Surviving Survival Training

I just finished 3 days of survival training with a company in Aberdeen called Falck Nutec. The purpose of the training is to prepare people to survive offshore in the North Sea, and is required before you are able to go offshore in the U.K. or in Norway. A big portion of the course involved learning how to evacuate a helicopter that ditches in the North Sea. What this entailed was being strapped into a helicopter simulator, being plunged under water, and then getting out and to the surface. The pictures below are from the actual simulator I was trained on.

The Helicopter Simulator at Falck Nutec

I had heard horror stories about this simulator. In fact, one guy who had been going out to the rigs for 20 years said it was “a nightmare.” The training consisted of us being plunged under water and escaping from the simulator seven times. Of the seven, three would involve capsizing where we would have to escape from the simulator upside down.

The Helicopter Simulator Being Submerged

Prior to using the simulator, we were taught to use rebreathers. For me, this was worse than the exercise in the simulators. You are already wearing a survival suit, which is tight around the neck (but mine leaked like a sieve). Then you put on a nose clip, so you won’t take water in your nose. Finally, you pop the rebreather in your mouth, and that further restricts the flow of air. I imagine this is somewhat the feeling an asthmatic gets when they are having an attack. Your airflow is restricted, and you feel like you can’t get enough air. I had to take the rebreather out several times before I finally got used to it. It also activated my gag reflex, which also happened to some of the other class members. But after I was finally able to breathe with the rebreather, the helicopter simulation was really a piece of cake.

However, this was not the case for everyone. We had a class of 16, but only 13 finished. One guy showed up drunk for the simulator exercise (he had “a little drink to calm his nerves”) and was dismissed. One left before being strapped into the simulator. And one – who had been panic-stricken throughout other exercises as well – left after surviving a couple of dunkings. I guess he decided he didn’t want to work offshore.

The exercises were supposed to go like this: After your head went under water, you were supposed to slowly count to seven (this is to give the helicopter rotors time to stop moving so they don’t chop you up), push the window out, unsnap your seat belt, and then exit. I had a lot of people who told me they never counted to seven, they just pushed out the window, unsnapped their seat buckle, and exited the window. In fact, there were people in my class who came out as soon as the simulator went under water. But I found that once I had gotten past the gag reflex, it was no problem to stay under water and breathe with the rebreather. I counted to seven, but I could have counted to a hundred. As long as you stayed calm, the exercise was not too bad.

It was more difficult when they rolled us upside down, because you could get disoriented. It was important to keep your hands on the window, because when you flipped, you tended to float away from the window. The worst exercise we did was a flip upside down without the rebreather. The pressure was pretty bad, and my nose filled up with water. Afterward, I developed a tremendous headache and tooth ache (still haven’t quite gotten rid of the tooth ache) as the pressure on my sinuses must have aggravated a nerve.

Here is what it looks like to exit the simulator under water:

Escaping the Helicopter Simulator

Throughout the course I kept wondering about the likelihood of actually surviving a helicopter crash. I did a bit of investigating, and odds are you are never going to have to use your training in the event of a crash. My guess is that most people die on impact with the water:

Six dead in offshore helicopter crash

SIX offshore workers were killed and another missing feared dead last night after a helicopter belonging to an Aberdeen-based firm ditched into the Irish Sea.

The aircraft, carrying five Centrica employees and two crew, ditched into freezing water 25 miles off the coast between the Isle of Man and Morecambe Bay on the Lancashire coast.

SINCE 1969 there have been more than 30 fatal incidents involving oil rig support helicopters,with more than 110 workers and air crew killed.

Britain’s worst helicopter disaster happened in November 1986, when 45 people died after a Chinook crashed while ferrying oil workers to and from oil platforms in the North Sea.

The twin-rotor aircraft, whose three crewmen were ferrying 44 workers from Shell platforms in the Brent fields, plummeted into the North Sea only two miles and one minute’s flying time from Sumburgh airport, south Shetland. The majority of the victims died instantly in the accident.

Eleven men were killed in February 1992 when a Super Puma helicopter, taking oil workers from Shell’s Cormorant Alpha platform 100 miles north-east of Shetland to the Safe Supporter “flotel” 200 yards away, crashed into the sea immediately after take-off.

In 2002, nine Shell workers and a pilot were killed when a “catastrophic mechanical failure” on one of the Sikorsky S-76A’s main rotor blades caused a crash between two gas platforms 28 miles off the coast of Norfolk.

The worst helicopter crash in recent memory happened on June 2, 1994. when a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter carrying most of the UK’s senior Northern Ireland intelligence experts, crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, and 25 passengers and four crew members were killed in the disaster.

However, my office is next to the airport in Aberdeen, and these helicopters are taking off every 5 or 10 minutes. So, the odds of being in a crash are very low. After my training, I feel better-prepared to survive a ditching, but it is certainly never something I wish to test my skills against.

17 thoughts on “Surviving Survival Training”

  1. You are probably right. If the crash doesn’t kill you the survival suit likely doesn’t buy you enough time before help arrives.

    I never worked offshore so I missed the extra helicopter training. However I worked west Africa and got to do the security training for hostage taking and what do if civil war breaks out or piracy.

    I did get to ride offshore in helicopters a dozen times or so. We were scouting locations offshore Africa for a new loading facility I was working on. The while looking out the window the helicopter pilot warned me not to push too hard, the door had fallen off the previous day. He was more concerned about the difficulty in recovering the door than he was in my safety!

  2. If the crash doesn’t kill you the survival suit likely doesn’t buy you enough time before help arrives.

    They told us that they are designed to keep you alive for 6 hours in the ocean. They also said that the suits we would use were in much better condition than the ones we used for training and should not leak.

