Navy's canned panic

A deep throbbing hum filled the air as sailors prepared to be dunked and flipped at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s new Aviation Survival Training Center Wednesday.

The noise came from speakers mounted on the high ceiling above the main training pool, and was designed to heighten the anxiety factor for the trainees. As if being strapped into a simulated helicopter and flipped upside down under water wasn’t enough.

“It’s an awesome experience,” Petty Officer 1st Class Jack Blaine said, hoisting himself from the pool in a water-soaked flight suit. He said it’s still a thrill, even after 75-plus dunks.

The new $4.4 million training facility, one of only four in the nation, brings the latest in Navy water survival training to the Pacific Northwest. It replaces the old water training center, which had been in use since the base opened, but was not built as a training center.

At the dedication ceremony Wednesday base commanding officer Capt. Stephen Black called the facility “a significant leap forward in training for the future.”

“This is very real, very challenging training,” he told the assembled group, many of whom were involved in building the facility.

“Training teaches how to survive, and that you can survive,” he said. “It teaches confidence as well as skills.”

The new training center consists of a 15,000 square-foot training area and 3,000 square feet of administrative and classroom space.

The pool complex features a multiple egress training simulator, affectionately nicknamed “panic in a can,” a parachute drag trainer, a helicopter hoist and a “Slide for Life,” which trains crewmen to release their parachute the instant they hit the water. The drag trainer simulates a water landing with a deployed parachute, while the “helo hoist” simulates a water rescue, complete with the dense spray that would be kicked up by the hovering helicopter.

Black said it is essential to jettison the parachute immediately, or it fills with water and becomes a sea anchor.

The multiple egress trainer is designed to simulate a helicopter with seating for six.

The old training center featured the “Dilbert Dunker,” a replica of a jet cockpit. Black said that was no longer a realistic training tool, as jets don’t flip over when they hit the water. There is much more of a risk of accident when sailors are transported to or from ships in helicopters.

As the deep hum boomed, the “helo” unit was raised in the air about six feet above the water. It then was lowered into the water, crew strapped inside, and rotated upside down underwater. Divers waited in the water in case anything went wrong.

Within seconds of submerging, the trainees bobbed to the surface, ready to do it again. And again.

Cmdr. Dave Service, officer in charge of Detachment West, Naval Operational Medicine Institute, Pensacola, Fla., called the facility “more than just a big swimming pool with fancy lights,” and said the cost of the facility worked out to $100,000 annually over its anticipated lifetime. Taking that further, he estimated that investment at $100 per head.

Approximately 40,000 crewmen trained at the old facility in the “deadly serious skill of water survival,” he said. That tradition will carry on in the new facility.

“We’re trying to keep the worst day of their life from getting worse,” he said.

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