The mission for Alexander Treichel and his colleague Stephan Arends from WindGuard Safety Training was clear, but not simple: Train 60 people from 20 nations in three days and get them fit for helicopter emergencies in the hostile conditions of the arctic. At WindGuard Insight, Alexander talks about this special mission, his experiences in Norway and the special challenges that come with emergency situations in these conditions.
WindGuard Insight: Alexander, welcome back home! Compared to Norway at this time of year you probably feel all nice and cosy here in Germany! How cold was it in Tromsø?
Alexander Treichel: Not that cold, actually. Just about -4°C.
WindGuard Insight: Please tell us what brought you to Norway in the first place.
Alexander Treichel: We started a cooperation with Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven last year. They have just launched an expedition to the arctic. The expedition is called “MOSAiC” and its base is an icebreaker, the “RV Polarstern”, which will be frozen in and drifting with the ice for a year. Scientists will then conduct all kinds of research to get insight into climate change for example.
Within the scope of AWI’s MOSAiC-Expedition, we are responsible for providing all expedition participants with the necessary helicopter safety trainings. Specifically, we instruct them on the safety procedures surrounding heli-ditches over open water. Helicopters are one of the regular means of transport during the expedition. While the “Polarstern” is enclosed in the ice, crew and researchers will be exchanged at regular intervals. Every new participant has to pass a number of safety trainings before boarding the “Polarstern”.
For us that means a total of six training missions in Tromsø and Spitzbergen during the length of MOSAiC. We will be training scientists, researches and crew members from 20 nations before they become part of the world’s greatest polar expedition to date, which is pretty awesome!
It’s extremely cold, and – for some part of the expedition – extremely dark; there’s even polar bears. Did you know that they have special guards on the ship who always watch for polar bears?
WindGuard Insight: Why do the researchers need this training?
Alexander Treichel: As mentioned, the Polarstern is frozen in and drifting with the pack ice. During most of the time, they will be pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. The people on the ship have to fend for themselves in one of the world’s most hostile environments.
Safety trainings include sea survival, arctic survival in a camp in Svalbard, firefighting, polar bear encounters, even shooting training is mandatory. Our helicopter emergency training is only a small part in a larger safety curriculum. To supply them with provisions and to handle the crew change, icebreakers will accompany the Polarstern from a safe distance – at least as long as they can still get through the ice. When the ice becomes too thick, they will have to rely on special aircrafts for that.
Essential for transport during the expedition: Helicopters!
Helicopters will be used on the Polarstern for flights to the research stations they set up on the surrounding ice, but also for the crew and supply transfer between the icebreakers and the Polarstern. That’s where we come in to play.
During the crew change, the helicopters will fly over open water. In case of an emergency, a controlled ditch on open water is much more difficult compared to land. There is a high probability that the helicopter will capsize and be submerged. Unlike planes, helicopter cabins are not pressurized and therefore will flood immediately.
Training for helicopter emergencies in a hostile environment
If you have to perform an emergency landing on ice, there is also a certain risk that the floe on which the helicopter ditches is too thin and the heli breaks through. This might also happen during a regular landing – you can’t really see how thick the ice is from above and the conditions can change quickly. One of our participants told me about his job during the mission, which is to prepare the landing spot for the helicopters on the ice. During a similar mission a few years back, the ice was 1,80m thick in one place, but 3m away from that point, it barely had 80cms.
WindGuard Insight: And what does your part of the training entail exactly?
Alexander Treichel: We have a short theoretical and a longer practical part. In the theoretical training, we inform the participants about the emergency procedures in case a helicopter ditches. We teach them for example, how to brace and to find the right reference points for orientation. Other topics are the principles of diving medicine, the mechanics of leaving a helicopter that is floating on the water and – worst case scenario – how to get out of a helicopter that is capsized and submerged under water. In the latter event, passengers need to deploy a so called Emergency Breathing System or EBS that is attached to the life vest. With the help of this system, passengers have a short time air supply to buy them a few precious minutes to free themselves.
