Helo dunks Marines for training
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December 9, 2008 - 6:00 PM

As the Marines sit strapped inside the simulated helicopter, soggy in their drenched camouflage, the lights go out. Then the pod drops into the pool, flipping upside down as water rushes inside.

"The most important thing is not to panic," said Capt. Edmund Clayton, commanding officer of Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The Marines need "to stay calm and learn to execute all the movements by feel," he said.

This week, the Marines of the 81-mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 3/2, spent two days learning exactly what to do if an aircraft does go down in the water - first spending time in the classroom, then testing their skills in the pool.

First, the Marines learn the basics in Survival Water Egress Trainers, a sort of individual chair with hard plastic "doors." Then, they move to the Modular Amphibious Egress Trainer, set up to mimic the inside of a CH-46 or CH-53 helicopter.

Pfc. Jeffrey Czarnec called the experience of being underwater upside down in a seatbelt "nerve-racking."

"No one likes the feeling of being drowned," he said.

The men have small breathing tanks that can provide two minutes of air at surface level - less if they are below the surface. They need to stay in control and get out as soon as possible, Czarnec said.

"If you're not relaxed, you're pretty much screwed," he said.

While Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station has a training pool for aviators and air crews, Camp Lejeune only recently opened its Combat Training Pool. Survival Systems USA started its first class at the pool Nov. 1, said Steve Lampley, site manager for the Camp Lejeune training center.

The Lejeune pool was built primarily to give ground forces the chance to practice getting in and out of an aircraft in the water, since they frequently travel from ship to shore and back, Lampley said. MEUs, like the 22nd MEU, generally deploy aboard ship, so all flights involve time over water in some way, the Marines said.

During the training course, the Marines learn the brace position, how to get out of the aircraft and what to do once they are out, Lampley said, as well as how to breathe compressed air.

The training builds up their confidence level and makes them more comfortable, "so they aren't fearful anymore," Lampley said.

"It's a lot easier to learn it in a training environment, where it is controlled, than to learn when it happens," he said.

Instructor Ron Welsh agreed.

"If Marines don't come through the course and are in an underwater situation, they'll panic," he said, which can be a death sentence. "Time is of the essence."

Lance Cpl. Zackory Ingram is also a member of the 81-mm Mortar Platoon. Though he is generally comfortable in the water, he said the training "was a different experience, being flipped upside down and strapped in."

"It's weird to see water coming at your face and you can't go anywhere," he said.

The mortar platoon has been designated as the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel platoon for the 22nd MEU, which is scheduled to deploy next spring.

Contact interactive content editor and military reporter Jennifer Hlad at jhlad@freedomenc.com or 910-219-8467.