Escaping a submerged vehicle or aircraft is definitely not something that we think about that often, but according to the National Highway and Transportation Administration, about 400 people die every year in the U.S. from drowning in their vehicles. For example: Man rescued after car plunges into water and 2 dead, 1 injured after car crashes into Potomac River. We probably all remember the miracle on the Hudson River with US Airways Flight 1549, but there have been many less fortunate events involving aircraft and water like Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961. The US military considers the threat of a water ditching valid enough to not only provide initial training for their aviators in underwater egress, but also recurring training triennially. Although it’s unlikely to happen to you, it’s probably a good idea to have a game plan for an underwater egress scenario. If you were to hit the water, your first concern is to brace for impact.
The severity of your injuries WILL be a major factor in your survival. To reduce your injury potential, you need to have a solid brace position prior to the impact for two reasons: 1-minimizing injury and 2-maintaining your frame of reference (more on this later). We’ll assume that you wear your seatbelt when you drive or fly (if you don’t- you’re preparing to fail). Place your feet flat on the floor, keep your hands in contact with the wheel/controls (or your seat if you’re a passenger) and place your chin on your chest. Hold this position until the violent motion stops. As the water rushes in, you’ll need to grab a good chest full of air. Better to do this earlier than to risk a gulp of water trying to wait until the last possible moment. From your brace position you’re going to move to a reference point.
This is your ticket out alive! Most of the techniques on the internet state that getting your seatbelt off is priority number one. While this may be true in an “ideal” scenario (upright submersion), the forces of water entering the interior/cabin from a window or other damage are more likely to quickly relocate you in spite of your efforts to fight it. In a more likely scenario of tumbling or even and inverted submersion, your seatbelt is going to allow you to keep your frame of reference prior to egress. So what does reference have to do with egress? It’s simply the method that allows you to accurately find your exit when you are disoriented. Try this: Close your eyes and imagine sitting in the driver’s seat of your car when someone flips your vehicle several times while simultaneously blindfolding you and taking away your oxygen. Now try to find that little handle that lets you out. Hard, right? That’s why your reference is so important. Everybody does this instinctively on vehicles we operate daily. It may be as simple as putting your arm on the armrest and your hand is already touching the handle. In my truck with both of my feet on the floor, I can place my left hand on my knee, slide my knee left until it contacts the door and the window crank is touching my knuckles. In other words, your reference is a trail that you follow from a point on your body to your exit. These trails will need to become longer the further you are from your exit. Consider an underwater egress from the backseat of a two door sedan. Obviously this is one of those exceptions where the seat belt will have to come off first after impact, but only AFTER you have your first reference point in hand! Then it’s a hand-over-hand motion following your reference trail to the exit. The PACE acronym (Primary/Alternate/Contingency/Emergency) is critical to your escape plan as it pertains to exits and underwater egress. When it matters most, doors will jam, windows won’t break easily, and Murphy’s law creeps in. My PACE looks like this: Primary- roll down the window, Alternate- break glass with spring loaded escape tool, Contingency- get the door open after the interior fills with water and pressure equalizes, Emergency- use the passenger side window/door. Once your exit is clear and you’re ready to egress, keep one hand on the exit and with your free hand release the seat belt.
If you’re within arm’s reach of your exit, releasing your seatbelt should be the last task before egress. We’ve discussed some of the exceptions to this, but one of the best ways to maintain your reference point is having your butt still attached to the same point it was prior to the crash. Additionally, you may need the leverage of being buckled in when operating your exit. Imagine trying to push open a door underwater when you’re unbuckled; you’re just going to push yourself away from the door.
Keep in mind, finding the buckle on your seatbelt may require tracing the belt crossing your body (another frame of reference).
Aside from the incredible stress of an intense event like underwater egress, disorientation complicates the process. This factor is most prevalent when the vehicle inverts prior to or after entering the water. On many occasions, I have witnessed students (sitting immediately next to their exit) reach in the opposite direction for their exit after inversion. It seems as though the brain is fooled into thinking that the body has inverted independent of the vehicle and now what was on the right is on the left and vice versa. This is countered easily by sticking to your reference point. Starting to see a theme here? If your exit/reference is on your left, you stick to the script! Use your reference every time, don’t freestyle.
Rescuing passengers also muddies the methods on getting out alive. Water confidence and swimming abilities are huge factors on individual survival. For example, extracting a child from a car seat is a “hard-wired” response and will quickly trump personal needs. Regardless of the variables, reference points are a key element to a successful rescue and may require some improvising in maintaining contact with a reference (using legs or feet) while guiding a passenger and operating an exit with your hands.
For aircraft egress, floatation devices are yet another concern. Prior to an emergency water “landing”, the crew will instruct passengers to don their personal floatation device (PFD). This is all fine and good unless people are inflating them prior to exiting the aircraft. This proved deadly for many passengers aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 who were trapped inside as the aircraft filled with water. An inflated PFD would make a dry egress difficult enough due to its size, now imagine trying to swim down and out the exit as the cabin fills with water.
Familiarity with the vehicle/aircraft significantly improves survivability. Easy when it’s your own car/plane, but consider a commercial aircraft where you have 5 (or more) rows of seats between you and the emergency exit (not to mention all the panicking passengers). Also, think about having to operate that exit in the dark while holding your breath. Automobile exits vary widely and don’t count on the electric windows to always work once the car is submerged. It’s a crap-shoot so you need to have your PACE well established.
Hurry is the enemy in any stressful situation and most people have probably heard the saying, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, but it has never been more true during underwater egress. Panicked motion is inefficient, increases heart rate and reduces your breath-hold. Easy to think about not panicking sitting there reading this while drawing full breaths, but harder to put in to practice right? So how does a person stay calm during a real event?
There are private contractors that offer underwater egress training, but the likelihood of someone paying from their own pocket is pretty low. Working on your water confidence skills however, is cheap and can actually be a lot of fun. Improving even one water skill builds self-confidence that bleeds over to many other basic survival skills. After witnessing literally thousands of students in the water, I can tell you first hand that the vast majority of people struggle to stay calm in the water under stressful situations. The resources to improve this skill-set are readily available. A quick internet search for water confidence drills will get you started.
Situational awareness (especially in new environments) will help tremendously when it comes to knowing what reference points will get you to the exits, how the exits operate and what your PACE options are. Read the safety brochure on the plane, know where the exits are and how they operate. Try to get an exit row seat or at least know how many rows of seats you have to pass to get to the exit. The back of the plane isn’t a bad option either. You often have an exit back there and when everyone loses their mind in an emergency, they don’t think about the rear of the plane; they only remember how they boarded the plane and that they probably passed an exit on the way to their seat.
Other ways to prepare involve briefing the family on the egress plan. You may get some strange looks, but educating your passengers on egress plans improve everyone’s odds. If you want to try a dry run in your car without driving it into a lake; take a dive mask, fill it with water, throw it on your head and sit in your car and feel through where your reference points are. If all of this sounds ridiculous, just recall the quote, “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training”.
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Check out the video below where I walk you through a few different options for vehicle egress.