Better chances of survival with CA-EBS
In the practical part of the training, we instruct them on the correct use of the EBS system. There are different systems on the market and it is important to be instructed on the system in use during the flight. Since last year, most helicopter companies have switched to a so-called Compressed Air-EBS. That is also so the one used in the MOSAiC-mission.
CA-EBS has the advantage that it is easy to use and fast to deploy. It doesn’t take long for a helicopter to crash, turn and be completely submerged. Impact time can be less than ten seconds. Add panic and shock to the equation and you want a very simple system. Each CA-EBS bottle contains compressed air for around 20 breaths over water, which in a situation of stress will be less.
WindGuard Insight: That doesn’t exactly sound like much time.
Alexander Treichel: It’s not a lot, no. But it is enough to get out. All you need time for, is to open a window and swim to the surface. And if you don’t panic and have followed the instructions – so you know where your emergency exit is and where you are – it will take you less than a minute to leave. People in the offshore wind industry have to train for this scenario regularly in so called Helicopter Underwater Escape Trainings, or HUET.
They spend a whole day training on a helicopter mock-up in a pool and running through different crash scenarios. The Polarstern crew only needs a short introduction on the use of CA-EBS and not a full on HUET. So we do a dry-training, simulating a helicopter with chairs and tables in the class room and running through different scenarios.
Training from the wind industry – adapted for the arctic
WindGuard Insight: You usually train people from the wind industry. Is this CA-EBS training a standard training course you offer?
Alexander Treichel: Yes and no. Usually, CA-EBS training is an add-on for people who have already undergone HUET with a different EBS. The add-on is necessary, because of the additional risks that come from using compressed air under water, for example barotrauma. But of course, we had to adapt our usual training syllabus a little for the special circumstances of this mission.
Special training for special arctic conditions
That starts – for example – with the helicopters in use. There are only few helicopters that can be used in this kind of extreme environment. One is, for example, a Mi8, a Russian model from the 1960s. They fit larger groups of people as we normally see in the wind industry and – as there are 120 different types of the Mi8 series – you never really know, how the exact layout in terms of emergency exits etc. will be. So we brief our participants on different layout situations and tell them to familiarize themselves on entering the heli with the rescue concept.
Also, we have to adapt the contents of the course to the special conditions of the arctic environment. We usually train our participants on helicopter ditches in the North Sea. The pool in our training centre in Elsfleth is kapt at 22°C – which is obviously warmer than the North Sea, but we can hardly risk our participants suffering from hypothermia on a regular basis. Now, if you think the North Sea is cold, try the Arctic Sea! Water temperature is around 1.5°C. The problem is: If your body is submerged quickly in cold water, it goes into shock.
The dangers of cold water shock and hypothermia
We all know that gasp of breath you take when you enter the pool. For a moment you cannot control your breathing. That shocks lasts only a second when the water is around 20°C. But the colder the water gets, the longer that shock lasts.
The stress level for the body is of course much higher. In water temperatures around the freezing point, it will take you around 40 seconds to regain control over your breath. In this time, you will start to hyperventilate and you might not be able to control your movements. If you don’t know this, you will panic and the risk of drowning will increase substantially.
These first 2 minutes after getting into the water are absolutely critical in terms of your chances of survival. It takes much longer until you die of hypothermia. Participants need to know that and be prepared that they might have to wait for 40 seconds until they regain control over their body. That’s when they will be able to leave the helicopter safely.
WindGuard Insight: So what are your feelings about the MOSAiC-Expedition?
Alexander Treichel: It is absolutely exciting! And you can feel the excitement with everyone going on the ship. The expedition has been in preparation for the last five years, it is well funded and the logistics behind it are impressive. Still, there is a lot of uncertainty involved. The drift of the ice will determine their course. They have only a very general idea, where that might take them and how long it will take.
There is still so much we don’t know about the arctic and the role the ice masses play in global climate. This is great opportunity to study the effects of global climate change directly on site and learn more about the extent and impact. I think this might well be the most important research missions of our time. So we are very proud to play a small part in this incredible mission!
Cornelia von Zengen is head of PR and marketing at the WindGuard group. She loves the fresh winds at the coast, writing and developing new ideas.