Imagine yourself as an RSAF aircrew - you are all suited up. You walk to the fighter aircraft and enter the cockpit. You start up the aircraft and take it to the skies. All was smooth sailing, until the aircraft starts to rumble with an unexpected emergency. There is no way you can salvage the situation, and you have to resort to your last line of defence - pulling the ejection handle to eject from the aircraft! Now, you are in the waters in the open sea. What is going to happen? How are you going to survive?
While our aircrew bring with them a set of survival gear for every flight, which are well maintained by our Air Force Engineers, it is important that they are also equipped with the proper skills to keep themselves afloat - literally and figuratively - in such emergency situations.
Today, our training is done mainly over waters rather than landmasses. Thus, it is vital that our aircrew undergo proper training to ensure that they are competent in water and equipped with the right survival skills in the event of aircraft ejection (fighters) /ditching (all other aircraft). The aircrew water survival training course for both trainees and operational aircrew is conducted at the Air Force Training Command. There are three main phases; the swimming training, swimming test, and the dinghy drill.
Let’s delve deeper into the three components to find out how this training course can potentially save our aircrew’s lives in an emergency!
1. Swimming Training
As the name suggests, this is a training session conducted in preparation for the swimming test. Aircrew are required to do lap swimming and water treading to ensure that they are able to keep themselves afloat in the water for a prolonged period of time.
2. Swimming Test
There are three components to this test, a 50-Metre swim, a five-minute water treading, and a surface dive and underwater swim. All aircrew have to pass this test to prove their proficiency in the water.
50-Metre Swim Test
In their flight suits, aircrew are required to swim a distance of 50 metres. This allows them to acclimatise to the added drag of the flight suit and boots, and to help them gain confidence in swimming.
Aircrew are also required to be able to tread water and keep themselves afloat for five minutes as part of the test. This part of the test allows them to get used to the weight of the full gear including the helmet, while they wait for rescue.
Surface Dive and Underwater Swim
This exercise simulates an obstacle or fire on the surface of the ocean, which prevents the rescue team from assisting the aircrew. In such situations, aircrew are required to swim under the obstacles in order to reach an area accessible to the rescue team. For the test, aircrew are required to swim to the middle of the pool, dive underwater and swim approximately 5 metres to the edge of the pool.
3. Dinghy Drill
Aircrew trained in different aircraft platform types will require different sets of survival skills, due to the number of crew on board and the equipment they have with them.
Fighter aircrew are equipped with a parachute at all times. Therefore, the parachute drill is an integral part of their training. The drill starts from the edge of the pool where they will be secured to a harness and pulled to simulate a parachute drag for about 15 metres. They will then have to free themselves from the parachute harness.
After releasing the parachute, the aircrew will go through the parachute disentanglement drill, where they will try to free themselves in the event they are entangled in the parachute. In the drill, the aircrew will swim towards the floating parachute, and attempt to go through the parachute while being submerged underneath the water surface. They will follow the main seam of the parachute while attempting to create air pockets for breathing as they go through the parachute.
Lastly, the aircrew will have to swim towards the one-man dinghy and climb onto it. A small mirror comes in handy during such situations where the aircrew can use the mirror to signal to the rescue team. When a rescue helicopter approaches, the aircrew will have to don the rescue strop under his or her arms, ensure that it is properly secured, and get ready to be winched up by the helicopter crew.
For the helicopter aircrew, they are required to do an underwater swim for five meters to simulate obstacles or fire on the surface of the water. Thereafter, they will swim 30 metres towards the dinghy. As part of the training, one aircrew will simulate being a casualty while the other aircrew on-board the dinghy will help to rescue him and assist him to board the raft.
To shield them from the harsh conditions out at sea, the aircrew will also set up a canopy while waiting for rescue.
The drill for transport aircrew is similar to the helicopter drill. The only difference being that for transport aircraft, depending on aircraft type, the life rafts are larger so that they can take more people.
In an event where the aircrew ejects or ditches the aircraft in open waters far away from land and beyond the reach of a rescue helicopter, a sea rescue raft will be air-dropped by either a C-130 or Fokker-50 transport aircraft. The sea rescue rafts are bigger in size, more stable, and are equipped with survival packs to help aircrew survive while waiting for their rescue. Thus, it is essential for our aircrew to be familiar with this raft, especially for those who may be deployment on overseas missions.
Ta-da! Our aircrew are saved! Of course, we hope that such emergencies will never happen, and our aircrew will never be required to use these survival skills that they learnt. However, it is heartening to know that if put to the test, our aircrew will have the necessary skills to keep themselves safe.
Check out the two videos below to watch the A-Team try out this drill! Stay safe everyone!