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.”

The contraption itself was a mystery to us as we looked at it. We’d never seen anything like it.  Rather than being in UDT shorts, we were completely dressed out in all our flight gear: flight suit, aircrew vest, flight helmet, steel-toed flight boots, and gloves, just like we were in an aircraft.  We were briefed on how the dunker worked and how to survive a water landing in a helicopter.  Stow loose gear, crank down on the straps of your four-point restraint, and lock the harness, grab some part of the aircraft as a reference point so you know left from right and up from down.  Do NOT open the door or punch out the plexiglass window while the aircraft is filling with water, wait till it fills and rolls over, and then release your harness.

The guy next to me whispered, “Wait, did he just say that we stay strapped in our seats until it fills with water and rolls over?”

“Ahh-yep,” I whispered back, “This is gonna be pretty sporty.” (“Sporty” was a slang term for something bad, unpleasant, or dangerous)


“Now, you don’t have to do this,” our instructor began,  “I will repeat that, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GO IN THE 9D5 TRAINER TODAY. You are all volunteers for Aircrew and you can un-volunteer now if you want to. After the briefing, just come see me and say you don’t want to do it and you can go back to the barracks and start packing, you will have orders to go somewhere within twenty-four hours. Probably to an Aircraft Carrier working on the flight deck.”

I wasn’t going to quit over this, but I could tell a few guys were thinking about it very seriously.  They were going to strap us into this thing, fully encumbered in flight gear, and then turn it over and sink it in fifteen feet of water.

Basically, the Navy was going to try and kill us, and we had to make like Harry Houdini to escape a watery death.

We could see several instructors in wetsuits and putting on oxygen tanks, masks and fins getting ready to enter the water.

Watch: Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit train to escape submerged aircraft

Read Next: Watch: Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit train to escape submerged aircraft

“There will be safety divers in the water in case you have a problem,” our instructor began, “You will each go into the dunker three times to simulate a daytime water landing and then you will do three simulated night landings.”

I looked onto the pool deck and it was flooded with the sunshine of midday in there with windows and lights  I didn’t see any curtains or blinds they could draw.

One of the guys spoke up, “How do we simulate these three-night landings, Sir?”

One of the instructor’s hands reached into the back of the speaker’s rostrum he was standing behind and then emerged and began twirling a pair of Speedo swim goggles around his index finger, “Wearing a pair of these,” he said smiling.

I’d worn Speedo googles for years as an AAU swimmer but they were either clear or had a light blue tint.  These looked like sunglasses.  They had painted the lenses black inside and out.

When we filed out of the classroom to go onto the pool deck, I noticed three trainees had straggled behind and were still in the room when we left.

They were not going. They would rather take their chances on a carrier flight deck and get blown overboard by the jet blast from an F-14 than get in the 9D5.

Rather than our normal joking and shoving each other, about twenty of us all walked onto the pool deck like we were condemned men who had a date with the hangman.

For my first ride, I was surprised at how small the interior was when I got in there.  Not as big as a SeaKnight helicopter interior. There were six seats facing each other in the main section and then two seats upfront with a divided bulkhead for a pilot and co-pilot position.  The four point harnesses was identical to stuff I’d seen in other aircraft, thick nylon straps with a center plate you plugged the lap and shoulder belts into and a butterfly lever that locked them in and would also release them with a pull.  We all silently got ready.

Some of the guys were very nervous and taking deep breaths, there was a long pause while the instructors verified everyone was locked in and the operator was ready.

Then we dropped.  It was only about 6-8 feet but it was a pretty good impact, the water immediately came up to my knees, then the barrel rotated and lifted me out of the water in a clockwise rotation and I saw the trainee across from me submerge under the water, he was looking right into my eyes and I saw fear, a lot it.

Because of the rotation of the barrel, I was hanging in the seat straps for a few seconds and then entered the water strapped into a seat upside down and headfirst.  In another moment I was completely submerged.

