Young Memorial simulator trains offshore workers how to exit a ditched helicopter

MORGAN CITY, La. — I’ll admit my heart was racing as the cab of the simulator began to rise above the pool.

I had my instructions, safety gear, an instructor by my side and a diver in the water — just in case. Still, when you’re about to be a crash test dummy who is flipped upside down in a pool of water and told to figure your way out of a seat belt and a helicopter with your eyes closed, it’s a little unnerving.

When you actually do it, it’s exhilarating.

The reason you do it is because it could save your life one day.

Carl Moore, marine coordinator at the Young Memorial campus of South Central Louisiana Technical College in Morgan City, instructed me every step of the way, just as he has the 9,577 students before me.

Young Memorial has used the half-million-dollar Modular Egress Training Simulator built by Survival Systems in Canada for about five years.

“We had one (student) that actually came back and his helicopter went down off Main Pass and he actually came back and thanked us,” Moore said. “He said if it wasn’t for that he didn’t think he ever would have gotten out of it. And, he said it was so realistic that when he came out he actually expected to see a diver on the side. He said it was just like training and that’s what Survival Systems does. Each one of those exits replicate a real helicopter and they’ve gone in and done pressure tests on it. That’s what it feels like in real life, how much pressure it takes to get rid of that exit when it’s on upside down.”

When I had to bust my window out to get out of my seat, I had to remember to bust it out at the top. It takes 100 pounds of pressure to remove it from the center, but only 20 pounds when striking the top of the pane — a useful trick to know. In truth, though, the hardest part is not becoming disoriented when the helicopter flips over.

Moore says the most common error students make is with seat belts. I can attest to that.

Students “don’t like the seat belts. They think the seat belts are going to harm them. In actuality, what we were talking about is the seat belt is actually your friend because it keeps your orientation with the helicopter and your biggest problem is you think the window is on my left. If I turn upside down, the window is now going to be on my right. But we try to tell them, if you’re in the same seat it’s always going to be on your left. So that’s the hardest thing,” he said.

On my first of three simulations, I released my seat belt too quickly and didn’t quite make my way out of the cab successfully. Instead, I misjudged my own buoyancy and smacked my head on the window. This is the place to learn, right?

“We do so many exits here … and this is where we want them to make their mistakes, and we use helmets. We’re probably glad we use helmets because they do a lot of hitting and banging,” Moore said of the students.

Workers wear lifejackets and coveralls when going offshore but not helmets. To simulate as real of an experience as possible, students wear lifejackets, coveralls, boots and helmets in the simulator.

Additionally, “30 to 35 percent of our students are non-swimmers. So imagine somebody who can’t swim, put them inside that and flip them upside down. It takes a lot of trust to work with them. They’re in the classroom four hours and then they’re in the pool four hours, so they build up a trust with their instructor. Melissa (Ganaway) is one of the instructors. She goes in with them so they have a little trust with them. They won’t like strangers coming in and taking them in. It works well,” Moore said.

“There’s a lot of mariners that can’t swim. We get them that the biggest thing they’ve been in is a bathtub. We had a gentleman from Africa and he said the closest thing he had to swim in was a river and if he had gone in that river his family would have kicked him out of the tribe. He would have been kicked out of the village, so he never had put his foot in the water except for a shower. And his first experience came in here for four hours and then flip him in that,” he said gesturing to the simulator.

When the Deepwater Horizon went down in 2010, “the one thing that nobody has said anything about is safety because safety worked that day. Of the 100 and something people that got off of that rig, there was nobody injured during the evacuation. The people that were killed on that rig were killed at ground zero, but the rest of them got off into the life rafts … We had 25 of them trained here.”

One female student trained at the facility Moore specifically remembered. He said she was one of the last to jump off the platform.

“She remembered her training, and she stepped off that Deepwater Horizon just like she stepped off of that (platform) and she remembered Melissa telling her ‘hold on, hold on’ and she stepped off. But she said the last thing that went through her mind was Melissa telling her how to step off of that platform. So, everything that went on with BP, the cleanup, the oil spill, nobody ever said anything. Safety worked that day. That was the one time nothing has been done for safety because it worked. They didn’t have to. It worked. We did our job,” he said.

Ganaway and Moore each have more than 10,000 rotations each in the simulator. “We’ve seen a lot. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve seen a lot,” Moore said. Working with them are safety diver Todd Boudreaux and operator Patricia Rodriguez.

As for the students, “we’ve seen them all the way from 17 to 84. It’s a big variety,” Moore said of the age of those trained. An average of 42 people per week are trained in the simulator.

“Some of them, the bravado of them, they mess up, and they get all upset. We tell them this is where we want you to mess up. We want them to mess up here. We want them to see things like when she went down, and the first thing she did was float straight up and felt the buoyancy of her body. If we hadn’t done that, she never would have experienced it. You make your mistakes here. You’re trying to develop muscle memory so that they know what to expect. They go through their ditching. They go through their routine and they’re able to get out,” he said.

Additional reporting by Managing Editor Harlan Kirgan. To view video of Kaess in the METS, visit stmarynow.com and click the multimedia link.

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