Navy Survival Training - Every Four Years

  • Jan 5, 2014 5:06pm GMT

Every four years, naval aviators are required to undergo a 2-day water survival training refresher course. It is essentially the boiled down version of our initial training, but no parasailing, lighting flares, or a night in the woods – take away the fun stuff. Four years ago I said it would be my last time enduring the dunker, but once again, I found myself strapped in, upside down, eyes burning, and my nasal cavity rapidly filling with highly chlorinated pool water as I hoped to survive the survival training.

The U.S. Navy has the premiere training facility for water survival in the event of an over water aircraft accident. Makes sense, since worldwide operations are conducted around the clock with surprisingly low incidents, but when they do happen, crews are trained to survive such occasions. Although there are a few training centers - Jacksonville, FL, San Diego, CA, and Pensacola, FL - I was lucky enough to hit the pool in Pensacola, one that I have been using since flying with the Blue Angels in 2001. Familiarity brings comfort, or at least so I thought.

My first exposure to survival training was during Aviation Preflight Indoctrination (API) in 1994. At this point in flight school, if I didn't pass training, I wouldn't move on to primary flight training and get the chance to fly the might T-34C. I'd also be looking for another job in the Marine Corps, namely supply or public affairs as typical options. Didn’t want that to happen, I’m going to TOPGUN dammit! Today's evolution was different, as a LtCol with 22 years in the service there are some perks, but I would still have to complete training to continue to fly in the F/A-18.

The day starts with a series of lectures in the morning covering physiology, visual illusions, nutrition, effects of altitude and rapid decompression, hypoxia and other exciting topics. I will note that as a plant-based diet enthusiast, I was amused at the class order of meat lovers pizza and coke after a lecture in nutrition that essentially told us that stuff would kill us, but I digress. Following a healthy lunch of saturated fat by the other aging aviators, the class headed into Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device (ROBD) training.

The ROBD is the latest in training to the effects of hypoxia. An interest for me, as there has been multiple incidents of hypoxia in perfectly good F/A-18s. Instead of going into an altitude chamber, this is done by simply wearing an oxygen mask and flying a simulator. The tech reduces the overall oxygen level, and as I feel hypoxia coming on, I am able to recognize how my body reacts, hopefully catching the same symptoms in an actual airplane before losing consciousness. The ROBD is a great training tool. Next was a quick parachute simulator and landings to end the day.

Tomorrow, the pool...

A couple quick safety briefs and the class was getting geared up for a day of swimming. We wear all the same gear that we would in an F/A-18 and jump in the pool for our first swim test. I assure you, this isn't easy to do, but I've always been comfortable swimming so didn't mind it much. I was also dragged across the water by my parachute straps and had to release the Koch fittings prior to the other end of the pool, or have the embarrassing drag BACK to the starting station. This device simulates being dragged across the surface of the ocean in high winds. No big deal.