The Helo Dunker


Posted by Lex on Tue – February 10, 2004


I’ve written before of Navy training – it’s very effective, if not always very fun. But I think it’s safe to say that the Helicopter Dunker, which is a subset of water survival training, and requires refresher training every four years, pegs out both meters: Max effectiveness, max not very fun.

Some of you may remember the film, “Officer and a Gentleman ,” starring Richard Gere, and set in the 1980’s. It caused quite a stir for a while, but having seen it recently, it’s surprising how badly the film has aged over the years. The “poor kid with a bad attitude who survives a trial by fire with the assistance of a tough-love drill instructor and his poor factory girl sex toy who nevertheless loves him for who he is, while tragically losing his best friend to suicide” zeitgeist seemed within a hair’s breadth of being anachronistic when the film debuted, but it’s merely painful to watch now.


There was a vignette in the film about the “Dilbert Dunker ,” essentially a cage sledded to a 25 foot down ramp which plunged aviation candidates into a pool, and then flipped them over. The trial in this case was to brave the impact with the water (not that bad really) and then once upside down, fight your way clear of the restraint harness and cage, then swim to the surface to give a hearty “thumbs up.” That part actually kind of sucked, if only because the pool water, what with all the face slamming and inversion, gets jammed up into the crevasses and secret places in your sinuses that you were only dimly aware existed. In the film, one candidate bails out of the program right there and then, when faced with the Dilbert Dunker. Which was kind of silly, and if that’s all it took to get a guy to back down, then you definitely didn’t want him on your wing in combat.

The reality of it was that it while you’d never sell tickets to the ride at Disney World, it was over quickly and you’d never have to do it again – it was a one-time qual. In fact, I don’t know if the Dilbert Dunker is still being done in Pensacola – you’d never try to ditch a tactical jet in the open sea, or even in a swimming pool, because 1), you’d never survive the impact, and 2) after all, what were ejection seats for?

When the motor(s) quit and the ocean is coming up, it pulls the ejection handle, and then it goes for a parachute ride. Or else it gets the hose again. That’s why CNO put it there.

The ejection handle, that is. Not the hose.

We put it down as one more piece in the overall harassment package (like the boxing classes we had to take in flight school) and moved on.

 Now the helo dunker is another thing altogether. You do that every four years while in a flight status, and you get four rides each time. On ride number one, you climb the ladder to the elevated platform. You strap into a pilot’s seat (but I’m not a helicopter pilot! Shut up!). And wait. And wait. And waAAGH! – they plunge the d@mn tube into the water, where it sits for a moment.


But only for a moment. Helicopters are top-heavy; since the engines, rotors and running gear are all at the top, well above the center of buoyancy. In other words, they have negative static and dynamic stability, once you get them wet.

They roll over, upside down.

You, gentle reader, might be forgiven for presuming that it would be in your best interests to make your exit before the helicopter rolled over, upside down. But the odds are that all of those rotor blades and stuff are still moving pretty quickly while she’s upside right, carrying with them kinetic energy that has the potential to leave all sorts of nasty gashes in your tender skin. They tend to slow down pretty quickly once they come in contact with the sea. And from there to being upside down, immersed in water, strapped into your seat, is a very short trip indeed. Once all motion stops, you get to release your harness, and swim out the nearest exit. You swim to the surface, under the watchful eyes of scuba-rigged instructors, give your thumbs up, and shivering, get back in line for the next ride.

Which is like the first, only you have to exit from the “cargo” section on the tube, back aft. You bundle into the cargo section with six or so of your closest friends, hit the water, grab a hold of a reference point (you’ll need this later) and swim to the surface, trying to snort the chlorinated water out of your now thoroughly irritated sinuses.

Simple enough, yah?

But wait! There’s more!

It turns out the helicopters also fly at night! Meaning they could crash at night. So your next two rides are done with blacked-out goggles on.

