By Dave “Bio” Baranek
Flying is an appealing blend of science and art, and simply training to fly requires equal amounts of intelligence and eye-hand coordination — it is satisfying on many levels. But military flight training includes several terrestrial events that in terms of sheer excitement rival actual flying. I’ll briefly describe two of them: the Helo Dunker and SERE school.
I suspect many have heard of the Dilbert Dunker, which was shown in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.” A rudimentary cockpit that rolled down a short track into a pool, the Dilbert Dunker has been used since WW2 to train the Navy’s aviators to egress from an aircraft in the water.
In the 1970s the Navy examined mishap and fatality rates and realized they were losing many personnel in helicopter mishaps over water. These were accidents that should have been survivable if the helo’s occupants — crew and passengers — had been trained to get out of the helicopter cabin before it sank. The Navy developed an effective response that involved a diabolical device, the Helo Dunker.
My exposure to the device came in my fourth week of basic aviation training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, which was about two months after I graduated from college. Looking like a giant green barrel, the Helo Dunker tested up to eight students at a time. It was lowered into a large pool, then rotated when it was underwater. We had to wait until all movement stopped, then unstrap from our seats and find our way out. We did this four times to qualify, with a different exit window each run and the last two with blindfolds to simulate a nighttime crash.
My first three runs went smoothly, and my clothes were wet from the cool water as I strapped into a seat for the fourth run and lowered my blindfold, along with four other students. As the device descended into the pool I heard the splash and felt the water at my feet, rising. The device quickly submerged and water rose to my waist, then suddenly my neck. I tried to take that last full breath at the optimum instant, knowing that if I messed up I would have 30-40 seconds of thoughts and tasks before I could return to air. Once we were submerged, the device rotated randomly – this time it rotated through the inverted, stopping about 240 degrees from initial position.
On this last run all five of us had to exit from a single window. Divers watched to verify that we complied with instructions. Once all motion stopped, I placed both hands at my waist and released my seatbelt. The fact that we were inverted was incidental in this underwater escape scenario. Others in the drum had already unstrapped and started for the designated window exit. That was good, they were probably feeling the pressure in their lungs but I was still comfortable. I moved out of my seat and grabbed the seat in front of me as a guide to the… hey, tennis shoe in the face! It didn’t really hurt and I didn’t have the option to complain, so I stayed focused on the escape. I worked hand over hand as I followed a path to the designated exit, keeping track of those feet ahead with my hand, not my face. They seemed to be headed for the correct window. I grabbed the window frame, pulled free, and just floated for a moment to make sure I knew which way was up. Then I swam to the surface, felt real air on my face, and took off the blackout goggles. I was done!
Most of my fellow passengers were nearby. We exploded to the surface with the exhilaration of real crash survivors. One guy came up on the other side of the pool, and the observers told him the bad news, that he’d used the wrong exit window and had to go again to qualify. But overall it was another good day: no permanent damage and more stories to tell at the officers club.
Our instructors told us that the Navy had observed a marked reduction in fatalities after they began giving Helo Dunker training. So it wasn’t simply for their amusement.
The other training event I’ll mention came about one year later, just as I started the F-14 Tomcat training squadron. This was SERE School, named for the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape techniques we learned in case we fell into enemy hands. The Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy all conduct SERE programs to help prepare personnel who would be susceptible to capture by enemy forces during combat ops.
My weeklong SERE class began with two days – a Thursday and Friday – in a large Navy classroom at NAS North Island, across the bay from downtown San Diego. We were about 40 young men, mostly officers plus a few enlisted aircrew. (Women did not yet fly combat aircraft.) For two days we received lectures on SERE and prisoner of war (POW) concepts, and the specific training we would soon begin. Saturday was a day off, and Sunday morning we began the field portion of training.
Breakfast before class on Sunday was our last regular meal for more than four days. After lectures on how to catch fish and birds, how to purify water, and other information about survival in a seaside environment, we walked to a beautiful government-controlled beach and “got started.” We essentially hung out on the beach all day.
