Fatality during helicopter escape training

We have been advised of the following fatality, which occurred during a routine helicopter escape training course. A trainee had arrived for the course appearing normal. The class was provided with briefing and demonstration of the exercise to be undertaken and two other participants successfully completed the exercise.

The trainee mounted the trainer in preparation for the exercise. He appeared calm and signalled to the instructor that he was ready to being the exercise. He was rotated to the submerged position, unbuckled his seatbelt, escaped through the egress hole and surfaced.

On surfacing, he appeared to be in distress and gripped the side of the trainer. The instructors immediately proceeded to his side and assisted him to the side of the pool, where he was helped out. He laid down for a while, before attempting to stand. He then vomited and collapsed. CPR was administered by a trained emergency medical technician and a first aid instructor and continued until an ambulance arrived. The ambulance took him away, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at the nearby hospital.

It was subsequently discovered that the trainee had a pre-existing unknown heart condition and it was noted that his participation in the training course had most likely exceeded his cardiovascular capability.

The subsequent investigation noted the following:

  • Emergency response by instructors and other participants was immediate and adequate;
  • There had been a 1-1 ratio of instructors to students during the training.

While in this instance it was thought that they would have made no difference, the investigation team recommended consideration of the following:

  • Fitness-to-work determination could be improved (through the use of medicals and enhanced self-declaration);
  • Water orientation could be standardised (with an emphasis on non-swimmers);
  • Emergency response capability could be enhanced;
  • Medical protocols for emergencies at the nearby hospital could be improved.

Whilst appreciating that some companies have systems in place that would have subjected personnel to medical testing before they took part in such training, it is not clear whether standard tests would have revealed this particular heart defect.

The company involved has set out the following actions to be completed prior to recommencing the training programme:

  • Development and implementation of a ‘wellness management’ programme (phase one) including fitness for work and a well-informed self-declaration of fitness;
  • Implementation of enhanced emergency response capability, including people, equipment, the process and assurance of such;
  • Improvement of the training course design, emphasising non-swimmers in the standard water orientation.

It has also set out the following actions of an ongoing nature:

  • Phase 2 of the ‘wellness management’ plan to include encouragement of healthier lifestyles through education, diet and exercise;
  • Working with the local hospital to review and, where possible, improve resuscitation and emergency response protocols and to develop a rapport with hospital staff.