The Navy Was Losing A Lot Of People In Helicopter Crashes

Between 1969 and 1972, seventy-eight Navy helicopters crashed at sea. There were 63 fatalities among those aboard, ten died of their injuries, and fifty-three were drowned and recovered or lost at sea. In the effort to reduce the number of fatalities at sea, the Navy began training aircrews in surviving helicopter crashes at sea with the 9D5 Multi-Place Universal Underwater Egress Trainer(MUUET), which was affectionately referred to as, “Panic in a Drum.”

The 9D5 dunker ready to receive trainees. Photo, US Navy.

Believe it or not there was actual resistance from aircrews going through this training.  Everyone knew that flying in naval helicopters was dangerous and that survival chances were near zero(They were much better than that actually). As a coping mechanism, many crewmen and pilots adopted the belief that it just could not happen to them, as if they could by Will alone give magical protection to the helicopter by convincing themselves that crashes happened to the other guy, not to them.  So going through egress training was acknowledging that crashes did indeed happen and that you could be involved in one and lots of aircrews didn’t want to think about that.

Introducing “Panic In A Drum”

Which of course meant the Navy wanted to do it even more. The result was the 9D5 dunker.  It was about eighteen feet long, and seven feet wide.  It’s suspended in a cradle six to eight feet above a special pool that is fifteen feet deep.  An operator on the platform operates hydraulic controls(because electricity, metal, and water used together are a bad idea) and he can drop it and roll it one-hundred and eighty degrees in about ten seconds.

During Aircrewman Candidate School at Pensacola, we were put through a wide variety of safety training that left you with the distinct impression that what we were doing was pretty dangerous.  Ejection seat training, parachute landing training, altitude chamber training, deepwater environmental survival training, jungle survival training, the Dilbert Dunker(which was child’s play), and finally the 9D5, “Panic in a Drum.”  It was so named for a cleaning product popular at the time called “Janitor in a Drum” that bore a resemblance to the olive drab barrel shape of the 9D5.  You can watch one of their old TV ads for the product below.



My own memories of 9D5 are still pretty vivid.  When we were all brought to the pool that afternoon in Pensacola, we knew what we were going to be doing.  We also knew it was pretty dangerous because instead of our instructors yelling in our faces, they were speaking to us in a normal voice, with a tone that was more instructive than the usual profane hostility we received as “Turds.”