Air Force pilots have been dragged through water by a jet ski, but why?


Air Force pilot recruiting brochures probably don’t mention the possibility of having to bail out an aircraft, but it’s one of many outcomes that aircrew train for. That’s why Airmen from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron were dragged across the ocean by a jet ski onto the beach of the Caribbean island of St. Croix earlier this month. While it’s not the most glamorous experience, it’s part of how aviators prepare for one of the scariest times of their lives: jumping out of a plane over the ocean.

“This is all training for the worst possible sequence of events on a mission,” said Lt. Col. Mark Withee, a navigator with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, also known as the Hurricane Hunters.

“If that happens, we want to give people the best chance to survive as intact as possible,” he said.

Pilots, navigators, and aircrew enlisted with the 53rd traveled from their home at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, to St. Croix to participate in water survival training. All Air Force aircrew must undergo water survival training every three years, but it’s especially relevant for hurricane hunters, who spend much of their time flying above the ocean to collect storm data. Aquatic survival training courses often take place in lakes or pools, but the 53rd wanted something a little more realistic to prepare their crews. Plus, the Hurricane Hunters deploy their gear to St. Croix every May as part of its liquidation for the summer hurricane season, so why not get some survival training there?

“Being able to conduct this training in the ocean at St. Croix has been extremely beneficial,” said Master Sgt. Ethan Perry in a training press release. As a survival, evasion, resistance, and evasion specialist, it was Perry’s job to teach survival skills to members of the 53rd.

“It’s a realistic environment, and we got to see what to expect if the crew had to jump out of the plane over the ocean or if the plane was shot down in the ocean,” said- he declared.

The 53rd is the only unit in the Army that hunts hurricanes, providing data on humidity, wind speed, wind direction, temperature, atmospheric pressure, dew point and other elements that satellites can’t pick up that close or at all. This data helps scientists at the National Hurricane Center determine where the storm is heading and when it will get there, which helps officials prepare for storms and limit the damage they cause.

Withee said people often ask him what would happen if one of their modified C-130 transport planes went down in the middle of one of those storms. Although the crew brings parachutes aboard the plane, the chances of surviving a bailout in a hurricane’s eyewall are negligible, he said. However, there are many other scenarios that could occur where the crew might have to bail out over the ocean.

“Things happen,” Withee said. “We get struck by lightning, there’s big hail breaking the window…and when that happens, we want to be trained to survive.”

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Bailing out an aircraft is not a decision crews take lightly. Crews through the service train to troubleshoot and overcome a wide range of issues that can arise during a flight, to the point where pilots routinely make headlines for landing without a canopy or with much of the tail down. During each pre-flight briefing, the Hurricane Hunters discuss the weakest part of the storm and the nearest airfields they can divert to in case of trouble. They also practice identifying the worst parts of a storm and avoiding riding through it. Jumping out of even half-broken planes is a last resort.

“We will always fight to bring the plane back,” Withee said. “But we bring parachutes for a reason.”

Maj. Jeff Mitchell, a pilot with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, inflates a raft on a beach in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, May 2, 2022. (Courtesy photo by U.S. Air Force)

It’s rare, but accidents during storms have happened. On October 12, 1974, an aircrew from the Air Force’s 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron was lost when it flew from Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Typhoon Bess on a reconnaissance mission. No emergency communications were received, and although search parties collected the wreckage of the missing aircraft four days later, no survivors were found. It was the last US weather reconnaissance flight to be lost in a tropical cyclone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and hopefully it will stay that way.

But as the saying goes, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”, and training at Sainte-Croix ticked that box. The saying could also be one of the beacons of the SERE specialists who lead the training, the maintainers who keep the plane ready to fly and the Aircrew Flight Equipment Airmen who manage the equipment that aircrews need to survive tricky situations.

