Survival

‘Don’t panic’: learn how to get out of a sinking helicopter

Survival training in Dartmouth teaches what to do in worst-case scenarios

A trainee at Falck takes a deep breath before the plunge.   Brendan Ahern

Aaron Vickers is strapped to a chair hanging above a pool.

Someone is yelling “ditching” over and over, as the chair is quickly dunked into the water and rolled upside down.

Vickers has 15 seconds to get out.

“I was scared to death the first time I did it,” said Vickers, who’s preparing for a job on an oil rig. “Nothing quite prepares you for getting strapped in a helicopter and dunked upside down.”

Making sure that Vickers is prepared is what the instructors at Falck Safety Services do. At their Dartmouth location on Orion Court, trainees are put through realistic scenarios that prepare offshore oil and gas workers for worst-case scenarios.

Damone Blackman leads trainees across the pool deck.   Brendan Ahern

“You’re going to be upside down and there’s water going to be coming up your nose and you have to fight that, stay in your seat, and don’t panic,” said Damone Blackman, a survival instructor at Falck.

“Some of my greatest challenges are dealing with people who don’t go into the water, and don’t swim and I’m teaching them how to survive in the worst conditions possible.”

Everybody in!   Brendan Ahern

Blackman said he was not a water person before he started working with Falck in 2015. In fact, he didn’t even know that the survival training industry existed.

“I had never even been in open water on a boat; I always thought that I’d either be playing professional football or become a cop,” said Blackman.

Blackman was drafted to the CFL in 2013, but injuries cut his football career short. After graduating from Saint Mary’s University, he was working at a car dealership when a job driving a van opened up at Falck.

“It only took a few weeks and I loved it; I wanted to be a part of it and I didn’t want to do anything else,” said Blackman. “I wanted to work my way up and keep going until I can’t go anymore.”

Controlled chaos

According to aviation-safety.net, since 2011, there have been 28 ditching incidents involving offshore helicopters and 44 people have died. Ditching is when a helicopter has a controlled or uncontrolled landing into water.

Part of the survival training at Falck involves a Modular Egress Training Simulator, which is the hull of a helicopter suspended by a crane over 16 feet of water.

Trainees are extensively briefed before hopping into the simulator. Once inside, they buckle-up, take a deep breath, and try to remember all that they’ve learned.  

Brent MacLeod gets briefed once more before entering the METS   Brendan Ahern

Kacper Kaczmarek, an automation specialist bound for Sable Island, has also gone through his basic survival training with Falck.

“Sometimes you feel it’s dangerous, but there are a lot of precautions to avoid accidents. I feel safe,” said Kaczmarek.

It’s Blackman’s job to keep the trainees safe and the training scenario under control.

“When you help someone go through that kind of training, they first show up feeling scared and panicked not knowing how they’ll get through it,” he said. “By the last run they’re smiling, shaking your hand, and thanking you. I love that.”

Zachary O’hearn smiles after completing his METS training.   Brendan Ahern

 

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