81. Helicopter Half Marathon – offshore survival

Brace ! Brace ! Brace ! Standby for ditching…..!

north-sea-helicopter-offshore-survival-training.jpgThese are the words you never, ever want to hear, especially when you’re flying at low altitude above the North Sea. But they were real enough, and strapped firmly into my seat, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

It’d been a hell of a bad day already, to be frank. One problem after another. The whole morning spent dousing out a series of kerosene fires, and then that frightening traverse in breathing apparatus through a blackened and smoke-filled furnace to escape. Without even mentioning the exploding chip pan in the galley.

And now, after all of that, our helicopter was going down. Again.

Twice already, we’d been forced to land on the water. Once, we’d even taken briefly to the liferaft. Eight anxious guys in bright yellow survival suits, bobbing around in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. Not a great place to spend the afternoon, but fortunately the pilot had got the machine flying again, we’d climbed back in, somehow, and he’d managed to coax the aircraft a bit nearer dry land. Twice more, we’d taken off, but it was hopeless. The end was near, and inevitable. It’d be time to start thinking about unfulfilled dreams, and life insurance, if only there were a moment to think of that stuff, or anything at all.

Because this time, as we hit the water, we floated hesitantly for a few seconds, and then the chopper started rocking like mad. Just an instant or two, for our luck to run out, for all hell to break loose. We were going down for good this time. With widened eyes and rising panic, the re-breather’s airpipe stuffed retchingly into my mouth, I took a deep and desperate breath, as the fuselage filled with water and the world turned turtle in front of me.

If ever you’ve spent the afternoon in a washing machine, then you’ll know exactly that feeling. A fast-rotating myriad of bubbles, foam and fear, the lights of the surface fast receding to a distant inverted glow. I’ve got to get out. I’ve just got to get out. But I’m sitting here, upside-down, still strapped in, and there’s nowhere to go unless I can find and unlock my seatbelt first. It’s no time for fingers and thumbs, but mercifully the belt comes open first twist. The door’s alongside me, then somehow below me (or is it above?) and I’m floating away from it. A despairing lunge in mid-drift, and somehow the newfound strength of a wrestler manages to lever my whole body through the opening, with just the force of my left arm. There’s a dreadful, dire instant as the collar of my lifejacket catches briefly, and I stick fast. One more tendon-ripping clench, and with a frantic shake of my neck, I’m free, and heading for the surface.

A second of relief, as I cast the airpipe from my face, and splutter a gasp of the sweetest Scots air, mixed with a full mouthful of water. A frustrating fumble at the lifejacket toggle before it inflates, but salvation it’s not. A glance shows the liferaft’s gone down with the chopper, and there’s a long swim ahead. Or maybe quite brief, for in lethally cold waters, a leaking survival suit is going to make this like a di Caprio audition for ‘Titanic‘. It doesn’t look good for my next movie.

But a voice rises beside me, and I’m no longer alone. A few more of my colleagues have escaped from the helicopter, and we paddle around comically, trying to form a survival circle. If grabbing the chubby hands of some fast-sinking or Mae-Wested Scotsman wasn’t on the top of your list at breakfast-time, it seems a bloody good idea now. Two, three, five, and finally there’s all eight of us with linked arms in the water. Cold, but facing our deaths together.

Then there’s a roar from above, and we see a scrambling net thrown down into the water ahead. Wrenched tendon or no, shocked from the crash or not, I’ll find the strength to climb up it somehow. I wobble, my legs quivering like jelly from the effort. But it’s not working, and I slide wretchedly back into the water. There’s nothing for it but to keep swimming a while longer.

Just one final shout, and the nightmare is all over. ‘Hey, that’s great guys, you’ve finished. Just pick up your certificates on the way out of the pool’.

The Helicopter Half Marathon. I’ve done it. My four-yearly survival training. Survived.

Because if ever you thought that working offshore was a doddle, for lily-livered and Rolex-wristed wimps, you can forget that notion, and forget it right now. You’ve got to be brave, or reckless. Or maybe both, to subject yourself to this training. A full three days the first time, a comprehensive induction into firefighting, first aid, liferaft procedures, and helicopter underwater escape. That’s the full marathon.

And every four years afterwards, just to renew it, there’s a one day course in Aberdeen. They call it a ‘refresher’, but I’ll tell you, it’s anything but that. Just the ‘highlights’ of the course repeated, with all of the tough stuff. And right at the end, that helicopter ditching and capsize escape exercise. You build up to it all day, and it fills your mind and even your underpants, right until it’s over.