“The 53rd gets attention, but we can’t do it without the maintainers who work around the clock during storm season to keep the planes running reliably while we fly, the life support people who keep life rafts, parachutes and other emergency equipment inspected, and our SERE guys who put together all the training like this,” Withee said.

water survival
A United States Coast Guard HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter hoists a member of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron to safety while others wait in the water near Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, 2 May 2022. (US Air Force courtesy photo)

With all the equipment supported, it’s up to Airmen to keep themselves alive if the worst-case scenario arises. There is a checklist of tasks that crews prepare for in the unfortunate event that they find themselves drifting out to the ocean by parachute.

“As you parachute, you check your canopy, raise your visor, discard your oxygen mask, release your seat kit so it hangs below you, and inflate your life jacket so you float when you hit the water,” Withee explained.

Hitting ocean water in a parachute has its own set of complications. Wind can catch the parachute, drag you along the surface and tangle you in lines, which can be unavoidable in choppy waters while wearing flight suits and boots. Wind is no joke: Withee recalls seeing it drag a 350-pound crate of ocean data buoys across the surface of relatively calm seas last December. The parachute was similar to those the crew had on their modified WC-130J cargo plane.

“It’s heavier than most people in the military and in a big, bulky box and that sucker drags on water, and it’s not even a peripheral storm environment,” he said. .

Being dragged through water is a disorienting experience, which is why 53rd Airmen spent time being dragged by a jet ski in St. Croix. It’s not glamorous, but it’s necessary.

“Your body is in an awkward position and in all likelihood your head is still in the water,” Withee explained. “So you have to be trained to take a position to stabilize yourself and do your canopy releases. You return to this workout and release the parachute.

After the parachute departs, downed airmen are trained to inflate their personal life rafts. Each emergency seat kit comes with a one person life raft inflated by a small CO2 cartridge. The crew member climbs into the raft, which, like everything else, might be harder than it looks after jumping out of a plane.

“There are a few techniques we train on to do that: for example, if you jumped out of a plane, you could be injured, and if you have a broken arm, how do you get into that life raft with an arm ?” said Withee. “We practice these things in order to be ready to deal with them.”

Once the airman is in the life raft, “you plan to improve your situation…hopefully you are in contact with other people who have jumped from the plane,” said the navigator .

There are many World War II stories of airmen who jumped into the ocean and had to drift for weeks waiting for someone to find them. In the 21st century, the Hurricane Hunters hopefully won’t have to wait that long.

“Fortunately for us, everyone can see where we are at all times,” thanks to satellite communication and navigation technology, Withee said. “These days, thousands of people watch our missions, so they have a good idea of ​​where the plane is. Hopefully we will be rescued in a fairly short time.

coast guard helicopter
A US Coast Guard helicopter hoists a member of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron during a water survival training exercise in St. Croix, May 2022 (Lt. Col. Mark Withee/US Air Force)

But even getting rescued is a skill in itself. A Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter assisted in the training by hovering over the swim airmen, lowering a basket and pulling them up. The MH-60 is a big helicopter that creates its own little storm on the water.

“It’s one thing to swim in the ocean in flippers and a bathing suit, but if you’re swimming in a flight suit, boots and life jackets and through intense rotor wash and spray, it’s a challenge,” Withee said.

The basket itself has its own dangers. The navigator explained that the helicopter accumulates a static charge which is transmitted through the cable or rope and into the basket. Even wet ropes can transmit the load, so rescued swimmers can suffer a painful shock if they grab the basket before it lands on the water.

“If you catch it before it settles, you get a pretty solid shock, it’s pretty unpleasant,” he said. “You may be very keen to get yourself removed, but let this thing fall apart.”

Once that’s done, getting into the basket is quite fun, Withee said, especially if you keep your hands in the right position so they don’t get crushed by the basket as you enter the helicopter. Despite all the dangers of surviving in the water, getting out of a distressed plane is the hardest part, the navigator said.

“If you end up in the water, it was a really bad day, but you’ve already survived the worst,” he said.

That’s why 53rd aircrews participated in aquatic survival training: to make sure a bad day doesn’t get any worse.

“These are all unlikely scenarios, but at the same time, every year military aircraft go down for various reasons,” Withee said. “You never know when those skills might come in handy, when all those holes in Swiss cheese line up.”

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