Finding the right stuff in the deep end

Here’s an old joke: I’m not afraid of flying. It’s crashing that worries me.

Last month I climbed into a flight suit, got strapped inside a Modular Egress Training
Simulator (METS, for short), and lowered into a 100,000-gallon tank of water.
Then I was rolled 180 degrees so I was upside-down.

The point of this, other than determining if my flight suit should have a diaper, was to get
a taste of what it’s like to exit a plane that has just crashed in water. I was
spending the day at Survival Systems USA in Groton, Conn., a training center
that teaches flight crews – military and commercial – and interested passengers
how to survive an aircraft ditching. It was background for a novel, and it
proved to be among the most fascinating research I have ever done for a book.

Survival Systems’ president is Maria Hanna. Hanna is a skydiver, a scuba diver, and she
owns two motorcycles and a small airplane. And yet her business is all about
minimizing risk and increasing the odds of survival when the absolute worst has
just occurred. “Other causes of death – underwater disorientation, disorderly
evacuation, injuries from not bracing properly, drowning – are what kill many
people, not the primary impact,” she explains, her voice cheerful, despite the
litany of terror that rolls off her tongue.

The METS is a cylinder that resembles an aircraft cabin, though there is a section to reproduce a flight deck as well. The device has detachable windows and doors, so Survival
Systems can replicate egress from anything from a Blackhawk military helicopter
to the window exit of a passenger jet. The cylinder is lowered into the tank,
submerged underwater, and then rocked or rolled upside down, depending upon the
scenario. The ceiling can be set on fire because, let’s face it, when your
plane or chopper has become a lawn dart, there’s a chance that something is

Hanna estimates that she has been dunked thousands of times in the eleven years she
has been with Survival Systems. And while there have been minor injuries over
the years, Hanna says no one has ever been seriously hurt.

The day I was dunked, there were three National Guardsmen being trained as well. Hanna put an instructor in the simulator with me and there were divers in the water
around it to make sure that all of us got out with, worst case, a snootful of
water. The instructor assigned to me was a former Navy air intercept controller
and the head of the company’s Quality Assurance Standards, Richard Martin.

Altogether I was dunked three times, twice rolled until I was upside down. I learned the survival basics. To wit, use physical clues to find the exit and the exit lever because
the odds you will be able to find it visually when you are upside-down and the
cabin is awash in bubbles and chaos are slim. Second, never unbuckle your seatbelt
until you have opened the exit and gotten a grip on the open frame, because the
chances you will be able to find it once you have started to float inside the
plane are pretty poor, too.

Escaping the simulator the two times I was strapped into a seat and had to push out exit
windows while upside-down were particularly satisfying.

But here is an interesting footnote. I thought I was done after three dunkings. I had
everything I needed for the novel. But Martin and Hanna had a fourth scenario
in mind, given what I had told Hanna about the book. I was tempted, but then I looked at the Guardsmen. This was their training. Their life. So I passed: I had what I needed
and the others had real work to do. But I will always wonder if there was
another reason: Perhaps I had the right stuff for three simulations – not four.

Regardless, the next time I’m flying, I will give more than a cursory glimpse to the safety
card in the seat pocket. You should too.

And if you want to learn more about surviving the worst – and who you are at your best – get dunked at Survival Systems.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 23, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.