Recently I had the opportunity to take a cold water survival course. Why? In order to be prepared for the unlikely event of ditching an aircraft into the ocean. Just a few hours of class time provided valuable insights on surviving freezing water conditions as well as weeks stranded at sea. By far, the most exciting part of the class was the Underwater Egress Training – how to get out of a submerged aircraft. Five simple steps and you’re out. Easy!
It is called the SWET (one look at it and you’re sweating). The Shallow Water Egress Trainer is a floating cockpit. A pilot’s chair complete with four point seatbelt, yoke, communication cords, and a door on both sides. I strap the blackout goggles on, secure the buckle, and give the thumbs up. The SWET flips over and everything goes black. My nose fills with water. Which way is up? Water is swirling around, and oh… I NEED AIR!! What happened to those five easy steps?? Whoa, slow down and take a deep breath – oops, can’t do that here. Ok, calm down. Do the steps in order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and AIR! 2 minutes later and I’m out – wait, that was only 10 seconds? Really?? Watch the video I took of a friend going through it. Done properly it looks so easy, but in the moment things feel anything but easy!
The key to the underwater egress is choosing a reference point – a place in the airplane to hold on to. As long as you do not let go of your reference point, you know where you are. Once you choose this point you cling to it like your life depends on it – because it does! Take another look at the video and this time watch his left hand, the key to his success.
Not everyone kept a hold on their reference point. The situation is overwhelming. The most important thing is easily overshadowed in pursuit of that which screams for attention. Those who neglected the first key step spent much longer underwater. As soon as they unbuckled, their body began to fall out of the seat and swirl around leaving them totally disoriented. Finding the door suddenly became a monumental task and took much longer. Some students never found the door. Realizing their mistake, they panicked and would have drowned in a real life situation.
Not only did I learn how to ditch a plane in cold water, I also saw some striking parallels to life. Life gets crazy. It’s far too easy to neglect that which anchors us in order to deal with the tyranny of the urgent. Yet, while we’re tending to the things we thought were important, the forgotten foundational priorities in our lives begin to crumble and cause other areas to shake with every wave. So, don’t forget your reference point – and whatever you do, don’t let go!