The first blacked-out ride is from the pilot’s seat, which isn’t so very bad. Except that all this crashing into the water and rolling over is fairly disorienting, when you can’t see. And you don’t know which way the dunker is going to roll. Which is the point, I suppose, and why we’re taught to grab a hold of a reference point as we go into the water. It helps you find your way out. But it does not necessarily help you find your way up to the surface, because blindfolded and underwater, that part is a little more problematical. (For all my Air Force readers, problematical means: “hard.”)

Now, it takes a little bit before the dunker rolls over, so you don’t want to start holding your breath too soon. You could find yourself out of air, just when your need is greatest. Bail out of the cabin too soon because of oxygen bankruptcy, and you get to do the ride again.

Which no one wants to do.

But, as you don’t know which way the helo is going to roll, the timing of that last breath is pretty critical. If it rolls towards the side you’re on, you’ll feel the water coming up your legs before it gets to your face, and you can snatch that last breath. If on the other hand, it rolls away from you, the timing of that last breath is a little more difficult to nail. You’re wet, get dry and suddenly get wet again, all over, all at once.

Which isn’t as fun as it sounds.

I can tell you from personal experience that snatching your last breath just after your face is immersed in the water leaves you very unhappy with the training process. It is a tactical error of the worst sort, and you get very highly motivated to exit the helo before all motion stops, which is not at all satisfactory to the instructional staff.

You get to do the ride again.

Finally comes your “graduation ride.” You and all your several classmates get to bundle into the cargo area, plunge blindfolded into the pool, roll over, snatch that last breath, and then for something slightly different, exit out of the same hatch.

Which you can’t see, since you’re blindfolded.

And you’re in a kind of competition with six to eight strong young men, corn fed, the pride of American youth, for that very same exit.

And you can’t see them either, and they can’t see you.

And you’re all, all of you, very strongly motivated to get out of the helo dunker, and back to the surface, just as fast as your corn fed, steel-toed boot shod legs and arms can take you.

And now I want to introduce you to Roger: Roger was a classmate of mine from school, a great guy. Born and raised in Gastonia, North Carolina, and the son of a truck driver, Roger was made when meat was cheap. He was six foot four of broad shouldered, superbly muscled, no-fat frame in a Marine haircut. He had arms that were made of steel, and legs that looked like they were carved out of oak. He grew up hunting and fishing and chopping wood for the fire. He grew up strong.

He did not grow up swimming, or being plunged into the water upside down blindfolded. And he didn’t like it, not one bit. No sir.

And Roger was my neighbor in the cargo hold, to my immediate right. Between the door and me, the way out, the only acceptable exit.

Now, to my mind, the only thing that could have possibly been worse than being blindfolded in a tube with eight other guys, slammed into the water, rolled upside down (which way will she roll?), un-strapping, then navigating your way to a single exit, and then finding your way to the surface (which way is it?) is to do that sitting next to the one person in the world who finds it even more objectionable than you do.

Especially when his name is Roger, and he’s six foot four and very, very strong.

I am cursed with a somewhat vivid imagination, so on top of all the other things there were to think about on that short ride down, was the image of getting tangled up with Roger, and having him get excited (he was already pretty excited) and trying to kick free. So I waited a little longer than I really wanted on this ride, just to make sure that wouldn’t happen.

In the event I got out fairly easily and made my way to the surface, gave my thumbs up, stripped off the goggles and looked around for Roger. Who was standing on the pool deck, head hanging down.

Beside him was one of our instructors, gesturing back to the ladder up to the platform.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry about Roger being in my way on the way out. He didn’t wait around.


It really is great training though – since the helo dunker program started, we’ve lost many fewer shipmates to actual crashes. People who have survived these crashes over the years have unanimously acclaimed the training package that our professional water survival instructors put together as the one reason for their continued existence on this earth.


But here’s the thing that bugs me about the program, purely from a stewardship of resources, your-tax-dollars-at-work perspective:

Lex’s helo dunker rides over the years: 84

Lex’s actual helo flights over the years: 2

Number of times those helos landed in the water: 0

Coefficient of over-training: tends towards infinity.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Lex, Naval Aviation, Neptunus Lex, Politics and Culture

5 responses to “The Helo Dunker

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