KENAI -- On a July day a decade ago, Pete Slaiby flew on a helicopter from a Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig in the North Sea back to shore. A few hours later, on an end-of-day run to pick up more Shell workers, the helicopter crashed into the ocean and killed all 11 on board. Six worked for Slaiby. Some were friends. He was with three of them their last night on Earth.
An investigation determined that it was a freak event.
Slaiby is now Alaska vice president for Shell Oil Co., the U.S. subsidiary. He mentioned the crash briefly last week during a Shell-required class in at-sea survival that involved immersion under water in a helicopter simulator. Shell began contracting for top-end, dual-engine helicopters after the crash, he said.
Like other oil companies, Shell relies heavily on helicopters to transport its crews and contractors to offshore oil platforms. It is gearing up to begin drilling exploratory wells late this summer in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas -- a high profile, high-stakes drilling program that the oil giant expects to generate Arctic riches.
While most helicopter flights go smoothly, Shell is investing big in training and equipment to reduce the chance of disaster and boost the odds of survival in a crash over the cold, open sea. The Chukchi drilling site in particular is a far stretch, 70 miles off shore.
Shell is requiring crews, contractors and even temporary visitors such as journalists to undergo an intense two-day class in cold- water helicopter crash survival before they head to a rig or support vessel. It has required similar classes around the world for more than 20 years, spokesman Curtis Smith said.
Other oil companies also require helicopter crash training, but Shell offers the most comprehensive curriculum, Alaska instructors said.
"Today's primary focus is going to be on helicopter ditching," lead instructor Greg Olcott, a bearded 42-year-old, said at the start of a class last week at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.
Even in a training setting, in the calm water of an indoor swimming pool set to 82 degrees and surrounded by instructors, safety divers and lifeguards, the exercises were challenging if not intimidating to most.
Not everyone would succeed.
For me, strapped into a helicopter seat, suspended upside down in water, the test turned life-changing.
UNABLE TO SWIM
My group of trainees last week included Slaiby -- who was updating his certification -- and three others from Shell, two journalists, a paramedic, a cook and five NANA Regional Corp. shareholders. The five were trying for $25-an-hour jobs as contracted marine mammal observers for Shell. Four grew up in villages and never learned to swim. The fifth, Wendy Hodges, was born in Anchorage but raised in Phoenix and is a certified scuba diver as well as a pilot.
"Don't psych yourself out before you go in there," she advised the other women in the locker room, who were beginning to freak out about what was to come.
Another trainee, with Shell contractor Halliburton, became agitated during the first pool session and later was made to leave. Slaiby said he had emphasized to contractors "to only field the A team for what goes on in Alaska." He said he was concerned about the incident.
The program, called Coldwater Survival Egress Training, uses the motto "Saving lives, one dunk at a time." It's a scaled-back version of a Canadian program taught in a pool modified to mimic real life storms, with big wind and waves.
Olcott, the instructor, talked about the 1-10-1 principle for cold-water immersion: A minute to stop gasping and catch your breath. Ten minutes to swim before your muscles shut down. Maybe an hour before you lose consciousness.
"You can survive a long time in cold water if you do the right thing," he said.
He drilled in the seven steps of survival. Recognition of the danger. Inventory of what's available. Shelter, which could be a life raft or a crashed plane on the ground. Signals. Water. Food. And finally, play, or making light of the situation.
The training builds step by step. Half the sessions take place in the Kenai Central High School swimming pool.
Before our group, about a half-dozen trainees out of 315 who took the class this year didn't pass. One man went home and practiced in the bathtub with a snorkel taped to a plastic bag, mimicking the air pouches we had to use. He repeated the class and got his certification.
Ida Swan, 38 and a mother of four, came from Kivalina. She knew how to dog paddle but wasn't comfortable in the water, she said. One of the first tests involves jumping off the diving board, gripping a life jacket in one hand as if you were abandoning ship.
Swan had never been on a diving board. She froze. She backed up, stepped off, tried again. "Richard, you did this?" she asked a man from Kivalina. Richard Sage, who is 46 and has worked as a truck driver for Red Dog mine, told her yes, don't worry about it. The group cheered her on, clapping and chanting "Ida, Ida, Ida!" Finally, she jumped.
"Fun!" she said.
You learn that it's hard to heft yourself into a big survival raft from the water. You learn how to flip the raft if it inflates upside down or whips over in the wind or waves.
You tug on an insulated bright yellow Mustang survival suit, what the instructors called a helicopter transport suit. It's the same model that Shell will provide for everyone to wear aboard its contracted helicopters and for crews to keep in their quarters while stationed on a rig or vessel. Other suits, which are easier to get on, will be placed around the rig for quick access.
The transport suits, heavy and bulky on land, are warm and incredibly buoyant in the water. You move best on your back, angel-winging your arms.
A group of a dozen crash survivors wearing the suits can link bodies together to form a human life raft strong enough to hold and save two or three others. They can make a circle with legs extending out, and kick hard enough for the splash and ring of yellow to be seen from a plane 10,000 feet up, Olcott said.
The tests get harder. Wearing the suit, holding a deep breath, you pull yourself along a rope to the bottom of the pool and manipulate a series of levers on a device placed there, finally turning one to open a window that you must swim through.
Shell invested more than $1 million to install a state-of-the art trainer at the pool for its cold-water class and later donated the equipment, which other oil companies now use, company spokesman Smith said. It's a big blue contraption branded as the Modular Egress Training Simulator, or METS, by its developer, Survival Systems Ltd. of Nova Scotia. In simple terms, it's a mock helicopter fuselage that immerses and inverts to teach people how to ditch in an emergency.
You must complete five different exercises to pass.
