Water Survival

by Phil Rowe
At each corner of the unique object is an inflated tire-like flotation chamber, wet and shiny black. It looks like an oddly designed automobile, one without wheel fenders. It's smaller than a Volkswagon "bug" and just large enough to hold one person. A single window on the upper surface gives view to a reclined seat within. The object looks very strange floating in the indoor swimming pool on this winter afternoon. Why is it here and what does it mean for us?

The object is used to train flight crewmen who might one day find themselves floating on a tossing and threatening sea. But here in the calm warmth of a heated pool, training is held in relative comfort, unlike the frigid waters of the North Atlantic where downed airmen measure their survival in minutes.

Each of the six crewmen standing at the pool's edge will get a turn riding within the enclosed replica of a B-58 escape capsule. The staggered clamshell doors are opened to reveal a padded seat and backrest, plus several containers holding survival gear and special equipment. Most of the items are stowed behind the backrest. A snorkel attachment with ball float valve provides a breathing port for use with the crewman's oxygen mask. So even while the capsule remains closed a source of fresh air exists. The capsule's high pressure oxygen bottle, intended to sustain life in a high altitude bailout, lasts but minutes. Long term survival depends upon outside air to breathe.

You, the first trainee, gingerly climb aboard, while fellow crewmen hold the capsule steady with ropes attached to diagonally opposite corners of the bobbing device. You're soon seated in a reclined position and secure yourself with a lap belt and two shoulder harness straps. You don a flight helmet and attach the oxygen mask breathing tube to the sidewall fitting.

Your knees are lifted up near your chest and your ankles are held close to the seat pan. This is a cramped container, especially for a large or over-weight crewman.

The instructor closes and latches the clamshell doors. Now communication with is possible only by shouting.

Each man will spend half an hour or more within the floating capsule. This is not like riding in the airplane, for here your are on your back and not sitting upright. Your view of the outside world is limited to the upward window barely visible between your knees. You quickly feel the closeness and how small the space is . Sweat pours down your face.

You are instructed to unstrap and turn around to retrieve equipment below you. First, you need the small bellows hand pump to fully inflate the corner flotation chambers. Then you get out the two-way radio and other survival gear. This is a sample of what it might be like on the ocean far from land. Only here the water is warm and calm.

Correction. The water was calm. Your capsule suddenly pitches and tilts wildly as fellow crewmen tug and pull at the ropes. They're there to help you, they laughingly taunt. The simulation now includes rough seas training, and it's no fun at all. You find it increasingly difficult to turn within the capsule and get to the various items of survival gear tucked in hard to reach compartments.

The exercise ends after you demonstrate that you have inflated the corner flotation chambers fully, retrieved several of the stowed survival items and finally opened the clamshell doors. You are hot, sweaty and greatly fatigued. This is not easy, but you realize that the capsule does float, will protect you from the elements and can save your life.