Anyone planning to step foot on one of Shell’s offshore Arctic drilling vessels this summer must first pass an intense two day helicopter safety course.
The class, which is taught at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, using the Kenai Central High School swimming pool, tests students’ endurance and nerves in a mock helicopter, which simulates a crash at sea.
It is at times exhilarating and terrifying, but instructors say the skills taught there just might save lives.
“Shell trains above and beyond a lot of other companies’ standards,” said Greg Olcott, instructor for the course.
Roughly 1,200 people will complete the course this spring and summer, including Channel 2 News reporter Ted Land and photojournalist Dan Carpenter.
The devices and techniques are a lot more complicated than what you may have read about in that safety card in the seatback pocket on your last flight.
Students start by getting used to the mustang suit, super-insulated, bright orange, full body outerwear meant to keep you warm, dry, and afloat, should you end up bobbing in near-freezing water, miles from shore.
Shell plans to use Sikorsky 92 helicopters to transport its workers.
“(It's) probably one of the safest aircraft helicopters that flies currently,” said Olcott.
While the aircraft are equipped with twin engines and emergency floats, passengers need to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.
If you know what to do, under certain circumstances, instructors insist it is possible to survive the moment of impact and the underwater chaos that follows.
One important tool students learn to use is a re-breather. It’s a pack that a passenger wears around their neck. Inside is a bag with a tube and a mouthpiece attached to it. The user quickly unpacks the device, takes a deep breath, and then exhales into the bag, filling it with air that was once in their lungs. There’s enough oxygen in the recycled air to allow a person to breath for roughly 30 seconds.
After practicing opening an aircraft hatch underwater, it’s time for the real thing.
We strap ourselves into a mock helicopter fuselage, which is lowered into a pool by a winch.
The cage submerges and then overturns.
Using skills we learned earlier in a classroom, we start using air from our re-breather, feel around for the seatbelt, and then begin to push out the helicopter door.
Once the door releases, we pull ourselves out of the aircraft and surface. It’s an exercise students must repeat five times, with varying degrees of difficulty.
“My heart was going at first, but I just had to calm myself down,” said Dan Carpenter, KTUU photojournalist, upon completing one of the exercises.
“It’s kind of a mind exercise more so than it is a physical exercise,” said Ted Land, Channel 2 News reporter, “the key here is just to not panic.”