As a reference point, I had grabbed my right shoulder strap with my right hand. I had a moment of disorientation, not knowing what my position was in terms of up or down(I was upside down). With my left hand still wearing my flight gloves, I found the hard metal of the butterfly release on my harness and popped it outwards and my straps released immediately.  Then I pulled myself out the window behind me and popped to the surface.  All of this took maybe 6-8 seconds but it felt like it took a lot longer.  I found that the aircrew helmet was very buoyant and wanted to go the surface, I just let it pull me to the surface just a few feet above me.  Now on the surface, I had to make a brief swim in all my gear including those steel-toed flight boots that felt like lead weights, but it was okay. In an actual water landing my aircrew vest contained collar and waist inflation bladders that just required a tug on two beaded toggles. These would discharge a couple of small Co2 bottles inside the vest. And you would float like a cork in a semi-reclining position that was suppose to keep you face up even if you were unconscious.

Most of us were all smiles as we got out of the water having come through the first evolution without a hitch, but a couple of guys came up choking and sputtering from going in inverted, water had gone into their sinuses and down their throats and they coughed out their air-filled lungs while trying to get out of their seat straps.

One of them was puking up his lunch on the pool deck as I exited the water.  One of the safety instructors had to pull him out of the dunker.

“Man, I don’t think I’m ready for this s***.”

We sat in a set of bleachers next to the pool while the next group went and gave them smiles and thumbs up as they waited.  They seemed less nervous since they had a ringside seat to us going first.  Their drop went off pretty well too, but again, a couple of guys came up sputtering and choking on the pool water from going in inverted and head first.

For our third evolution, they threw a wrench into things.

“Alright,” our instructor’s voice was booming now across the pool deck, “This time you will use the window cutouts for your exit. Each of you will exit from the main door. Do you understand?”  In unison, we all yelled “YES SIR!”

In my head I knew it really didn’t make much difference whether it was the door or window, we would only be underwater for maybe 15-20 seconds and I could hold my breath for two and a half minutes without too much difficulty.  I had a better seat on this drop and didn’t go in upside down. Being pretty confident in my ability to hold my breath, I loitered a bit in the cabin and pulled guys towards the door, and went out last.

Bad idea.

One of the safety divers came to the surface and told the lead instructor that I was playing underwater lifeguard instead of exiting immediately as ordered.  This resulted in me doing one hundred pushups on the pool deck in all my gear, helmet included.

Then came the night simulation.

We got strapped into our seats again and put the blacked-out goggles on our foreheads just above our eyes.  Then we fastened our helmet again with the chin strap.  On command, we brought the goggles down and I remembered to press them into my face slightly to create suction so they didn’t leak. This was definitely a different feeling. It was pitch black now.  Under the water you don’t hear very well and are robbed of all sight, you have to go by touch and feel alone.  I knew that window cutout was to my right and I had my right hand on the shoulder strap so I knew I could find my way out.  I wasn’t worried, but I did hear one of my classmates let out a long sigh and say,

“Man, I don’t think I’m ready for this s***.”

“Buddy,” I said low so as not to be heard by an instructor, “It’s less than twenty seconds underwater, you can do this, just start counting off the seconds. Plenty of time.”

Then BOOM! We dropped in the water again.

I was conscious of being turned over again, I was pretty sure I was rotating up rather than down, it reminded me of closing my eyes on a roller coaster, your inner gyroscope goes off its gimbals for a second, and it’s like you are weightless.

How do you know when the cabin is full of water so you can undo your harness?  You wait til you stop feeling the water swirling around you.

I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, and sailed and swam pretty much my entire childhood, we used to throw rocks at alligators that would pop up to have a look at us when we were swimming in the Miami River, and other canals in the neighborhood.  I tell you all this to say that I was very comfortable in the water, both above and below.  That comfort gives you confidence that you will not, cannot be drowned easily. This was not the case with some of my classmates whose own water experience was more limited.  I had released my harness and was pulling myself through the window when I heard what sounded like a muffled scream under the water.  I then felt myself being grabbed and pulled from the window as someone seemed to be moving past me.  When I got to the surface, I lifted my blacked-out goggles and looked around in time to see the safety divers surface with one of my classmates who had aspirated a bunch of pool water and was choking, coughing, and sputtering something about his harness not releasing. He panicked and screamed expelling every molecule of oxygen in his lungs underwater.  The Divers saw and probably heard him and one of the divers yanked me out of the window to get into the dunker and get to him.

