By Johnny Wilson
As jobs dry up on land, more people are looking to offshore work to make a living.
Before they can, however, they must pass a three-day basic offshore survival induction emergency training (Bosiet) course.
We joined the students on the helicopter survival module of the course at the Marine Safety Centre in South Shields.
WHAT would you do if the helicopter you were travelling in suddenly began plunging towards the North Sea?
Panic, you’ll probably joke, but that would only lead to disaster.
Here’s what you do: first check your seatbelt’s sufficiently tight.
Helo training video
After that remove glasses or anything that could result in an impact injury and put on your neoprene hood.
This is quickly followed by a check of your life jacket.
“Brace for impact!’ the pilot might say. But by then you’d already have assumed the position – crouched with one arm across your face and the other grasping the seat.
Phew! All that in the few seconds grace you might have before hitting the water.
It sounds a lot to remember, but these five steps could save your life if you ever find yourself in this terrifying situation.
Anyone who’s completed the Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (Huet) course at South Tyneside College’s Marine Safety Centre, will know all this.
They’ve had it drilled into them again and again – seatbelt, glasses, hood, life jacket check, brace.
The Huet lasts one day and comes in the middle of a three-day course called the basic offshore survival induction emergency training (Bosiet) course, which is mandatory for all those wanting to work on oil rigs.
To get a taste of what students have to go through on these courses, I was signed up for the one-day Huet, which commences with a morning’s lectures on heliport check-in procedures and safety, survival equipment, and what to do if your helicopter goes down.
Then before you have too much time to think about it, you’re straight into the onsite pool facility at the Marine Safety Centre, to get your watertight survival suit on.
In the North Sea, where winter water temperatures can drop as low as six degrees, this is probably your most important piece of equipment.
Without it, your ‘core’ body temperature would fall to a dangerously low level in just a few minutes, leading to inevitable hypothermia and
On top of these luminous yellow or green suits go the life jacket and emergency breathing system (Ebs).
Unlike those in the field, the Ebs we used today wouldn’t contain bottled breathing air, but merely recycle our breath once we inflated it.
The Ebs might not be state-of-the-art equipment, but it would certainly give you extra survival time were your helicopter flooded.
Before we could get into the mock helicopter though, we were first shown the drill of how to release and enter a life raft which exploded into life as soon as it hit the water.
If the aircraft you’re in does go down, it’s imperative to get into the raft and get the canopy up as soon as possible.
Apart from stopping water entering, this roof also dramatically reduces the amount of potentially fatal wind chill that survivors would have to bear out on the open sea.
Suitably briefed, we were now able to enter the helicopter, which is akin to a huge barrel with holes cut out for the door and windows.
Our dive supervisor for the day was Tony Hodgson, from Teesside, a former offshore diver and lecturer in survival training at the college for nine years.
Tony’s staccato, but incredibly effective teaching method, certainly works.
As the barrel is winched down into the pool, all you can think about are following his instructions.
“Stay braced until the impact. Bang, bang, bang. If you’re still in one piece, what do you do then?
“Locate! Nearest hand to your nearest exit. Other hand on your seat belt.”
On the first practise as the water rises up, you merely hold your breath, wait a few seconds underwater, and then make your way out through the nearest exit.
As the day goes on, the ‘dives’ (they are technically classed as such, so there are two trained divers always in the pool with you) become progressively more ambitious.
When the barrel is spun upside down, it’s hard not to feel disorientated, but the trick – as always – is not to panic and to follow the bubbles.
Having never dived with scuba equipment, using the Eba system does feel peculiar.
It’s quite frightening, but at the same time liberating to be breathing underwater for the first time.
It’s an exhausting day; swim to the helicopter, seatbelts on, prepare for impact, dive, escape. Again and again.
By the sixth time, any sense of fear you might have had has gone.
All you think about is following the five checks and getting out as calmly as possible.
The final test of the day involves an upside down escape using the Eba and then entering the raft.
Your arms feel like lead dragging yourself up the raft’s ramp, but once that’s done – it’s all over.
Though some of the 16 students on the course had precious little experience with diving, no one panicked and everyone passed this module of the course.
The next day they would move on to firefighting techniques and first aid.
Presuming they passed that, they’d all be certified to fly out to the rigs.
Pleased to have completed the Huet was Mark Maxwell, 38, from Newcastle, an unemployed dad-of-seven.
Having struggled to find work for the past nine months, he has decided to train as a shot blaster on oil rigs, which involves preparing the bulkheads for painting by first stripping them with a high-powered mix of gravel or sand.
In fact, so determined is he to get a foothold in this industry, he has for the past few months volunteered his services at engineering company K J Fosters in Blaydon.
“There’s nothing on land at the minute, so I had to rethink my options,” he said.
Having been out of work for so long, the £710 cost of the course was paid for by the Government, via the training provider A4e (Action For Employment).
“I want to get off the dole and get a high-paid job,” he added.
Signing off on the dive logbooks for the day, Tony gave an insight into what it’s like training people week after week.
“We meet a lot of different people – some of them people we used to know in the field, but a lot are new.”
And he for one could certainly understand why people wanted to get into the industry.
“There’s a general increase for first- timers. As employment dries up people try to get experience offshore with their background trades.”
As for my day, how had I done?
“Pretty rubbish actually,” he laughed.
I think he was joking. Let’s hope I never have to prove him wrong.