Behind The Scenes: SWET
Imagine being upside down, under water and strapped into a cockpit. That is what Red Bull Air Race pilots experience in their mandatory Shallow Water Egress Training. SWET takes these aviators literally out of their element, but safety means preparing for even the most improbable situations. Here are the insights from the participants...
Each season, the Red Bull Air Race calendar includes racetracks over water. Every pilot in the World Championship and the Challenger Class must undergo SWET every other year. They learn not only how to get out of the cockpit (egress) safely in the unlikely case of a water emergency, but also how to work with the Falck rescue team that is ready at each race stop.
“It is important because if you end up in the water, you know how to open the canopy, how to use the spare air. And by training on a regular basis, you know what to do on your own,” says SWET instructor Harm Neuteboom. Reigning World Champion Martin Sonka adds, “We practice to get it into our muscle memory, because we have to do it automatically if we’re in a really stressful situation.”
The training starts with classroom sessions and exercises using the breathing apparatus. Then the experience escalates, as each pilot takes multiple turns in a stripped-down cockpit positioned in a pool. Once the pilot is seated, the cockpit is inverted and submerged. “We’re simulating that the aircraft has hit the water and it’s upside down,” explains Matt Hall.
He runs through the procedure, from using the spare air bottle that is required equipment in every raceplane, to the unsettling but necessary task of waiting for water to fill the cockpit: “Once you’re on spare air, then release the canopy. But that takes up to 30 seconds to open because of the [pressure] equalisation that’s got to occur. You’ve just got to sit there and relax, slow breathing. Once the canopy is open, maintain a focus of the canopy position, release the harness, take the bottle out with you, and swim away.”
As Neuteboom points out, immersion in cold water can add to the shock of an unplanned touchdown. He also emphasises the importance of using a reference point to avoid accidentally swimming toward the bottom. (In some parts of the training, pilots even wear darkened goggles to practice for murky water.) “Stay calm” is the mantra. As pilot Pete McLeod describes, “It feels like an eternity when you’re trapped upside down under water, but after you do it a few times, you know what’s going to happen. Then you calm down, you use less air and you have a longer time to solve the situation.”
Another SWET drill simulates a situation where the pilot must wait for the rescue team before evacuating the cockpit. “The team here is the team that we use in the Air Race. Just talking to [the pilots] and learning each other’s needs, it makes our standard of rescue higher,” says Neuteboom. “It's all based on confidence."
The rescue team will typically need only about 30 seconds to arrive anywhere in the racetrack via speedboat. McLeod comments, “They’re really top professionals, and I know that they would do a great job if we needed them.”
The Air Race has an outstanding safety record, and stringent procedures and requirements like Shallow Water Egress Training help to keep it that way. “Even though we are practising a very serious thing, we always enjoy having these experiences,” declares Sonka, who actually finds fun in the training’s surreal underwater scene.
Hall concludes, “You never want to fly a plane where you think there’s a chance you might end up in the water… But it makes a huge difference to know that if something does go wrong, these same guys will be at the race with me, and we’re going to work together to get it done.”