It’s changed a lot since I did it last. The re-breather is new – and the main focus of our day this time. Slotting in between the front of your lifejacket, this cunning device unfurls to deploy a bright yellow canvas bag with an airpipe and mouthpiece. You inflate just before you go under, to give a few more moments of life. A few more seconds to breathe, and then re-breathe, your increasingly stale and panicked last gasps whilst you fight your way out, or descend to the briniest of dooms.

If you’re a good swimmer like me, but not a diver, it’s hard enough. Hard enough to hold that pipe between your teeth in abject panic, forcing yourself to breathe beneath the foam. With the pressure of water, you have to breathe hard – and it’s an unpleasantly lung-busting, cheek-chilling feeling. Like trying to blow up an air mattress perhaps. Just like that, yes, especially if you’ve ever tried that particular experience whilst submerged and turned upside-down in a helicopter. Trust me, it’s not fun.

And it was so much worse, I’m sure, for the four guys amongst us who couldn’t even swim. Being told that there’s a diver alongside to drag you out, drowning, in the case of a problem, well that wasn’t much of a comfort to me. And not enough to persuade a non-swimmer to try it, surely ? And yet somehow they do – and I can’t even begin to express my admiration for the courage they must find to go under.

A few hours later, and I’m on my warm flight back to London. With a freshly renewed interest, again, in listening to the safety instructions, in checking out those exits. How long will it take me to reach the rear door if we crash ? And could I swim to it, under the cold dark of the North Sea, if I had to ? Because it’s certain, I’d try.

That adrenaline rush is still with me. And the temptation is there, it’s right there, for my familiar post-survival routine. Two beers in the airport, then stiff gin-and-tonics aloft. One small bottle of wine with my sandwich, before a slurredly shared taxi-drive home.

So it’s only the car waiting at Gatwick which spares me. A tomato juice with ice, then two cups of tea must lead to a weaker form of escape, this time. But I store a mental note here – because whatever the drink, that taste of survival – it feels just the same.

Related articles:
149. In at the deep end – Stratford 220 Sprint Triathlon
69. Running low on fuel
79. In sickness and in health
105. A crisis of energy
135. Backs against the wall – Footdee, Aberdeen

5 responses to “81. Helicopter Half Marathon – offshore survival

  1. Amazing read!! Thought it was actually out in the sea until “Just one final shout, and the nightmare is all over. ‘Hey, that’s great guys, you’ve finished. Just pick up your certificates on the way out of the pool’.” Quality! I can’t wait to do my training!!

  2. The very best of luck to you, Ben.

    You’ll enjoy your time offshore enormously, and the survival training which precedes it is extraordinarily comprehensive.

    A good friend of mine once told me, after her very first trip out to the rigs, that she felt well-enough prepared almost to feel disappointed that she didn’t finally have the opportunity to put her helicopter ditching training into real-life practice.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far. But I.would certainly admit that for ever afterwards, when the flight attendant asks you to ‘take a moment to locate the exit nearest to you’, you will do exactly as she asks.

    In that respect, life will never be quite the same again, and perhaps that is exactly how it should be.

    Forgive me also if I venture that every family, and especially those with small children, should attempt a fire escape drill from their house, at least once a year. Because if we all did that, it would save countless lives.

  3. That’s a brilliant and informative piece of writing. One which I wish I’d discovered earlier, but I’m going to have to stay tuned to read more of your offshore experiences. Although it’s something I’d never be able to do…I have difficulty staying upright on land, let alone when dumped out of a helicopter, I enjoy reading about it.


  4. Thank you, Shady. The experience of flying out to a drilling rig operating in the North Sea makes you realise the scale and complexity of the efforts involved in bringing our fuel to the pumps. I would dearly love to see us reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, and to make much more efficient use of the energy resources we have. But I won’t underestimate the commitment and determination of those involved in the offshore industry and who spend their working lives making this hazardous commuting journey every fortnight.

    The training provided is first class, and perhaps it’s no bad thing that it involves a few scary moments. The hazards faced by offshore workers were highlighted yet again this month by the North Sea helicopter crash in which 16 people lost their lives. The dangers are real and ever-present, and it’s good to be prepared for all eventualities.

    Many thanks again.

  5. I have my second offshore refresher tomorrow after 8 years in the oil industry…I’m absolutely dreading it and was scouring the internet for any details of what the course now involves, when I came accross your fantastic article! Although it doesn’t make me feel any less scared, it was a brilliant read, and at least shows that everyone else doesn’t “love” the training, as so many claim to!! Thanks.

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