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Helo Dunker Prepares Marines for Helicopter Crashes

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By Peter Biello

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/whqr/local-whqr-807526.mp3

Wilmington, NC – If you've ever taken a flight, you've probably heard the flight attendant's speech on what to do in the event of a water landing. Breathe normally. Help yourself before helping others. Find the nearest exit.

If you're a United States Marine, you may have practiced all these things inside a helo dunker, a devise that simulates a helicopter's crash landing into water. A group of Camp Lejeune Marines recently took a ride in the helo dunker to prepare for a sudden fall from the sky.

The Marines put themselves in danger fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even before they get there, they risk a flight from the ships to the shore.

Captain Edmund Clayton commands a group of Marines that he says needs to be ready for the worst.

"The MEU specifically deploys on ships so every movement we make in helicopters is kind of by definition a move above water," he says. "Even if we're near to shore we have to fly over water."

The helo dunker prepares them for a possible flight-gone-wrong. It's size of a real helicopter and hangs from the ceiling above the pool.

It descends slowly into the water and some Marines swim inside. Then it rises and water streams through the grated floor.

The instructor calls from inside the cabin, "Lights out!"

The room goes completely dark.

Then the Marines drop into the water. As it drops, the helo dunker rotates, as a real helicopter would.

Private First Class Jeffrey Czarnec stands at the edge of the pool in his soaking wet cammies.

It's his second day of training in this muggy, chlorine-scented classroom. He says while underwater in darkness, the Marines fight the urge to panic.

"You get shorter breaths, you freak out, and you lose control of the situation. If you calm down and have control of what you're doing, you can save your own life and hopefully other Marines' lives and anyone else."

Fighting that urge to panic is no easy task, so to prepare for it, the Marines use the sweat chair. The sweat chair floats in the shallow end, surrounded by a roll cage. A Marine climbs into the sweat chair and two trainers close him inside it with a plastic door. A seat belt straps him in.

"And he's being flipped over. The Marine is now just feet in the air, his head is underwater and his hands are working at the belt. Now the lights have gone out so it's completely dark. My eyes are adjusting and it seems like the Marine is out of the chair, and he's standing in the chair. He's now standing in the shallow end. He made it. Now he's ready for the big fake helicopter."

Even after training all this training, Czarnec says he'll probably panic.

"I really don't know what's going to go on," he says. "But at least I'll have this training so I'll be better off than I was before."

And even though he can't seem to keep the water out of his nose, Czarnec says the helo dunker is kind of fun.

"And I think that's the best way to train when you learn and you make things fun, but you also take it serious at the same time because it's a serious situation."

An instructor gives last-minute tips to some Marines in the shallow end of the pool. He leaves them and they plan their strategy.

The pressure is on, and these Marines find a way to loosen themselves up a little.

They sing.

It's a light-hearted moment before learning how to survive a helicopter crash something that one Marine tells me is not a matter of if, but when.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please e-mail us, we'd like to hear from you. news@whqr.org.