The HUET or Helicopter Underwater Escape Training section of the offshore survival course can have an almost eerie effect on some offshore workers. It may be that they are going offshore for the first time or renewing their offshore survival course after the four years has elapsed. It is common for at least half to be anxious at the HUET section alone.
What is it that this strange and terrifying 'HUET' has
to unnerve hardened oil workers so?
Well, the primary goal of the HUET is to familiarise the trainees with helicopter evacuation in the event of a crash landing. This entails a mock-up helicopter that is suspended above a swimming pool with people inside sent plummeting into the water several times. Immediately after touching the water the inhabitants must scramble out of doorways and windows as quickly as possible, inflate their life jackets and enter the life-raft. The added spice to this watery test is the helicopter turning upside-down on the final plunge. This final portion of the HUET is what tends to unnerve so many.
Yours truly has been through the Offshore Survival course and to be brutally honest I found the HUET section to be a breeze. Sure, my suit leaked a bit and I got cold, but at no time did I find myself dreading the HUET. A little apprehensive, but not unnerved. To be fair I think the psychological effect of seeing and hearing the loud hydraulics of the helicopter dunking and rinsing the inhabitants over and over and then finally flipping them over like a bundle of washing can be unsettling.
The HUET works progressively, first the instructors familiarise the students with the layout and harness operation, then removal of doors and windows. After this you practice a movement that immediately has you locating your nearest exit, then at the given time you release the harness and evacuate. A relatively basic rebreather system is incorporated into the life jacket. This rebreather or 'Air-Pocket' allows some underwater breathing when immersed. The offshore survival course stresses the importance of using it when immersed in the final sections of the HUET (descent and inversion).
'Great, a handy bit of kit, just what you need for escaping a downed helicopter.' I hear you say.
The only thing is that there's two schools of thought offshore on the usefulness of the rebreather. The first one says that the rebreather is a great escape tool if the helicopters submerged and gaining depth fast. An escaping passenger/pilot may not be able to hold his breath long enough without one. It also acts as something of a 'comfort aid' giving courage and reassurance to passengers traveling offshore.
The second, more controversial belief is that the rebreather over-complicates matters during an helicopter evacuation and that without it an escapee would be able to fully concentrate on evacuation to the surface.
Now this may seem a pretty lame reason on first hearing it, but if you look at the deployment and operation of the rebreather/air-pocket you will see a different story emerges. The air-pocket rebreather consists of a sealed rubber bag (nylon exterior), a rubber hose with mouth-piece and nose-clip. They are found inside a section of the typical offshore life jacket. To deploy, just pull down a velcro panel and out pops the hose and nose-clip. So your thinking, 'No problem, just pop the mouth-piece in, clip on the nose-clip and start sucking air.' It's not that simple, for a start a steel pin must be depressed inside the mouthpiece (allowing air passage), then a deep breath must be blown into the breathing-bag to inflate it and breathe off. That's right, since it's a rebreather there must be air in it to start with to 'activate' it, so if, in the moment of truth when water is rushing about your ears, in the height of panic you forget to do this, then the rebreather is essentially useless and no good to you. A final note of caution is that the breathing bag only lasts for about a minute, so 'activating' it early could cost you a chunk of precious air.
Now some offshore life jackets (usually on the BP and Shell helicopters) do have integrated mini-air cylinders inside jacket that eases the complication slightly but the ones used by the primary survival center in Scotland do not.
During the descent you must deploy and utilise the rebreather one-handed (due to having to locate your exit with your other hand) and immediately on be ready to unbuckle the harness (after impact). I can tell you that it's not easy to pull off this flashy-sequence of moves during the HUET. Much fumbling of hands and cumbersome snatching of nose-clips ensures. It may of just been me, but I found the nose-clip to be a cheap thing, easily dislodged in rough and tumble of evacuation, making nasal inhalation of water a possibility.
These niggles aside, the HUET remains a good tool for the offshore survival course. It's a step forward from the basic days of the 1980s, it could be better, but it could also be worse.
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