Many people in the north-east will have been regaled at some point with stories about helicopter underwater escape training.
Whether someone has flown to an offshore oil and gas platform once or 100 times, they will have all had to experience the “dunk” in order to pass the necessary courses.
The process involves trainees sitting in a replica helicopter fuselage, which is then sunk into a pool, simulating a crash landing at sea. They must unclip themselves from their seat, exit via a window and swim to the surface. Divers are at hand in the water should anyone get into difficulty.
Having heard from several friends about their experiences completing the course, I’d always been intrigued to try it for myself.
Thanks to Maersk Training, I was recently offered the chance to try my hand at HUET and to see how I’d cope with the infamous dunk in the water.
On the drive to the firm’s base in Portlethen, which recently underwent a £720,000 revamp, I played out several scenarios in my head, all of which ended with me coughing and spluttering poolside.
After arriving at the centre, my co-trainee Richie and I were issued overalls, helmets and flight suits, all of which we’d have to wear while completing our escape.
We were then given a socially distanced, whistle-stop briefing on what steps to follow if the helicopter you’re flying in is forced to ditch at sea.
It was time for the main event – we got into the pool, which was a barmy temperature compared to the North Sea, before swimming out to the simulator and strapping in.
The first helicopter underwater escape training exercise was relatively straightforward. An instructor lowered the module into the water, we waited for seven seconds to let the oxygen leave our suits, unbuckled the harness – I rather stupidly undid mine too early and floated to the top of the fuselage, making my escape slightly tougher – and swam out the window to safety.
For the next run panes were fitted in the window and we had to push them out before evacuating.
Up to this point, it was reasonably plain sailing. But, for the next exercise, and this is the one people always talk about with a mixture of fear and excitement, the simulator would be capsized.
Clearly sensing the unease, Steve Bonner, one of Maersk Training’s safety and survival instructors, said: “Don’t worry, it’s like an underwater rollercoaster”. I appreciated the intention but it did little to quell the butterflies.
Having buckled up once more, the simulator was rolled 180 degrees. All sense of up and down immediately went out the window next to me and an escape mechanism I didn’t really know I had kicked in.
I freed myself, shot out of the fuselage and, after a bit of flailing about, broke the surface of the pool. It was undignified, but it was an exit.
Truth be told, I’d built up the simulation, and the last exercise, in particular, to be far more daunting than it was in actuality, though if you don’t like water or small spaces I can understand the trepidation.
The training, as well as being enjoyable, gave a great, unique insight into a small but crucial part of offshore work. At the very least, I took a belly full of pool water away from the experience.