulators of U.S. offshore safety — the  Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — requires the course.

But the industry’s Houston-based Center for Offshore Safety says most of its members do require the training. “We want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than is necessarily required by any law or regulation,” said  Eric Roan, program manager with the center.

The recent training day started off peacefully enough in  a classroom session with instructor Maria Cardenas, an emergency medical technician, who offered useful tips throughout the morning.

The first thing to do in a lifeboat is take the motion sickness pills stowed on board — and make sure fellow passengers do too. And she reminded us that everyone shouldn’t rush to one side of the boat when rescuers arrive.

She asked how many of us were HUET first-timers. Some were veterans, since the credential must be renewed periodically.

“It’s not that bad,” she told us.

It was absolutely that bad.

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After the classroom session, we donned  bathing suits, coveralls, helmets and  flotation devices, then split into groups of four beside a pool.

The centerpiece of the training is a mock helicopter attached to a miniature crane that lowers the mockup into the water by remote control. The simulator has four seats, with additional room for two trainers. Two spotters in scuba gear also are at ready inside the pool.

In the classroom, we had learned the sequence of events we’d need to know by heart: brace yourself as the helicopter drops into the water; place your hand by the window as the simulator fills with water; take a deep breath before you go under; punch the window out with your elbow; unbuckle your seat belt with the other hand. It seems simple enough, but once the water started rising above our heads, it was easy to forget.

Each of us went through about half a dozen dunkings, each  scarier than the last. In some, the simulator inverted as it filled with water, making the experience even more disorienting.

A 2008 report on helicopter safety for NATO found that drowning is a leading cause of death associated with helicopter accidents because the aircraft don’t float well and can flip over as they fill with water. “This sudden inversion means that not only do the survivors have to escape from being completely submerged, but they have to navigate their way out upside down,” the report reads. “This is guaranteed to disorient everyone on board.”

Böhme said the training curriculum is based on observations of real-life helicopter ditches. Despite the intensity of the course, most people  complete it.

A couple of class clowns made jokes in the morning session. But once we started taking turns in the sinking helicopter, we barely even talked. We just laughed nervously and looked on as classmates emerged from the helicopter.

I can hold my breath long enough to escape with time to spare, but as panic set in,  I felt like I’d be lucky to last 10 seconds. At least twice, I thought I was going to drown.

In one instance, I successfully knocked my window lose, but I couldn’t escape from my seat because  I initially forgot to unbuckle my seat belt.

Another time, I was tasked with escaping through the smallest window in the helicopter and I struggled to squeeze through, even though instructors assured us that men well over 300 pounds could  make it. As I struggled, I tapped my head with my hand — the signal we were told to use if we needed to be rescued — but somehow I got free a moment later.

“We want to make training as realistic as possible while still being safe,” Böhme said. “The more stress you can put into it, the more realistic it’s going to be, and the more correctly you’ll handle it if you’re in a stressful situation where your life depends on it.”

But Falck’s staff also emphasizes to students that even if they make a mistake, they have as much time as they need to go through another dunk.

In my class, three students had to re-do their dunks, and nobody complained.

“We have huge respect for people coming here,” Böhme said. “We know it’s their livelihood. If they don’t pass the course, we know they might not have a job.”

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How to escape from a sinking helicopter