In order to get access to the FPSO (Floating Production Storage and Offloading) vessel, or any offshore rig/vessel, you have to complete at least Helicopter Underwater Escape Training, which is exactly what it says it is.
The Simulated Helicopter Chassis, which they drop in the water and spin around!
The ESSA training facility is based at Cacuaco, just North of Luanda. 14 kms from the centre of town. That’s 1 hour to get there early in the morning, if you leave before 06h that is, and 2-and-a-half hours to get back at 16h30.
The facility itself is built on a hill overlooking the town of Cacuaco, right on the edge of the bay, with an am amazing view of the beach. The center is used for all forms of offshore training and can also cater for a full STCW95 course, along with fire fighting, and many other off-shore petroleum related courses. The ESSA facility is also home the largest number of cats I have seen since arriving in Angola. There were about 10 of them just around the breakfast deck alone.
1. Cacuaco from Essa. 2. An underwater wellhead/”Christmas Tree” unit.
The training session starts with a breakfast, which if had known, I wouldn’t have had breakfast at home, so only grabbed a drink. From there we attended a theory session which lasted the morning, and then lunch, followed by the issuing of overalls and water shoes, and then off to the pool. We had our heart rate tested and given the signature of approval, issued with helmets, and the training begins.
The HUET training uses a simulated Helicopter module, which is attached to a pulley system that drops you into the water. It also has a rotation motor on it so it can spin you once in the water.
Before starting the training you are split into groups for 4 people per group. The module contains 6 seats, 2 for the pilots right in the front, and then 4 for the passengers at the back. The passenger seats are 2 in front, right next to the open doors, and the 2 at the back, next to portholes, which are the equivalent of windows. Each seat has the standard airplane buckle seatbelt. The front doors are primarily for those students who can’t swim. Oh, what, I forgot to mention that there are people on the course who can’t swim?? Yeah, that’s right, people are put through this who can’t swim. Now that is pretty mental I must say, as I was even nervous beginning this, but for them . . . it must be really scary.
The testing procedure is thus: You swim to the module, which has been positioned just on the water line in the pool, climb in and secure yourself with you seatbelt. If you can’t swim,you are escorted out there by the divers. The module is raised, then slowly lowered into the pool, whilst the trainer calls May Day, May Day, May Day, then Brace. You brace yourself, protecting you head with your had that is closet to the exit, and the other hand grabs the seat to steady yourself. He then bangs his hand on the side to signify the crash. Once you hear that, you grab the exit, in this case a rail, or the window frame, but in real life the window lever, or door lever. and look towards it. The water rises, and just as it is below your head, you take a deep breath, and begin counting to 15, after fifteen, you release your belt, and exit via the door, or window, pulling yourself through, out and up. Very straight forward. The 15 second wait is to allow the blades, in a real-life situation, to stop spinning.
You are not even 1 metre below the water at any time, but it is the feeling of being in a “confined” space that is disturbing. There are 2 divers just outside the module under the water at all times. So, there really is nothing that can go wrong. Except for PANIC itself! And PANIC was a big one that day.
We were all given a dry run for practice in the module on the ground still. That was very basic. Then the guys climbed into the pool and had to submerge their heads for 15 seconds to experience the sensation, whilst holding onto the side. This was also so the guys who can’t swim could see what it feels like. After that, group 1 was off. I was in group 2. The guys ran through their paces and the module submerged. It hadn’t been underwater 5 seconds when 2 very frightened guys breached the surface, and doggy paddled like hell to get the edge of the pool. It was quite amusing to watch I must admit. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I am not making fools of them at all. I think they must be seriously brave to get through that without freaking completely. However, it was early days yet. The trainer, Joao, or John in English, was very cool, and very, very good. Great guy,and he handled the students fine!
Then it was my turn. I hadn’t mentioned to anyone yet that I used to be a Scuba Diving Instructor in a previous life, about 4 years ago, and decided not to either, as it wouldn’t look very good if the Scuba Diver Dude with over 500 dives landed up losing it!! 🙂 There is only thing that pretty much stresses me out,and that is water up my nose. I don’t know why. It is just one of things. Otherwise, I am rock solid under the water. No worries with anything . . . except water in my nose. Once I spend a bit of time in the water, then I’m sorted. So this was gonna be interesting. The last time I had been in the water was in Cape Town on our lovely 8 degree dive, about 2 weeks previous to this. So, at least I should be okay. The first “landing” was fine. Nothing to worry about at all. You just hold your breath, wait a bit, release your belt, pull yourself out of the hole. I was at the back left. Being a pool, you have the benefit of being able to open your eyes, which if you think about is kinda cheating, as you probably won’t in the ocean. But hey, why the hell not. So I waxed the first attempt. I must have been down for about 20 – 25 secs before coming out,which means I am theoretically alive still! Yay!! 🙂 Piece of cake.
