The American Legion Magazine
October 2000
Alan W. Dowd

A fleet of seven support boats circles a special U.S. Air Force launch ship three miles off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., as 31 airmen experience something they hope they never experience again - an emergency parachute drop over water.

Back on shore, a dozen Coast Guard and Army pilots swim and squeeze their way through a gauntlet of underwater escape scenarios; Navy fliers endure an oxygen-deprived flight; and future aircrews learn the finer points of over-land parachuting.

It's all in a day's work at Pensacola Naval Air Station, home to the Naval Operational Medicine Institute and Air Force Water Survival School.

NOMI's Proving Ground. NOMI may sit on the white sands of Pensacola Bay, but when trainees arrive at  NOMI's steamy pool-operations building they aren't dressed for a day at  the beach. "They're wearing 30-35 pounds of gear," according to Chief Petty Officer Ben McNair, NOMI's master training specialist. "The jet fliers also have a 5-pound vest, a G-suit and a seat pan. And all of them are wearing these," he says as he picks up a pair of water-logged, calf-high boots. "We call them ankle weights."

All told, the students - who come from every branch of the military, around the world and even space (NASA astronauts sometimes train at NOMI) - could be carrying up to 50 pounds of extra weight apiece as they swim through NOMI's underwater proving ground. And it shows. During their brief breaks, trainees slump into the poolside bleachers. Some gasp for air; others just stare at the pool, knowing McNair will soon call them back in.

McNair and his team use a mix of repetition and encouragement to train their students, showering them with an array of commands, scenarios, sights and sounds.

It's not easy, as Ensign Jason Mendenhall discovers. "Since I'm not a good swimmer, this is the toughest part of my pilot training," admits Mendenhall, a future F/A-18 pilot with a disarming smile and an old-fashioned crew cut. He's only a year away from flying off the deck of a carrier, but that lifelong goal will never become reality if he doesn't pass NOMI's battery of tests.

Dunk Tank. From the main pool, Mendenhall and his fellow trainees move on to NOMI's famous "Dunker," where they are greeted by an ominous sign directing them to "Strap in and Brace for impact."

The Dunker is a 7-foot-wide, 15-foot-long cylinder that hangs above an indoor pool. When released from its hoist, the Dunker simulates a helicopter impacting the water's surface.

After slamming into the water, the Dunker rolls 180 degrees, spinning the trainees upside down. With their eyes covered by black-painted goggles, the trainees have to find a predetermined reference point, unlatch their safety belts and then swim up to the surface. If all goes smoothly, the whole exercise takes less than 30 seconds.

Divers in full scuba gear await the falling Dunker. Their purpose is twofold: to evaluate the trainees and to rescue them if something goes wrong. And things can go wrong, according to Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Schick, a NOMI diver and instructor.

"They can get disoriented in there," observes Schick, gesturing over his shoulder to the pool where he spends most of his waking hours. "If they start to bump into each other, we don't waste any time at that point. One panicking person could really mess up everybody else," the 12-year Navy veteran adds.

Mind Over Matter. "Crash! Crash!" McNair signals the beginning of shallow-water egress training with a yell. Suddenly, the trainee's flight chair flips from an upright position just inches above the water to an upside-down position just under the water. In the intervening two seconds, he has to find the release points on his chair and take in enough oxygen to carry him through an underwater obstacle course designed to simulate a submerged cockpit.

Like most of the exercises, this one is easier to describe than perform. One Army trainee is unable to get through all the steps - he's having trouble holding his breath. Each time he comes up for air, he has to start over. "Mind over matter," shouts McNair. "If you don't mind, it don't matter."

With a little more encouragement, the trainee finally makes it through and joins his awaiting classmates.

NOMI trainee Heather O'Donnell can empathize with the waterlogged soldier. After hours in the water, her once-olive flight suit has taken on the shiny-black color of an oil slick. "It's scary in there," the future F-14 navigator explains. "You've got water pouring in your ears and nose. Your eyes are covered, and you're just not used to that."

The Big Dog. While NOMI uses pools and chambers for its training, the Air Force Water Survival School uses "The Big Dog" - a flat-topped boat for launching not warplanes, but the people who fly them.

Tethered to an awaiting high-speed towboat just off the Big Dog's bow, the trainee stands on the deck of the boat as instructors open his parachute behind him. A trio of these towboats constantly circles the Big Dog, swinging around either side of the mini-aircraft carrier one at a time to drop off a tether line and pick up a trainee. Occasionally, they have to escort curious civilian boaters out of the Big Dog's path.

Tasked with retrieving the jumpers, another three boats meander a few hundred yards away. In case something goes awry, a medical boat zigzags near the landing zone. But thanks to a week of classroom instruction and a few practice jumps off the Air Force's parachuting pier, these trainees make sure the medical crew's day is uneventful.

When the towboat skipper is given the thumbs-up sign, he hits the throttle, the trainee begins to run toward the edge of the Big Dog and the parachute catches the wind, lifting the trainee off the deck and into the air.

Speeding away from the Big Dog, the towboat lets out more line, catapulting the trainee 450 to 600 feet above the crystal-blue water.

The view is breathtaking but brief. As a flagman gives the signal to disconnect from the towboat, the trainee slaps away at the tether fasteners, begins the 200-yard fall toward the ocean and braces for impact.

Most of the young fliers barely make a splash as they hit the surface, a credit to their training. But now they face perhaps the most critical moment of an over-water ejection. If an airman fails to land feet-first and turn his chute into the wind, he won't be able to keep his face above the water. And if that happens, he will become disoriented and could drown as the wind skims him in and out of the ocean. That's why it is important for the trainee to disconnect from the canopy within seconds of hitting the water.

Those perilous few moments are followed by a quiet minute alone in the water, as the trainee waits for one of the retrieval boats. The water is chilly, and most trainees are eager to climb into the relative safety and warmth of these floating pickup trucks after their jumps.

Through it all, they know the next jump may be from a crippled airplane, and they probably won't be landing in the friendly waters of Pensacola Bay.

*Cover story