Every four years a sense of dread envelops the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island. Even the most hardened Navy pilots can't stand it, though they admit a grudging respect for a required two-day course that will test their mettle in escaping a downed aircraft, surviving an ejection, or making a parachute descent into the dark cold sea. It's enough to make Top Gun's Maverick cringe and pine for a good dogfight in the sky.
The survival exercises are brutal. In one, the pilot is spun down into a pit of water, his feet near the surface, head near the bottom. He can't see as he struggles to wriggle free, open a window, and pull himself out.
In another test, pilots must swim wearing boots, flight suit, and helmet, and, as the Times reports, "demonstrate that they could inflate a life preserver with a breathing tube while treading water; and complete several situational exercises, including escaping from a parachute harness that, via an electric pulley, dragged each man backward through the water as he tried to undo the harness's buckles."
The drill is to replicate what it would be like being pulled across the ocean surface by a parachute driven by high winds, which could drown a pilot who had survived an otherwise successful ditching.
Then there's the so-called dunker. The pilots are seated wearing opaque goggles in a simulated helicopter as it is dropped into 12 feet of water and rotated upside down. Several pilots and crew members would have to escape at once, while safety divers watched, ready to rescue anyone who became stuck.
As the Times notes:
Cmdr. Richard V. Folga, the school's director, said the reasoning behind the training is locked in aviation math. Every year, no matter how much attention aviation squadrons pay to maintenance and safety, naval aircraft experience catastrophic failures. Pilots and aircrews end up in the sea.
The Navy sometimes loses as many as 8 to 10 jet aircraft a year, he said. And so, after a day in a classroom receiving instruction and doing practice drills, the crews head to the pool for a long session in the water, in case one day the math catches up to them.
Commander Folga said he knows some officers attend with dread.
"If I could guarantee that you would never need this training, I would say, 'O.K., sit in the back and use your iPhone and do whatever you want to do while the rest of us work,' " he said. "But these exercises are all based on real incidents, and sometimes on recurrent real incidents."
The story recounts the experience of Lt. Jonathan D. Farly, an F/A-18 pilot who volunteered in 2007 to act out the role of a downed pilot for rescue-training exercise. He was picked up on the ground by an MH-s60 helicopter crew.
But as the chopper was heading to an aircraft carrier, suddenly it all got very real.
"I wasn't paying attention," he said. "I was along for the ride." Then he saw multiple warning lights flash at once in the cockpit's instrument panel. A crewman near him pointed toward the water and then assumed a brace position.
The helicopter was going down.
With no time to prepare, Lieutenant Farley was trapped. It was like being in the dunk-tank course.
The pilot up front managed to maintain enough control over the crippled helicopter to put it onto the surface softly. But it immediately flipped over. Cold water rushed in and closed around the passengers and crew. They were sinking, upside down, just as Lieutenant Commander Martin did at his recent course.
Lieutenant Farley followed the only instructions he knew. "I did exactly what the training had taught me," he said. "I grabbed a reference point, drew my breath right before the water went over my head and unbuckled."
Farley, who admits he's not a strong swimmer, talked about the survival course the way many of his colleagues do. "I hate it with a passion." But he added, " ... if you are in a bad situation and have trained for it, then you revert to your training and what you know. It is why I am alive."