Four trainees sit in the simulator helicopter seats and strap into harnesses. Two instructors are on board.
Brace yourself for a crash, they say.
The simulator hits the water, then stops. "Impact!" The instructors have drilled the steps in the classroom. Now the exercise is playing out in water. Your heart races. Calm it down. Breathe slowly.
"Locate reference!" You put one hand on the nearest door or window, and the other on the seat belt latch. A helicopter can sink in seconds and it may be impossible to see underwater in a cabin filled with bubbles, debris and fuel.
You must be ready to get out fast. You are going down. But you can't panic or rush. Release your buckle or let go of the window frame too soon, and you could get stuck or lost in the cabin. You must deliberately execute each step in sequence for a safe exit.
At the instructors' command, you deploy your air supply system, what they call a rebreather. It is a pouch strapped to your chest and connected by a hose to a mouthpiece, similar to what's on a snorkel. You unfurl it and put in the mouthpiece. At the next command, you activate the device by pulling hard on a red knob until a valve clicks into place. Then you fill the pouch with your biggest breath. The training devices don't contain canisters of air, unlike those that will be issued on the actual helicopter.
You recycle your used air, which gives you at least 30 seconds of breathing time underwater.
The first run, you push out the windows and doors before the simulator sinks underwater. The second time, you are trapped inside until you clear the exit. One woman tried repeatedly, but she was only 5 feet tall and couldn't get leverage with her elbow to push out the window. You do it a third time with no air supply but in a way, that's easier. You're out in seconds.
On a white board, the staff keeps tally of who gets through by helmet number.
Now it's the fourth run, the hardest one, the instructors said. The simulator plunges into the deep water and swivels 180 degrees upside down, like a helicopter tumbling into the sea. Bubbles are everywhere. You're inverted. You push out your window, then grip the frame with one hand and undo your seatbelt with the other before you squeeze out the exit.
If all goes well.
I'm strapped in, upside down, underwater, beside a closed window. My air supply device, which had been working fine, was now sending a stream of water into my mouth. Something was wrong. What was supposed to be a simulation began to seem scary and real. For an instant, I thought I might die.
Olcott, the lead instructor, had been very clear: If you get into trouble, pat your helmet. I patted. And in a split second, he had me unharnessed and out of the cabin through a suddenly opened window into the swimming pool. I found out later the valve connection had come loose. I thought about the women from the villages, who were struggling but still willing to push themselves past their comfort zone. So much was at stake for them.
I did it again, this time with no trouble, and the fifth test as well, which involved exiting from a cross-cabin opening.
All the Shell employees passed, as did the journalists, the cook, and the paramedic. So did two of the five marine mammal observers. The other three were so disappointed. One said she'd come back and try again if she got the chance.
Tom Homza, a Shell geologist who is scheduled to be on the Chukchi drilling rig as it reaches the oil target, is athletic but not fond of the water. He found the exercises stressful. Yet, he said, he's reassured knowing that everyone on a helicopter is equipped with at least that level of skill.
Already hundreds have gone through Shell's course at the Challenger center, and hundreds more will have by the end of summer. Other oil companies train there too.
The helicopter survival training is bringing the center, a nonprofit organization, a steady funding source for its space and science educational programs taught to school kids. Shell pays $1,450 a person for its two-day course; some companies offer a one-day class for $750, said Marnie Olcott, who is the Challenger center's chief executive and is married to Greg Olcott.
ODDS AGAINST DISASTER
Does the training really matter? If a helicopter crashes into the water, what are the chances of living anyway?
Clint Johnson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said it can make a difference.
"Any additional training is worth its weight in gold," Johnson said. "Obviously, Shell is on the right track here."
He investigated a 2010 crash of a Civil Air Patrol float plane on a training exercise at Figure Eight Lake, across Cook Inlet northwest of Anchorage. Three people were aboard. During a touch-and-go landing, the right float submerged, the right wing struck the water, the nose went down, and the cabin filled up.
"All three occupants struggled to free themselves from their seat belts while upside-down and submerged in cold lake water," Johnson wrote in his report, paraphrasing the check pilot. They were able to escape, they said, because they had all taken underwater egress training.
Back in 2001, an Era Aviation helicopter ferrying four Federal Aviation Administration employees from Fire Island to Anchorage crashed in Cook Inlet during a snowstorm. Two FAA employees managed to get out and both were wearing personal flotation devices that they activated. The other two were found dead still strapped into their seats when the wreckage was finally recovered days later. The pilot, Bob Larson, drowned. His flotation device never inflated.
Coast Guard Lt. Doug Watson was the pilot of a Jayhawk sent to rescue the crew of the Selendang Ayu, a bulk carrier that grounded in 2004 during a ferocious Bering Sea storm. Blizzard gusts sent the helicopter into the water with Watson in the cockpit. He had practiced in pools, in simulators, wearing blinders. When his air supply bottle didn't work, he groped for the door handle, and when he couldn't find it, he tried his air bottle again. This time, it worked. He found the handle and didn't let go. His rescue swimmer training had hammered that in.
From 2000 through late April of this year, there have been 79 serious helicopter crashes in Alaska, not counting military crashes, according to the NTSB.
Eighteen people have died.
In the classroom, Olcott cited statistics that indicate helicopter travel is about five times more dangerous than flying in a fixed-wing airplane when adjusted for hours of flying time.
Shell's goal, Slaiby said, is to make helicopter travel as safe as that in turbo prop planes.
Editor's note: Reporter Lisa Demer and photographer Bill Roth took the two-day Shell class in crash survival as a prerequisite for getting on an offshore drilling rig this summer. Shell paid for their instruction. The company requires the course before allowing anyone on a rig.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.