They got him out of the water and checked him out pretty good.  Other than swallowing half a gallon of pool water he was unharmed.  The dunker was pulled from the water and they inspected the seat harness and found it was working properly.  He just freaked out when he couldn’t find it in the dark and wearing flight gloves.

He got a “fail” on that egress and would have to do it over again.

“I could see a cloud of blood coming off your face when you came out.”

On our final drop, we were informed that we would again have to all feel our way to the main cabin door again and not use the windows.  Sitting in my seat again and strapped in, I judged the distance carefully, it was about ten feet away to my right and across from me.  I mentally pictured what I would do.

Pop the harness release and get clear of the four restrain belts, push myself across the cabin and make contact with the window sill, then pull myself to the door and out.  Easy as pie, or so I thought.

WOOSH! we hit the water again and rolled in the darkness. My left hand moved to the harness release and I counted to five and popped it.  With both hands I cleared the straps away and pushed across the cabin and found the window, the door is to my right, I could feel my knees making contact with the seats. I was home free.

Then I felt the bump of another body against my waist and my forearm touched another person on my right side.  It looked like all six of us were at the door at the same time, then WHAM! Something hard hit me right on the bridge of my nose and I saw stars and felt a ringing in my ears.  It was a steel-toed flight boot from the guy in front of me kicking to get out the door.

I was pretty clobbered there for a moment as I felt for what I figured was the side of the door frame and ran my hand down it to make sure it was in fact the door and not a window and pulled myself free.  I felt my helmet tug my head back slightly which pointed me towards the surface which was just feet above.

Then I got grabbed again and pushed to the surface. It was one of the safety divers.

I pulled my goggles up and began to protest, “Hey! That was not a fail, I was free of the dunker, why did you grab me?” The safety diver was eyeballing me closely now.

“Because I could see a cloud of blood coming off your face when you came out.”

My nose felt like it was a balloon and I felt something warm and wet on my face now. It was blood.

That kick had opened a one-inch gash on my eyebrow and my nose was bleeding. It wasn’t broken but I had a deviated septum now to spoil my good looks.

But I passed the drop.

They sent me to change and head over to sickbay for a couple of stitches and for the Doc to look at my nose. He told me the deviation would probably correct on its own after the swelling and redness subsided.

So, that’s how I finished my six-round bout with ol’ “Panic in Drum” the 9D5 Helo Dunker, with stitches, a red and swollen nose, two slightly blackened eyes that left me looking like I had been in a brawl.

That’s what confidence in my water skills got me.

The 9D5 Saved A Lot Of Lives

The use of the 9D5 dunker reduced the number of deaths in helicopter water landings significantly.  You had to requalify every two years and I actually looked forward to it.  As long as I didn’t get kicked in the face, it was fun. The Navy has done quite a bit of research and study into the pass/fail rate associated with the 9D5 dunker and is able to predict with great accuracy and can spot the guys who will have problems with this training in advance.  I was in a couple of tight spots when we thought we might have to go down in the water and I used to silently pray to, “God, please don’t let me get knocked out and I know I can get out of this alive.”

That was the entire purpose of that training, to give you the confidence to survive a water landing in the aircraft.

The Navy spent a lot of time studying the students who went through 9D5 training wanting to understand why some people passed almost effortlessly and other would fail or quit without even trying.

It turns out that the predictors of difficulty are being older, less fit, and not being a good swimmer.  The predictors of success of course are the opposite with two other primary skills: holding your breath and being able to find the exit.  I think these two are affected most by anxiety.  If you fear the water or have had a near-drowning experience, the 9D5 will definitely induce anxiety in you.

The 9D5 was replaced some time ago with a new dunker called the “Modular Egress Training Simulator.” This new model can be configured to model different types of aircraft and helicopters and the windows and doors are more approximate to real aircraft.  It also has an open back end so safety divers can see what is going on inside better and be able to get in there faster if someone has a problem. You can see the back of the METS trainer in the lead image for this story.

It doesn’t look like they did anything to correct the “Getting kicked in the face” problem that the 9D5 had though.