    We were in the pool on 2 different days. Both times I came out of the pool drenched from head to toe underneath my survival suit. If your actual suit leaked like that, you might last 20 minutes in the water.

    However I worked west Africa and got to do the security training for hostage taking and what do if civil war breaks out or piracy.

    I want no part of West Africa. Nor the Middle East, and especially not Houston. πŸ™‚

    Cheers, Robert

  3. If the survival suites are truly not fit for the purpose, then a legitimate complaint should be lodged so that they are replaced with servicable kit.

    Surely those who manage the safety operations should be professional enough to ensure the safety of their supbordinates – or is that asking a bit too much?

    Good luck, Harry Richards

  4. No, they won’t give those old ones the boot
    ‘Cause conditions make objections moot
      In a warm indoor pool
      Anyone but a fool
    Can make do with an old leaky suit.

  5. In a warm indoor pool

    Nice poem, Poet, but the pool wasn’t warm. It was cold. And I have very little body fat, so the heat flows right out of me. They told me that I wouldn’t last long in the water without a suit.

    Cheers, Robert

  6. I want no part of West Africa. Nor the Middle East, and especially not Houston. πŸ™‚

    Hey watch it, those are all my stomping grounds! How about South America? I spent a lot of time in Brazil and Venezuela. I was holed up in a hotel in Caracas watching drug dealers shoot it out with the local police. So far nothing bad has happened to me. But my boss was carjacked and robbed in Lagos. Same with one of my project managers. I’ve had an encounter with lachesis muta and lived to tell. It comes with the job.

    Our industry has come a long way in improving safety and security, and we are much safer at work than we are at home. But people don’t understand the stuff our employees have to deal with so americans can fill their tank with $3 a gallon gas. Most jobs don’t come with the “death avoidance” training.

  7. Roger Conner Jr.

    Robert, you have finally discovered ethanol’s only advantage over crude oil! I haven’t heard of anyone dying in an ethanol industry related helicopter crash! πŸ™‚

  8. I am glad to see that they are concerned about safety on Offshore Helicopter. My Uncle was one of the unfortunate Men killed in 1986 Chinook Accident of Scotland and have read up on what happened, i do not know if he recieved this type of training, but i’m glad that is been done now as hopeful it will save the lifes of some people in the future.

  9. I’m a glad to see that this type of training is available, my uncle was one of the men who died in the 1986 Chinook Helicopter Crash off Scotland. And i am happy to see that they are showning at least some imporvement for the people who will have to take these type of trips.

  10. Hi Rachel,

    Very sorry to hear that. We are all aware of the dangers, but nobody expects to actually find themselves in that situation. I have spent a lot of time thinking about those people on the helicopters that did go down.

    Cheers, Robert

  11. Dear people, I found your comments for very usefull. I am going to Aberdeen from Sofia, Bulgaria because I would like to work on the offshore rig. May I ask you is this survival training is necessary before candidating for a job?

  12. May I ask you is this survival training is necessary before candidating for a job?

    If you want to work offshore, it is required. And if you work offshore from Norway, you actually have to take a week long course.

    Cheers, Robert

  13. Thank you very much Robert. I am going to Aberdeen after 18th of June and I would like to know how much does “BOSIET” training course cost, because I am drilling engineer, but unfortunatly without experience except my previouse practice as onshore driller. My purpose in the beging is to find a job as roustabout or something similar. Which are the suitable companies or personal agencies for that and I will need of accommodation also. could you advise me abouot this? Thank you in advance Robert! Best regards.

  14. I am going to Aberdeen after 18th of June and I would like to know how much does “BOSIET” training course cost..

    I had thought they listed the price, but I just visited the web site and I can’t find any information. My company paid for it, but I heard some guys talking about paying for it themselves. I think they said the cost was either 600 or 1,000 British Pounds.

    But if you get a job onshore first with an oil or gas company (or contractor) they will probably pay for the course.

    Accomodation in Aberdeen is very tight. I have had 2 engineers join my group recently from Iran, and both had some difficulty finding a place to stay.

    As far as agencies, several people in my team do use agencies. Let me go ask one of them who they use.

    OK, I have some information. First, the engineer in my group is named Reza Dezashibi and said you can use his name. He said that there are numerous jobs, and you shouldn’t have a problem. He uses 2 agencies:

    http://www.group-air.com
    Contact: Kati Greenall
    kgreenall@group-air.com

    NES International
    Contact: Hamad Bastan
    hamad.bastan-hagh@nes.co.uk

    Best of luck.

    Robert

  15. Thank you Robert again.

    I have checked the webs of the agencies, but there are not valide vacancies for drilling. I sent e-mail to them /Aberdeen office/ and I got form there: out of office until 11/6/07. I am still looking for a job.
    You could see me at the my new blogger, but without photo. I could not understand how to add it.

    http://www.blogger.com/profile/09320225850530926559

    Have a nice weekend!

  16. Very useful info !!

    “If you want to work offshore, it is required. And if you work offshore from Norway, you actually have to take a week long course”

    I’m about to do the week long course sometime in December…..I have several mates who have gone through it and actually enjoyed the simulator bit…..can’t say i’m looking forward to it but i will get through it !!

  17. hi all
    i am south african and i am desperately seeking a entry level position on a offshore oil rig….i am hard working and ive tried for 3 months now to get a job…all i get is replies from scam companys who get my details of career sites …if anyone can assist me or help me i would be very gratefull…ive been working as a civil engineer in the construction industry for 15 years ..any help would be appreciated…my emaill is paulmarx@webmail.co.za
    thanks
    paul

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