Water Survival Training

One perk of being in naval aviation maintenance is the occasional opportunity to fly in the backseat of a jet. While in the training command in 1979, I went through ejection seat training and water survival to do just that.

Following a lecture about the ejection seat, we took turns strapping into a seat mounted on a twenty-foot vertical rail. Pulling the D-ring at the base fired the seat, which shot up the rail to simulate an ejection. We also went into a pressure chamber to experience the feeling of being at a 25,000-foot altitude. Then we hung from parachute risers to practice releasing ourselves during land, water and tree landings.

Water survival included performing survival strokes the length of a swimming pool, treading water and swimming across the pool underwater. Although a poor swimmer, I practiced enough to pass the first part of the test. Getting across the pool underwater was another story, however. Being naturally buoyant, I always popped to the top. On my third monthly attempt I finally passed. We completed water survival by going out into Corpus Christi Bay where a helicopter hoisted us up in a practice rescue.

Flying in jets was worth all that effort. I made several cross-country flights with my squadron and I experienced landing on an aircraft carrier. I even went home to South Dakota in a T-2C aircraft the weekend my best friend got married.

Fast forward eighteen years. It was pleasant news to learn my position as maintenance officer for the Western Pacific authorized me to fly in jets once again. Because I had previously been backseat-qualified, our headquarters agreed to let me fly if I updated the water survival portion.

I’d only gone swimming twice in those eighteen years. I didn’t look forward to the test but hoped I could tough it out. The underwater swim portion had been dropped and I was now a physically fit runner. The new requirement to wear a complete set of flight gear didn’t concern me. I signed up for the next-scheduled class and caught a hop from mainland Japan to Okinawa, where the Marine Corps provided the only military training west of San Diego.

Because female captains are so rare, I felt conspicuous in that class full of young men, especially since I expected to be the worst swimmer. After the classroom session, we went to the pool. The men, who were all qualifying for helicopters, wore life vests in addition to flight suits and boots. I was the only one there for ejection seat training and I dressed in a complete set of flight gear.

First came the anti-gravity suit (G-suit), a set of bladders covering the legs and stomach. It zipped up the inseams and fit like a pair of tight jeans. Next I stepped into the torso harness, pulling it up and over my shoulders. This was a body suit made of heavy nylon straps sewn to a nylon jacket, with metal fittings to attach to a parachute that would be packed in the ejection seat. The last item was a heavy survival vest containing a life preserver and pockets that bulged with survival items.

Pulling on a helmet and gloves, I climbed down into the pool and waited for every cavity to fill with water. Both my natural buoyancy and my runner’s fitness left me. That wet flight gear was heavy!

The instructor worked with me for three days before I finally passed the swimming strokes portion. While resting after one practice session, I watched a group of young Marines enjoying themselves at the other end of the pool. One of them leisurely did the backstroke across the pool–with a regular-sized concrete block balanced on his chest. It was disgusting.

I could not tread water. Whenever my mouth dipped below the water line, I panicked, even knowing there was no danger of drowning. I never got far enough in the process to practice climbing into the liferaft. The instructor gave me an “incomplete” grade and I returned to Atsugi.

Thinking those water-filled boots were the problem, I practiced drownproofing and treading water while wearing flight boots, until I felt comfortable in the water. The next time I went to Okinawa for a meeting, I scheduled a retest. I spent the entire meeting dreading my appointment, but when I reached the pool, it was dry. The Marines had drained it without notifying my instructor. The Air Force would not allow anyone wearing flight gear to enter its pool. Back to Atsugi.

In November I returned to Okinawa, and was surprised to learn the temperature could drop to 62 degrees on that “tropical” island. It was a chilly day to be in the pool.

My first attempt to tread water told me I’d failed again. The boots were not the problem–it was the total weight of the flight gear coupled with my fear of drowning. Although I told myself I only had to stay calm and breathe slowly for four minutes, “self” didnt listen. My mental attitude defeated me in spite of what my logical mind knew. Choking and swallowing water, I flailed around and grabbed for the life ring.

This story has no happy ending. My motivation disappeared and I haven’t made an attempt since that day. Although Id dearly love to strap into a jet and take off from one of our new aircraft carriers, I just can’t make myself go back to the pool. My desire to fly lost out to my dislike of being in the water.

Published in the Clear Lake Courier, 2 September 1998

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