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When Every Second Counts

16 Jan 2009 | Lance Cpl. Tyler James Hlavac

Approximately 20 Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit managed to 'keep their heads above water' and learn the basic principles of underwater egress during the Modular Amphibious Egress Trainer course on Camp Hansen Jan. 9.

The three-day course is offered by Survival Systems USA, a company that specializes in instructing both civilian and military pilots, aircrew and passengers in water survival, aircraft ditching and emergency escape procedures, as well as rescue and sea survival techniques, according to Kurt Reese, the MAET chief instructor.

The issue of water survival training is a personal one for the Marine Corps. During a training exercise in 1999, six Marines and one sailor with the 15th MEU died after their CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed into the ocean while conducting fast-rope training off the coast of San Diego. Since then, the Marine Corps has installed several egress training facilities across the Corps to ensure the safety of passengers flying in aircraft over water.

Reese said the course is composed of several hours of classroom time. Students learn how to properly exit a sinking CH-46 or CH-53 aircraft and how to use the Intermediate Passenger Helicopter Aircrew Breathing Device, the device is similar to a small scuba tank that provides up to three minutes of air and is standard equipment for passengers aboard helicopters flying over water.

After classroom time, the students hit the Camp Hansen 50-meter pool to apply the training they received. The students ran through several simulations inside of the egress trainer, or 'helo dunker' as it is commonly referred to. The helo dunker simulates the inside of a CH-46 or CH-53 helicopter and is lowered into the pool and turned upside down to simulate the movements of a real submerging helicopter following a crash.

Some of the simulations included students exiting the dunker with and without air from the aircrew breathing device. Additionally, the students also had to wear 'blackout' goggles during some of the training. Blackout goggles block out all light and simulate night conditions. Each simulation involved six students, except for the final mass-evacuation simulation, where APSG students had to work together to properly exit the aircraft.

Lance Cpl. Tyler Whittington, an air support operations operator with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st MEU, said the egress training was a great learning experience for the Marines involved.

"I originally expected this training to be mostly boring power points in a classroom," said Whittington. "The instructors really got us out of the classroom and into the pool. Thanks to the instructors, we became used to being underwater and became so familiarized with the inside of the helo dunker that even the blackout goggles didn't slow us down from getting out. I would definitely recommend this course to other Marines."

The MAET course is open to all service members on Okinawa and there are no perquisites. With chain of command approval, service members wishing to sign up should contact Survival Systems USA at 623-5211 or 623-5206.

31st Marine Expeditionary Unit