So There I Was…Volume 3
Dreading HUET Class. Also known as: Helicopter Underwater Evacuation Training.
Oh. I’m not joking. You would be dreading it too. Somehow, I’ve been on a few offshore rigs before and never once been asked if I am certified. Apparently, you can sign a waiver saying that if you helicopter goes down, you won’t hold anyone liable. But those days are over I hear, according to my boss. We had one of our “infamous” chats just last week:
Boss: “Good news and bad news.”
Lincee: “Should I sit down?”
Boss: “You are probably going to Rio to visit a few offshore rigs in Brazil.”
I start singing “Welcome. Welcome to Rio! The tropical hot spot. Saludos amigos.”…a song that was included on my Disco Mickey Mouse cassette tape that I wore out playing over and over and over again when I was a kid. He didn’t laugh. Just stared at me funny. I did, however, finish the chorus before preparing myself for the bad news.
Boss: “We will have to take HUET classes. That’s where they dunk you under water and you have to escape out of the helicopter simulator. You okay with that?”
He leaves my office and the first thing I do is “YouTube” this HUET business. As I’m searching, I convince myself it’s not going to be that bad. I love to swim. I can hold my breath like a champ. This is going to be a piece of cake.
Then I see the video. Things are looking good. Climbing in the chair. Okay. Buckling in. Sort of creepy, but got it. Crossing arms and signals. Good, good. And then dunk!
HOLD THE PHONE! THEY DUNK YOU UPSIDE DOWN?
Cleansing deep breathes to get my heart rate down. In through the nose. Out the mouth.
My class is in Galveston. By the time I make the hour long trip there, I’ve convinced myself that the test will take place in a dark simulator with five or six guys in scuba gear ready to rescue me when I start flailing about in a panic. I wonder if my steel toe boots are going to sink me to the bottom of the tank that is filled with murky water and if I’ll be able to move in my orange coveralls. What if I can’t hold my breath that long? What if I pass out and they have to do CPR? What if I’m the first one to ever fail HUET? What if I FAIL and am unable to go to Rio?
The class is small. We are in a room with about ten other people. I’ve arrived with my boss and the guy who takes all of our photography and video. We sit near the back and listen to our instructor Jim.
Clearly, Jim has done this for a very long time. It’s evident by the way he describes “all you need to know” about HUET safety. Basically, you strap yourself in and cross your hands over your chest. For today’s class, there are two exits…one to the right and one to the left. You will be dunked three times. The first time, you exit your window and your partner exits his. The second time, you both go out your window and the third, you both go out his.
Jim says that it’s simple really. Just place your hand on the window pane at the bottom with your strong hand and unbuckle with your left and swim out. If you get scared, put your hands on your forehead and you will be pulled out.
And that’s it. The pep talk took all of ten minutes. I look at my boss. He looks back. We dissolve into a fit of giggles.
Next, we watch a 20 minute video about three dudes who work offshore. It appeared to be made in the early 80s. The video simulated a helicopter going down and what do to if you are ever in this situation.
The narrator’s first suggestion was to remain calm and take a deep breath.
He then walks us through Jim’s evaluation descriptions, reminding us to not kick our legs…whatever we do. All three guys make it out safely. Hurray!
Then they walk us through what to do if things don’t go as planned. Such as: what if your window doesn’t pop open? What if there’s a “perished” colleague in your way? What if your seat belt doesn’t unfasten?
All very valid questions in my book.
My favorite part was when they tell you not to take a big breath when you pop up out of the water because there is more than likely going to be a fire or some sort of fuel spill. It’s best to just take a quick breath and go back under and swim away from the debris. Then look for survivors. Survivors.
Lights come on and Jim asks if there are any questions. We all sit in solemn silence. He claps his hands and says, “Now. Let’s get out there and pass this test!”
We all look at each other baffled. I think we may have been in the classroom for less than an hour. And we are going to the simulator? Already? Don’t I need more instruction? Can I watch that video again, because this time I won’t be distracted by the “perished” colleague’s mullet. Please?
Nope. We get the “fun part” over with at the beginning of class.
