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Focus on Service

A Sinking Feeling

The Dunk Tank

All at once the helicopter crashed. Water immediately began rushing in. A quickened heart rate and complete darkness led to a sinking feeling, literally - and the confusion was intense. Which way is up the pilot thought to himself. What are my options?

In a moment like this, there is no time to open a manual to figure out what to do. You need to react.

Survival situations do not come with a do over. People either get it right the first time or that's it. No reset button, no time out. Knowing what to do when a helicopter crashes in the water can be the difference between going home or going down.

To increase a Sailor's chance of survival in these situations, the Navy has built a training simulator called the dunker at Aviation Water Survival Training Department (AWSTD) in Norfolk, Virginia.
Three photo collage (L-R) helo replica lowered into pool; underwater; student navigating underwater

"We've had students start out in the back of the dunker and release without a reference point and the inrush of water pushes them all the way into the front of the cockpit and I have literally watched a student hit their head against the front of the window," said Navy Diver 2nd Class Ryan Hebard, an instructor at AWSTD. "They're in that fight-or-flight kind of mode and I've seen them grab the dashboard and just repeatedly bash their head into the front window of the helicopter cockpit trying to get out."

That's why training simulators exist. To afford people that survival re-do with on-hand instructors to ensure student safety.

Every single Sailor and Marine that's going to be crew on Navy Marine Corps aircraft has to come through this training because the Navy knows that its most valuable asset is its personnel." - HM1 Bedell

"So we've sunk millions of dollars to be able to provide this training to aviators to let their families know, 'Hey, we've properly trained this pilot or this aircrew member to do this mission for our country.' We want to make sure that if they get put in harm's way they have the tools to be able to survive should an unfortunate accident happen," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Walter Bedell, an instructor at AWSTD.

The dunker is a replica of the interior of a helicopter and is part of the water survival training at AWSTD. Sailors learn how to properly exit out and how to find their bearing. Being that helicopters are top heavy; they usually flip upside-down when they hit the water.

Hebard said it's as close as they can get to a real helicopter crash while keeping students safe.

"We're not dropping people at full speed," said Hebard. "If they paid attention during the lectures they're going to understand to fight panic with thinking through the procedure. We teach them with a crawl, walk, run approach and we give them very specific things they need to accomplish."

Those specific things include finding a reference point and transitioning to an egress point, a way out.

While the dunker cost millions of dollars, it has saved countless lives. That's something nobody can put a price tag on.