‘It saves lives’: Kenai center trains aircraft crews for cold-water crashes

a cold-water crash simulator
The Challenger Center’s crash simulation unit. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

At Kenai Central High School’s swimming pool, a group of pilots, oil field workers and others suit up for a day of cold-water environment training. The group begins with a round of pre-training exercises above and below the water to gain confidence.

These confidence-building exercises are all precursors for Helicopter Underwater Egress Training, or HUET. The program, put on by the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, lets people safely replicate the aftermath of a helicopter crashing into a body of water.

“It simulates the real thing,” said Marnie Olcott, the center’s CEO. She is in charge of operating the simulator, which dunks trainees into the pool.

“If you know anything about the Challenger Learning Center in general, we really strive to do everything as real-world as possible,” she said. “This allows us to take this type of training to a level that isn’t offered anywhere else in the state.”

The simulation unit, a large metal box connected to cables from the ceiling, can be configured for a variety of training scenarios. The Challenger Center is the only organization in Alaska that has one of these simulation units. It is also the only unit of its kind available for use outside of military installations on the West Coast.

Each of the five rounds of HUET training puts those inside the simulator through different crash scenarios. In some, the simulator is dunked into the pool to only partially fill with water. In others, they are fully engulfed. Some training simulations even rotate the unit 180 degrees, in the event that a downed aircraft rotates under the water.

“Anytime you can do something that puts these stressors on your body, mentally, the better off you’re going to be when a stressful situation hits,” said Daniel Mahr, a career pilot who took part in the course. “Everybody should know this if you’ve been in Alaska for more than a day, but water kills up here, and it kills really quick. We have a lot of water, so I’d recommend this to any of my friends. It’s one thing to talk about it, but until you get in there, you don’t have a clue what you’re going to do.”

cold-water crash training
Coldwater crash training conducted on the water’s surface. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

“In your mind, you think about some different scenarios, and you can only go so far just thinking about it, so being here and being able to actually do it makes a big impact, I think personally,” said course participant Andy Dixon, an operator for Hillcorp’s Cook Inlet Oil Platform Anna. “If there’s ever a crash out in the Inlet, it’s just really good to be able to help people out and help each other. Stay alive, that’s the goal.”

This simulation training is the final step in completing the HUET cold water environment course. While the Kenai Central High School swimming pool is not physically cold, the training this course provides is crucial to responding appropriately in a cold-water crash situation.

“It saves lives, it really does,” Olcott said. “It’s proven, the statistics show that having this type of training can improve your odds of survival in an emergency situation.”

The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska also offers courses on cold-water and wilderness survival, vessel safety and other types of training. For more information, be sure to check out the center’s website.

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