Headbanging on a helicopter

I mentioned in a previous blog that I’d been eaten by a snake, not something many people can boast, if indeed it is a boasting point. Anybody reading my posts will, no doubt, realise that I like mentioning experiences which are rather unusual, have happened to me, and are unlikely to have happened to many other people. Take helicopters.

As I posted earlier, I volunteered for the test to become my force’s helicopter inspector; an inspector as police inspector rather than counting all the rotors and making sure the engine’s been oiled. I didn’t actually want the job for various reasons, but the application process promised excitement, new experiences and something to talk about afterwards. And, indeed, blog about. It hit all four.

The final test we had to undergo, and the one that was built up to be a real test of nerve and ability, so much so that most of us came into the test with a high degree of trepidation, was having to escape from an inverted helicopter that was underwater. You’ve got to admit that was pretty cool. It sounds exciting, and indeed it was in many ways, and it was a test, one that most of us were a bit frightened we would fail. Indeed, one of our number did.

It was the mockup of the passenger area helicopter. The days when the police could afford any expenditure that wasn’t absolutely vital were long gone, and even if they hadn’t been, I doubt if it would have run to a whole helicopter being inundated. It was, we were told, a fairly accurate replica of a specific type of helicopter, the name and model number of which escapes me. I feel no embarrassment about forgetting it as, at the time, I was about to be strapped into the mockup, inverted, dunked under about 10 feet of water, and then have to escape through a small exit window that was very little wider than my shoulders, encased as they were by a wetsuit.

We were at Cranwell, the RAF’s officer training centre. I’d anticipated the visit with a high degree of anticipation so I was a little disappointed to find that the rooms and offices we went into were a little on the squalid side. That’s not so much dirty or unkempt, but more unloved and uncared for. I hope they treat their aeroplanes with more thoughtfulness.

After various tests, one of which I feel obliged to point out I excelled at, we all traipsed off to a swimming pool where we changed into swimwear and put on our wetsuits, some of which, mine in particular, were a little on the bulky side. We then wandered into the pool area proper, where we saw this rather crude representation of a helicopter strapped to a device with big arms, levers and pistons. It looked belligerent.

The procedure was very gentle. It was broken up into three parts, the first of which was nothing more than having to be in the device where the water came up about halfway. We walked out into the swimming pool and made our way to a couple of inflated rafts. The second bit was no more testing as all it consisted of was the device being cranked over at about 45°, and we were obliged to exit the device from one of the windows which was actually underwater. No problem.

The third, and final test required a bit of instruction. We would, it seems, be told when to take a deep breath, then we would be completely inundated initially, and the device would be rotated through 180°. In other words, we would be upside down, completely underwater, in our wetsuits. The person nearest the escape window was told to escape once the device had completely stopped rotating, easily recognised by an ominous clunk. As we were sitting three abreast there were two other people to consider. The one in the middle, me as it happened, was told to count 10 seconds before releasing the seatbelt and making my way out through the same window. There was a third person; more on him later.

Despite the fact I was quite excited by the process, I did feel a little nervous as I didn’t want to put up a poor performance in front of the RAF bods. The person sitting beside me and nearest window was a sergeant who had, we were told, been promised the first vacancy that arose, presumably because she was a woman and we had to show the force as inclusive.

I took a deep breath when told to. We were then inverted.

It’s surprising how long it takes to count to 10, especially when you don’t want to appear to be hurrying. I counted up to 12, put my hand on the seatbelt buckle to release it, turned towards the window, only to find the sergeant still completely within the device, with hands holding onto the edges of the window, but with her head still inside.

Like anyone else in my position would, I thought I must have counted up too rapidly, so turned to face the front, counted to 5, put my hand on the buckle again only to be disappointed when turning to my right. The woman was still there, but this time with two scuba divers trying to pry her fingers off the window surround.

I turned to the chap beside me but was surprised to see two inverted scuba divers coming along the little corridor towards us. I’d worked out by then the all was not going according to plan. I look back towards the sergeant. By this time the other scuba divers had managed to grab her arms and were pulling her out to the window, commendably taking great care to ensure she wasn’t injured. I would have preferred more rapidity, especially as, by then, I’d been holding my breath for over 20 seconds.

Determined not to show any degree of panic, I waited until the woman was nearly out of the window before I released my seatbelt buckle and swam after her. I showed a degree of panic as I ended up so close to her that she kicked me in the face with her heel, knocking my head up so that it hit the top of the window. It was turning out not to be too much fun.

I hit the surface and took in the great gulp of air, and one of the scuba divers swam over to me giving me the okay sign, which I returned, and then I swam off to the raft and pulled myself up onto it. I was not feeling on top of the world.

Now we come to the third person in the row of seats. I was, by now, excusably I think, feeling put out by the adventure, and was feeling a little sorry for myself. Then this third chap swam over and I realised that he’d been in the damn thing probably about 5 to 10 seconds longer than me. He didn’t have the benefit of seeing the reason for the delay, so it was really quite impressive of him not to leave by the corridor.

I felt a bit of a hero, or near enough for me. Then one of the instructors standing on the edge of the pool pointed to me and shouted, “You there. You’re bleeding all over my pool.” I looked down to find blood all over the front of my wetsuit but, oddly, I didn’t taste the blood that was filling my mouth until I realised I was injured. I was pulled to the side, helped out of the raft, and the instructor said to me, “I’ve got to drain the bloody thing now.”

It was as if he felt I was to blame for being kicked in the face. As if I, a wounded warrior, cared.

It was a long drive home as the sergeant sat at the back of the van crying all the 200+ miles from Cranwell to Lewes. It’s one of those days that were more fun in the recounting that they were experiencing. Still, I can say I escaped from an inverted, underwater helicopter, and was kicked in the head whilst doing so. I know full well you can’t.

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