A crash course in crash landings

Story by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough. Photos by Ensign Travis Dopp.

Members of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage huddle around a fire they made as part of cold weather survival training in the woods of Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 19, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Travis Dopp.

Members of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage huddle around a fire they made as part of cold weather survival training in the woods of Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 19, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Travis Dopp.

A crash course in plane crash survival in Alaska begins with a seat cushion. Stay alive long enough for first responders to find you. Frostbite and heart failure set in quickly as the mercury drops, and there’s no time to lose. It’s time to make a fire.

Members of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage learned how to stay warm and survive after a crash in the Alaskan wilderness during a two-day course in cold weather survival and aircraft underwater egress training provided by Learn to Return Jan. 19-20. The course is required training for state of Alaska employees and employees of Alaska-based industries who travel as part of their duties. The members received boots-on-the-ground lessons about the hazards of cold weather environments, hypothermia prevention and first aid and shelter techniques. 

“LTR instructors say it’s not hard to motivate people to learn to survive when it’s 26 below freezing, because you want to survive,” said Ensign Travis Dopp, a member of the Sector Anchorage command center, who volunteered to take the training. “A lot of people have never used magnesium strikers to start a fire, so it was good to do it in a classroom setting, where you find you have to use a lot more force than you think.”

 There were 1,874 commuter and air taxi accidents in the United States from 1990 to 2015. Commuter and air taxi accidents in Alaska accounted for more than one-third of those events and more than 20 percent of the fatal events in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Along with the statistics associated with surviving a crash, we learned how to get into brace positions and why you get into those positions,” said Dopp. “We also learned about reference points on the airframe, such as remembering that whatever your left or right hand is holding onto is the same if you are upside down.”

The first day of cold weather survival consisted of eight hours of practical experience in the areas of journey management, worker safety and emergency procedures for cold weather areas. The instructors taught the basics of hypothermia prevention and typical emergency scenarios that need to be considered.

Members of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage make boots out of airplane seat cushions around a fire they made as part of cold weather survival training in the woods of Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 19, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Travis Dopp.

Members of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage make boots out of airplane seat cushions around a fire they made as part of cold weather survival training in the woods of Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 19, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Travis Dopp.

Flight attendants always point out that airplane seat cushions can be used as flotation devices, but Coast Guard members attending the cold weather survival training learned the foam pads have another use valuable for survival. At an outdoor facility in Anchorage, the members practiced shaping the foam from the cushions into a pair of boots, while other members huddled around a fire wearing makeshift ponchos from garbage bags. In addition to wilderness first aid, the instructors also reminded them to gather any gear onboard the aircraft.

Day 2 prepared the class for an over-water emergency ditching, which consisted of both classroom and pool instruction during helicopter underwater egress training. The word “egress,” which comes from a Latin word that basically means “Let’s get the heck out of here!,” is a way out of a location or confined space. Training participants went through two stations that simulated common crash situations: a cage pushed off the ledge of a pool; and an aircraft fuselage underwater on the bottom of the pool. All experienced the sudden disorientation of tumbling upside down. Dopp said they also swam through a tunnel that resembled an airplane fuselage and had to open a door and egress through it.

“Blacked-out goggles were available for anyone who wanted to simulate what a real crash into water would be like,” said Dopp.

Aviation accidents are a harsh reality that comes with the territory in Alaska but, thanks to their training, the members of Sector Anchorage are better prepared for the ultimate test of survival.

 

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