‘Train to live, live to train:’ Navy puts FOX6 to the test

MILWAUKEE -- Before a sailor can soar the skies in a helicopter or swim the seas in rescue efforts, they all start somewhere; that somewhere, is at the bottom of the pool.

Mike Hiltke

“You want to be a hero, this is where you start,” yelled Mike Hiltke, who is a naval aviation water survival trainer. “All these training devices simulate different situations that they may encounter during a bad day.”

FOX6’s Suzanne Spencer had the exclusive opportunity to be put to the test at a naval training facility in Norfolk, Virginia. All sailors go through some water training, but this test was specific to aviators.

“90 percent of them won’t have to use this training, but 10 percent of them will,” said Hiltke.

Hiltke began the testing with light exercises like swimming laps and doing the “dead mans float.”

Then he suited the reporters up in about six pounds of gear, including a flight suit, boots and a helmet. He told the reporters they would do the same exercises but with more gear.

They are training exercises that all sailors go through; but aviators like helicopter and fighter jet pilots have unique challenges.

“They fly over water simply and if they have to god forbid eject, ditch or bail out, it’s normally going to be over water,” said Hiltke.

In preparation for the more intense testing, the instructor blew the whistle, and FOX6’s Suzanne Spencer submerged underwater. The first big test was as if an aircraft crashed into the water and sank straight down.

The goal was to use a bar at the bottom of the pool, to one-self alongside it, until they reached a window stationed at the end of the bar. Then, they had to open the correct lever which would open the window to swim through.

The real test came when Hiltke introduced two activities that inverted the reporters. The first, was a seated device that was equip with a seat belt harness just like a pilot would wear in a Naval aircraft.

Once we were seated, the device would flip us over, we’d remove the seatbelt, and swim through the window next to us. The key: keeping our hand on a reference point, so that once we flipped over, we still had a sense of orientation.

“Helicopters have a reputation for sinking rapidly and flipping over when they hit the water, so we simulate that by flipping them over,” said Hiltke.

After two rounds of that, Hiltke pointed to a large simulated helicopter cabin in one section of the pool: “let’s have some real fun,” he said.

The cabin is referred to as a “dunker” or as the Navy calls it, “panic in a can.” It’s a simulated helicopter cabin that will flip as soon as it hits water. It will then fill up with water and people inside have to escape.

For FOX6, naval instructors placed us in the seats, made sure our seat belt was locked and plopped us in. As soon as the water hit, we took a depth breath, the cabin tumbled beneath the surface and rested on the bottom of the pool. It was then, trainer Mike had said, we were to unbuckle while still upside down and swim out a window.

With her hand on the reference point, and about 25 seconds later, Suzanne unbuckled while upside down and made her way to the top. Hiltke gave us “black out goggles” to wear and placed us in the dunker again.

We performed the same task, this time simulating dark waters that aviators may run into.

These types of training are critical for sailors to pass, no matter the mission or the career path. Helicopter pilots must do the underwater training every year and fighter pilots must perform it every four years.

“Live to train and train to live – that is our motto,” said Hiltke.