The Helicopter Underwater Escape Training course (AKA the HUET), is known throughout the offshore industry as either a day off work spent by the pool, or an opportunity for sadistic employers to attempt to drown their thankless staff by strapping them into a metal can and plunging them upside down into two meters of water.

Government regulations and Health, Safety, and the Environment (HSE) departments, mean that most companies will require their staff to undertake a HUET before they can take the chopper ride out to an offshore platform or vessel. There are exceptions to this, most notably if you are expected to take only one single journey in a year -- or if it's really important. Most companies will recognise a valid HUET for one or two years.

The HUET course generally consists of two parts, the helicopter escape and the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea), performed in no particular order, over the course of one or two days. Some providers also include a course in basic fire fighting and escape from a smoke filled room.

Part 1: The HUET

The Theory We start with two hours of theory. You learn about picking your primary exit and selecting a secondary exit (in case the guy next to your primary exit weighs 300lbs). You learn how to brace for impact and what to do when the helicopter hits the water. There's demonstrations of how the door and window emergency exits work and explanations as to what will likely happen should the rotor's jesus pin fail. There's generally an exam to make sure you've not been asleep, but either way the practical will wake you right up.

The Practice Just how scary the human washing machine is, depends a lot on the following points: Are you a weak swimmer? Are you claustrophobic? Do you get disoriented easily? If you answered yes to any of these questions you'll want to wear a rubber lined wetsuit. The idea of the HUET is to prepare you for an unexpected plunge into the ocean while you're in a helicopter, so the practical part of the course attempts to simulate just that. They construct a mock-up helicopter with a variety of seating and exit configurations but with the back of the 'helicopter' left open, just in case. Each training provider will have a different mock-up, from a simple box which instructors manually manoeuvre, to fully automatic systems that can control the speed of rolls as well as any pitch or lateral movement.

You start easy, suspended above the water you practice your brace position and pop your nearest exit. The next step is more exciting, you get lowered in to the water slowly (buckled in of course), until you've been fully submerged for about 5 seconds. Then you find and pop your exit, unbuckle your harness, and make your escape. So far so good, as long as you are a comfortable swimmer. Now the fun starts. Next dip is an inversion, essentially a simulation of the helo landing on, and then rolling in to the sea. So rather than being gently lowered in you're rolled under water, so depending on where you're sitting you might be upside down or side-on when your head goes under. Then of course you have to orient yourself, find and pop your exit, unbuckle your harness, and escape -- while holding your breath, upside down, and underwater.

To keep things interesting you have to switch seats for each ditch. After you've experienced the plunge and inversion they mix things up by not telling you which it will be, nor which way it will roll. Then they'll 'block' one side of the craft so you have to use your secondary exit. Then for the real men you do the inversion, using only your secondary exit, blindfolded.

If this all sounds like a dangerous way to spend an afternoon, you may have a point. But living in the century of litigation means your safety is well looked after. There are three scuba divers around the helicopter at all times, and they're more than willing to yank you out should you get confused, panic, or if your harness gets stuck.

Part 2: SOLAS

Far less exciting, but possibly even more useful is the SOLAS class. It teaches you how to survive being stranded at sea until the rescue chopper arrives to whisk you to safety. Generally includes life raft familiarisation, how to keep warm while in the water, survival strokes, entering water from height, and how to get winched up into a helicopter.

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