The olive drab hulk smashes through the surface tension with a metallic crunch. Your heart pummels your chest, 150 beats per minute. You’d swear, but your mind is preoccupied with surviving. Every breath counts.
As the water rises, so does the panic. The vomit-sick feeling tickling your throat is real.
Welcome to water survival training. Conducted every four years, it’s a test to sort the boys from the men. In my case, girls from the women. It is the great equalizer. Yes, it’s a lesson in not drowning, but more importantly, it’s a lesson in controlling fear. Letting it flood into your body without consuming your brain. Important not to stifle reactions in emergency situations. Even if you’re afraid, fake it ‘til you make it.
Failure is not an option – the ridicule alone would kill you.
You’re strapped into the cockpit’s righthand seat. A generic cargo chopper. Not a Cobra, that helicopter-turned-coffin in the water, the one no skid pilot really expects to survive if you end up in the drink. No, you’ll get a beautiful, three hundred and sixty degree front row seat to your watery grave. Well, maybe not you. You might be able to wriggle out. You’re five foot three on a good day. Just maybe, if you’re lucky.
This is excellent emergency training. Not everyone gets to practice facing death, especially for a “water landing.” Water landing, bullshit.
The lukewarm pool water soaks your scuffed flight boots. Now lapping at your flight suit trousers. Almost pleasant. This would be a best-case scenario, splashing down in the Florida Keys or Gulf of Mexico or Southern California. Murphy’s Law says there’s no way you’d get that lucky if you ditched.
You don’t think about that. Tick in the box for predeployment training; who the hell thought water survival was essential for a six month stint in the desert? If you don’t pass, you don’t fly over Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Simple. Your first taste of combat hinges on this test.
Get it over with.
The beast keels over, clockwise, simulating the rotor head sinking. Helicopters are not notorious for floating. In fact, helicopters are notorious for sinking upside down. Not ideal for those inside.
Your right hand clutches the quick-release buckle of your five-point harness. Start counting. Look at your reference points. Place your left hand on the dashboard. Directions get fucked up when you’re upside down. Gets you every time. At least you’re not wearing blacked-out goggles today.
Wait for all violent motion to cease. Time slows. Water sloshes hard as everything sinks. There’s still a slice of air in the cockpit. The water crawls up your chest, your neck. Big breath. Glub, glub.
Here we go.
Twist the buckle. Push against the harness. No release. Twist again, harder. Stuck. The bird is still sinking. Push down the bubble of fear in your stomach. Not now.
The two safety divers swim just outside the metal cage. Fins crossed your field of vision as the water rose. They’re observing, watching for the one Marine who freaks out. Not you.
Twist once more. Straps flop free. Sweet freedom. You can’t see much and you’ve lost your references. You feel something hard, a metal square. Foot pedal. You’re in the chin bubble. Reach up. Find the dashboard. Which way? Left is right, up is down. It’s murky, chlorinated. Two escape windows, but only one “right” one. Exit the wrong way and you have to repeat the dunker. Your notional copilot has already left. Your chest tightens. Air.
Hand over hand, walk yourself toward the egress hatch. Twist, push, pull. The glass comes out. Fling it somewhere not here. You taste the surface, the end. Wiggle, wiggle, like a baby seal. Through the hole in the sinking wreck.
Pop up like a bobber. You gasp without seeming desperate. Small smile of victory as the other pilots look as frazzled as you feel. Cheating death one dunk at a time. Survival.
Not today, dunker, not today.