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Been There—Done That

Photo of the fuselage and pool used for dunker training by Survival Systems in Groton, CT.

When your training really pays off

Article appeared in Flying Magazine March 2021 by Martha King

The weight-shift-control-sea aircraft I was about to learn to fly was on an inflatable boat tied up to the dock. As I looked it over I could see that, with the wing and engine mounted on top, it was very top-heavy. The biggest problem I expected to have was that the water-rudder controls were backwards from airplane rudder controls—step on the left pedal to go right and the right pedal to go left. You could tell yourself that, and it worked great when you were making a decision in advance to turn on the water. But when you were correcting an unintended turn, it was hard to overcome years of airplane habit.

This is the weight-shift-control aircraft Martha flew at Shasta Lake. With the wing, engine, and propeller all above the inflatable boat, the weight-shift-control-sea aircraft was very top-heavy.
A swimmer retrieves the weight-shift control trike that Martha went upside-down in, in Shasta Lake.

I reacted to an unexpected swerve on the water using airplane habit, and in a heartbeat I was in the frigid water of Shasta Lake underneath the wing of the light sport aircraft. Instantly, my training kicked in. I kept my seatbelt on until the water quit moving. Then I released the belt, took off my helmet, which was plugged into the intercom, and moved away from the wires and the wing until l had a clear path to the surface. I then relaxed, and buoyancy automatically took me to the surface. I felt completely in control. When my head popped out of the water, my instructor, Dennis, was greatly relieved. He was blown away when I spotted him next to the wing and asked him, “Are you OK?”

I had felt no anxiety about running out of breath. My previous training at Survival Systems was the reason for my confidence. They had seen to it I would be prepared physically and psychologically for just such an experience. When John and I arrived at their training center in Groton, Connecticut, they sat us down and in a short morning session explained to us what we needed to do to respond successfully to an unexpected dunking. Stay in the seat with the seat belt fastened until the water quit moving—that way you knew where you were and the moving water would not take you someplace strange like under the instrument panel. Just hold your breath as required until you got out a window or door and were clear of the aircraft. Then allow buoyancy to take you to the surface. The remaining time was spent getting our minds and bodies to trust that we could do this.

Survival Systems used a fuselage mockup in their large pool. We started in the pilot seats with a hand through the open cockpit door, clutching the top of the frame. Then the fuselage was dunked below the surface and each of us made our way out the opening we already had our hands on.

The whole time we were protected by scuba divers in the water to rescue us if needed. Happily, it never became necessary. The whole time neither John or I nor our training partner, Gregg Maryniak, had the hint of a problem.

Over some 13 dunkings we progressively learned to escape to the surface while being tilted sideways or upside down, having to open a door or window, and waiting for someone to get out of the way after moving from a jammed exit to another one at the rear of the fuselage.

Over time we completely lost our anxiety about holding our breath. We discovered we could hold our breath comfortably far longer than we ever had thought we could.

So when it came to escaping from the submerged aircraft to the surface of Shasta Lake, I was not concerned. My feeling was: “Been there—done that.” The training by Survival Systems had proved its worth in risk mitigation regarding flight over water.

Indeed, there are many risks in aviation that are mitigated by the principle of “Been there—done that.”

John, Martha and FlightSafety instructor, Thom Granier, in front of a FlightSafety Falcon 10 simulator.

For the last 33 years John and I have flown jets that require annual simulator training. For the last 18 years we have done our training at FlightSafety International in a simulator in which the controls, knobs, and switches are all identical to the ones in our old Falcon 10. If it weren’t for the different navigation systems, it would be difficult to tell which we were in. A few years ago on a trip in the Falcon, we had the “OIL 1” light on the annunciator panel come on. It felt like we were back in a simulator session.

FlightSafety has trained us in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Whenever a light on the annunciator panel illuminates, we go to the abnormal procedures checklist and find a reference number associated with that light. Then we go to the tab with that number, which gives us the checklist. When the “OIL 1” light is accompanied by oil pressure less than 25 psi on the gauge, we are sent to another tab which has the “Engine Failure In Flight or Precautionary Shutdown” checklist.

We simply followed that procedure and landed the airplane single engine just as we had done many times in the simulator.

Systems failures are not the only times when “Been there—done that” is helpful in aviation risk mitigation. One time when we were doing an ILS into Wichita, Kansas the weather was much lower than forecast and dense fog was reported. As we entered the clouds I commented, “This is just like FlightSafety.” When we reached our decision altitude, there was not a thing to be seen. With the same serenity as flying in the simulator we simply did a missed approach and flew over to Hutchinson, Kansas and calmly landed there, following the procedure we had practiced many times in the simulator.

You don’t have to use a simulator to harvest the principle of “Been there—done that” risk mitigation. In fact it is the basis of all flight training. For example, before solo a learning pilot practices multiple landings and go-arounds. When the time comes for solo, they have the confidence they will be able to do what is required on their own.

An especially valuable use of “Been there—done that” is preparing learning pilots in a single engine airplane for an engine failure right after take-off. The situation is one in which preparation could have great benefits. A pilot has to know when a landing within a few degrees of the current heading is required and when an “impossible turn” back to the runway could work. Pilots need practice making and executing the decision. This is so important that it is now a required subject for flight instructors taking a Flight Instructor Refresher Course (FIRC).

The greatest thing that can be said about “Been there—done that” is that it takes the stress out of abnormals and emergencies. And that can be life-saving. When I was taking my dunker training in Groton, I had no idea when I might need the skills I was learning. But due to the training I received, when I went swimming four years later in frigid Shasta Lake it was just another case of “Been there—done that.”

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