We captured a few small crabs and other creatures, a meager take. But late in the afternoon we managed to talk some fishermen just offshore into giving us some fish and lobsters, a real windfall. We then made an ugly but tasty seafood stew. We slept on the beach under survival blankets. It was July in San Diego, and SERE School was off to a good start. This was a picnic compared to the rest of the week.
Monday morning we boarded a bus for the two-hour drive to a Navy “camp” in the California desert near Warner Springs. This was high desert, so instead of bare sand dunes there was a lot of low-growing vegetation, cactus and prickly pears. It was hot in the daytime and cold at night. The first three days consisted of short classes in the morning, land navigation for the rest of the day, and then practical exercises such as building small shelters. When we had time to relax, we talked about food. I ate a lot of ants, which are not very filling, and various plants. I slept on the hard ground under a Mylar survival blanket.
Things changed after the Wednesday morning class. We had a short navigation exercise, only this time we had to avoid “enemy soldiers” played by trained Navy personnel. Like most of my fellow SERE-schoolers I successfully avoided the “enemy” during the short navigation segment. This provided little comfort because soon a bell was rung and we all reported to the designated collection point. We had been told not to remain in hiding after the bell was rung. Those who did would be treated worse than what the curriculum called for when they were finally picked up.
I was piled into the back of a pickup truck and taken to an “enemy compound” where our class was collected. I spent most of the next hour on hot sand, in the “up” position of a push-up, with the rest of the class. When anyone tried to look around a guard with a bad accent yelled, “Keep your eyes on the ground, American pig!” We heard a lot of yelling and people being thrown around. We were separated into small groups and processed as “POWs.”
During the afternoon, over the long night, and into the next morning we received a small taste of mental and physical duress. We knew that we were U.S. Navy officers being dealt with by other U.S. Navy personnel, but still the exposure was effective. We were kept separately in rows of small boxes, not allowed to sleep, punished if we were caught communicating, sometimes blindfolded, subjected to interrogations, thrown around, slapped, and strapped to “the water board.”
We had heard about the water board in the run up to SERE school, and I thought that since I had grown up swimming I would be able to handle it. When it was my turn, I was strapped to a backboard. For a few minutes the guards poured water onto my nose and mouth while they interrogated me. I was able to breathe with a little sputtering. It was irritating but tolerable, and I did not answer their questions. My fellow “prisoners” stood in a tight circle around the interrogation, and soon the guards shifted their question to the other prisoners – while continuing to pour water on me.
“What are your priority targets?” they asked the group.
No one answered.
“What are your strike control frequencies?”
Someone said, “Go to hell.”
I was thinking, “This isn’t too bad.” But it turned out that most people could get through that stage of the water board. Then one guard said, “Take away his breath, comrade!”
With perfect timing, just as I exhaled and was expecting another breath, a guard held a cloth tightly over my mouth and nose and poured water on the cloth. That cut off my air and quickly went from irritating to very uncomfortable. Even though I was in training, being interrogated by Navy personnel, I gave the signal of capitulation that our class had arranged. My fellow prisoners said, “Okay, we’ll answer your questions,” and I was allowed to breathe again.
It is just possible that if we had not been in Warner Springs, California, I may have been more determined to resist, but I have always been glad I never had to find out.
The “POW camp experience” lasted less than 24 hours, and ended with a dramatic “rescue” as the American flag was raised over our compound. Though we were beginning our training on the mighty F-14 Tomcat, SERE school is what we talked about for the next few weeks. And I found out everyone gave in on the water board.
About the author: Dave “Bio” Baranek was a US Navy radar intercept officer (RIO) in the F-14 Tomcat fighter. He was also a Topgun instructor, and helped film the movie “Top Gun.” He has written a book about some of his flying adventures called TOPGUN DAYS, and his website is www.topgunbio.com.