We watched the next 2 groups go after us, and there was a White, French dude – a chef apparently – who was one of the non-swimmers. He just managed with the first “drop”. Everyone else was pretty cool with it. Some guys popped out early, within a few secs, the rest were fine.
So, onto round 2. This was going to get a bit more interesting. In this round we were to be spun around. virtually 180 degrees. So the module is lowered into the pool, and then spun thru 180 degrees whilst it is still sinking, to simulate the helicopter flipping. This is apparently what happens in about 90% of all helicopter water landings, so it must be done. Especially when the rigs here, are all at sea! So, we get back in and the the sequence starts again. we start rotating whilst sinking this time, and as it flipped to the left first, I had to hold my breath longer than the required 15 sec, as it only really stabilised and stopped moving after 25 secs. It was a bit weird being upside down I must admit, and I didn’t really have any issues with water up my nose either. I had just exited the module and was surfacing, when I suddenly felt a guy behind me. What the hell? He had touched my shoe and had come through the same window I had. That was just weird. The trainer told me I had gone out the wrong window, which I thought was wrong, as that would have meant that I had swum across the module, not far, but still just strange, as I remember myself exiting the window right by me. I watched the next dump and noticed that I had come out the right window. The muppet who had been sitting next to me on the other side of the module had actually swum out my window after me! I told him and the trainer, and then he realised that that was correct. Sweet, so I had been right. I had been wondering about it. The cook made this one too, but he was mega stressed after it, and it looked like he was close to cracking.
Round 3 was exactly the same, just we went the other way round,so I only had to grab my breath at the end, just before I dipped under the water, and I was only under for a secs before it stopped and I could “escape”. By this time we were all pretty much old hands at it, and I was tempted to muck about on the last go, as Blythe had done when he did his HUET. The last round they had swum to the Cockpit and stayed there for like a few secs longer, taunting the divers by hanging around under water longer than required. 🙂 At this stage I decided to just complete the training and chill. Also the chlorine was seriously killing my eyes. So I just did the usual escape and got out. I was also at this stage intrigued to see how the Frenchman coped. Well, he didn’t. I think this third time was just too much for him, and PANIC set in in a big way. Shame. Poor dude. I really felt for him.It is one hell of a thing to be thrown in a pool, and then told you have to do it whilst tied up under the water. Man, no way. I would’ve gone to find a different career.
After the HUET stuff we did a bit of basic sea survival on a raft, and practiced dragging and huddling. Basic stuff.Then they elected me as leader for the raft evacuation, which was cool. It meant I was the first one out. Sweet. Cheers Suckers, I am getting the helicopter outta here!!! haha 🙂
So, that was pretty much the HUET in a day, and I had to admit to the trainer at the end that I used to be a Dive Instructor, whereby he said he wasn’t surprised as I looked very calm underwater. This was surprising, as even I thought I was a bit panicked at times. God, would have been great to see the faces of the others then! The day ended on a good note for all, including the Chef, as he wasn’t going to be doing that again in a hurry, and to date there has never been a ditching of a Helicopter off Angolan Waters. Let’s keep it that way.
UPDATE: ESSA, the HUET Training Agency in Luanda, can be contacted here: http://www.essa.co.ao/contacts_en.shtml
I was called at lunchtime by my mom to inform me that the guy who had taken my car for a test drive the day before I left, had decided he was dead keen and was taking it. Great news . . . but at the same time, I was a bit bummed. I absolutely my loved my little gas guzzling Jetta 2.3l V5.
My Baby! 🙁
It was a really sweet machine, and had gotten me out of a lot of sh!t in the past. Okay, it had also gotten me into loads too. 😮 haha It is gonna be sorely missed, and I wish it the best of care in the hands of it’s new owner. Lucky guy!! But,time to move on I guess. Now to start saving for that RS4!! 🙂
Well, it was a great day, and fun was had by all.
Easy Going Guy 😉
Written on the 31st May ’08