august 2014

Recently in Southern California, teaching the helicopter ditching and survival course to a number of firefighters, I realized something. Over my international aviation career so far I have gone down on three helicopters, an assignments in Afghanistan and the United States, and have either cleaned up myself, or assisted in the emergency response and clean up of many helicopter accidents. From these experiences, and while teaching this water ditching course to cycle after cycle of students, and in discussions afterwards with my assistant Trenton Burnett, I came to understand that an LCES-style memory aid for surviving aviation accidents could and will save lives.

Paul Gleason and I were friends, and in talking with him I came to understand the larger intent of his LCES tool. This concept of establishing Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones (LCES) can be used in numerous ways outside of the fireline environment and across the span of our lives. Here, however, let’s take this LCES and add a P to it, making it LCPES — not to take away from Paul’s valuable tool but to adapt it. Let’s modify its meaning so that we’ll have another key tool, one that will help us survive the narrow time windows after an accident that we may have to escape a burning or sinking aircraft.

L in my new LCPES would stand for Lookout, but instead of it meaning being a lookout towards fire behavior, here in this new context the lookout would be focused on you and the aircraft. Your task in managing the L or lookout as an aircraft passenger would be in looking out from the time you first approach the aircraft to the briefing, boarding and the securing into it. What do you see during this time? Where are the exits? What does the cabin interior look like? If the cabin space becomes disfigured in an accident will you still be able to find your way out? How does the seatbelt work? Can you unlatch it with only one hand? What did the crew actually say during their safety briefing? All of these items of information are important.

C for Communications comes next. If you are flying with a flight helmet — which on US federal flights most likely you will be — it is important you at least passively monitor the pilot’s chatter inside the cabin. If there is a serious problem, it most likely will develop quickly. If for example, you are part of a hotshot crew being transported without flight helmets connected to the internal aircraft communications, one of your managers flying with you should be plugged in and they will transfer information to you. As part of communications, you should be aware of the pilot’s nonverbal communications. Are they suddenly nervous? Did something very bad just happen that everyone on board also just experienced, like a blade strike or an odd metal on metal engine noise?

I will add P here which is for Protect. Now we are at the stage where you will need to protect yourself the best you will be able to do. Do you have time, and is there any loose debris in the cockpit/ cabin area such as pens, handheld radios or possibly packs or tools which you can better secure, before they become flying projectiles during impact? Once you have done this (if you have had the chance), the impact could follow and you should prepare for it with the BRACE position, which you should hold tightly to until the impact phase of the accident is complete.

Now that the impact is over it will be time for your Escape or E. To begin your escape, it is important to remain in your BRACE position while you do a slow count: “one, two, three, four.” If the blade system on the helicopter hadn’t torn itself apart yet, throwing its debris, then this will give it the time to, plus this four count will give you the chance to organize your thoughts to better be prepared for your escape to follow.

In an aircraft water ditching situation or with a post-crash fire, time will be an important factor in deciding who will survive and who will not, so this count will also help direct your escape focus. To quickly establish where you are inside the wreckage, your first immediate reference point will be the location of your own butt. Has the aircraft in the impact changed the structure and shape of the cockpit? Where are you in relation to the nearest emergency exit? Can you reach it? Will you need to find another, and if so, where is it?

Now you will need to move your reference point from your butt to establish a new reference point, and this will be your hand nearest to the emergency exit you just identified. Grab with this reference hand onto whatever may be there — the door frame, the remaining seat structure next to you, the fuselage’s internal wall — and do not let go of it with that hand. This reference hand has now become your pointer hand to survival!

Once you have this reference-hand escape route established, with your free hand, and only your free hand (do not let go of your reference hand), release your seatbelt. You now have your escape route from this aircraft wreckage marked with your reference hand. Due to fire or possibly in coming rushing water, do you have the time to assist others, or do you need to exit immediately? If you decide to do so and assist others, still do not let go of your reference hand until you are half-way out of the aircraft.

Once you are free of the wreckage, due to the possibilities of a post-crash explosion, fire, or rolling, you should move clear to your S or safety zone, a safe distance away from the crash site, and there make decisions on what will be needed to be done next.