Now I’m nervous. I change into my coveralls and head to the car. We arrive at our destination and it’s a swimming pool. With a steel cage. THAT’S IT? No murky water? No dark simulator? Oh look! There’s Jim! He’s rockin’ some sweet back hair. I guess there won’t be five guys in scuba gear ready to save me. It’s just Jim. This isn’t so bad after all!
Our first part of training was jumping off diving boards and swimming in long lines hanging on to each other with our legs. I made sure not to swim by my boss during this portion. My legs were wrapped around a nice marine biologist thank you very much. We practiced huddling in a circle and keeping the middle guy warm. This happened to be Mark…our photographer. That wasn’t awkward at all. We then all enter a rescue life raft. I was the last to be hoisted through the opening by two guys. They pulled me in so hard, that my face landed in the middle of everyone’s feet and then I slid ALMOST into the crotch of the marine biologist. Again…not awkward at all.
We exit the pool and go to the cold water immersion suit area. These things are basically big rubber jumpers that are supposed to keep you warm in the North Sea should you have to jump overboard. They make you look like a red Gumby. The trick is to wiggle in them on the ground like you are entering a sleeping bag. Then you stand up, put your arms in and attempt to zip up the front. Clearly, this was a problem for me.
They had us jump off the diving board again and do all the same things in these ginormous suits that we just did with life jackets. Fun times.
Now for the hard part. There are six of us in this portion of the simulator test. We have to pair off. My boss chooses me. And we are stuck going last.
The first pair get in the simulator and dunk three times with flying colors.
The second pair have one little bump…the girl’s helmet fell off because her head is so small.
And now it’s our turn. My boss enters first and I’m behind him. I’ve been feeling pretty confident and it isn’t until I buckle myself (shoulder harness and lap belt) that I begin to think, “Is this really necessary? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m going to “perish” if I go down in a helicopter. And knowing my luck, a shark will probably eat me if I happen to survive impact, getting out of the seat, finding a window, opening a window, swimming to the top and not breathing in toxic air. Maybe I should re-think this job. I could write for a living. Maybe I could call ABC and see if they would give me a job as Chris Harrison’s assistant or something. Heck. I’ll wait tables. Maybe go back to Disney World…”
All I can remember is that up became down and right became left. And there were lots of bubbles. I feel my window pane, unbuckle quickly, waiting for the eight second tap that it is time to swim out. A little disoriented which way is up, I head for sun and pop out of the water.
I did it!
Back in the simulator for round two. My boss got water up his nose and in his ears. He can’t hear me, or is ignoring me, when I ask, “Which way do you want to go out this time? Me follow you or you follow me?”
Nothing. He doesn’t answer. He’s mentally preparing himself for the quest. I have to punch him into reality. We decide he will follow me on round two.
Jim yells again, “READY?”
Dunk number two. I find my pane, unbuckle and feel a push from my side. My boss is forcing me out the window! Being a rule follower, I was waiting for the eight second tap, but in his world, you survive by any means necessary. I head out the window and he proceeds to grab my leg. Not for dear life…but an aggressive grab none the less. I basically pull my leg through the window and he follows, popping up out of the water before me! I then get lectured on how I need to be quicker when evacuating an upside down helicopter simulator in the middle of a pool on the Texas A&M campus in Galveston.
Yeah. Note to self. Got it Bill.
Round three. I am to follow him out his window now. We are old pros by this point and I hang out upside down for a while thinking I need to give him some time to unbuckle and get through the window. I reach over and he is GONE. Dude has left me to “perish” below. I cross hand over hand to escape. It is then that one of my toe thumbs gets wedged somehow between two pieces of metal. No time to waste, I jerk it out with all my might. When I reach the surface, he is dried off, drinking water and half-way dry. Thanks a lot Bill.
Soaking wet, we make our way to the car where are dry clothes are stored. We walk in silence and then Mark says, “That was pretty cool.” We all agree, high five each other and talk about the times we were really nervous but didn’t want to tell the other one. Then we all call everyone we know to say we are alive and bask in the glory of the fact that it’s OVER!
All in a day’s work my friend. Next stop? Rio de Janeiro baby!