NORFOLK, Va. -- A Navy helicopter crew had only seconds to escape seven months ago when its aircraft caught fire and plunged into the frigid water off Virginia Beach.
Like all Navy aviators, the sailors inside the MH-53E Sea Dragon had prepared for that horrific moment, even if they had hoped it would never come. The instructions for what to do after splashdown had been drilled into their heads: Locate a point of reference; wait for violent motion to stop; then egress.
All but one of the five occupants of the Sea Dragon made it to the surface Jan. 5, though just two survived their injuries. Other details -- including the cause of the mishap that killed three sailors and a narrative of the harrowing rescue operation that followed -- will likely be made public in the coming weeks.
It's unknown how much the crew's training factored in the ability to escape the wreckage. Some situations, such as dropping into the ocean inside a 50,000-pound helicopter, simply can't be simulated.
But the Navy tries.
"All right, fellas, the key is to conserve as much energy as you can," Tom Alvarez, a former Navy diver, shouted last week to a group of helicopter pilots swimming laps in a pool while wearing full flight gear, including boots and a helmet. "This is not a race."
Alvarez is an instructor at the Aviation Survival Training Center at Norfolk Naval Station, a few hundred yards from the waterfront airstrip where Sea Dragons and other Navy helicopters take off daily. It's one of eight such Navy training facilities.
Before a new Navy pilot or crew member is allowed to fly in a helicopter for the first time, he or she must first practice escaping one while underwater. Aviators repeat the intensive training, which includes water exercises and classroom lectures, at least once every four years.
Alvarez has spoken with sailors who took his course and later survived a crash. "They tell me, when the bird hits the water, they remember the things we teach them in this course," he said while keeping an eye on the men as they practiced basic survival strokes in the pool.
Next, the aviators had to blow up their life vests while keeping themselves afloat.
The vests that sailors wear during flights over water are designed to inflate automatically with the pull of a cord, but the survival course prepares them for worst-case scenarios.
"This is probably the most difficult part of the course," Alvarez said, noting that most aviators struggle to stay afloat while puffing air into a vest. "They have to learn to relax in the water, which is not an easy thing."
One by one, each sailor blew up his vest and climbed into a metal basket connected to a winch, which hoisted them out of the water and onto a platform -- simulating a rescue.
As the last sailor exited the pool, overhead lights flickered, and a rumble boomed from large speakers in the rafters.
"Uh-oh," Alvarez said. "Thunder."
Navy helicopters often fly at night. So what if one crashes into the sea during a thunderstorm? "Let's hope that never happens," Alvarez said. "But we're going to prepare for that scenario."
The dripping-wet aviators attached glowing red beacons to their helmets and jumped back into the 12-foot-deep water. Alvarez flipped off the lights, blackening the windowless room. Water sprayed from overhead sprinklers, simulating rotor wash from a rescue helicopter. With each rumble of thunder, lights flickered, briefly illuminating the pool.
The sailors, still wearing their inflated life vests, climbed one after another into an orange emergency raft and paddled it toward the rescue hoist. Each disembarked, swam through the darkened pool and then -- with water spraying from above -- attached a cable to his chest and waited to be yanked from the water.
"It's like a water park," one of the pilots joked.
"Yeah, and you don't even have to pay," an instructor shot back.
A moment later, the lights flicked back on, and the aviators gathered for their next exercise.
This one required them to cover their eyes with plastic blinders. While breathing through a small emergency air tank known as a "sea bottle," the sailors had to feel their way along a bar on the bottom of the pool, push open an aircraft latch and swim through.
By the end of the exercise, several of the men were blowing chlorinated water out of their noses.
Next up: The dunker.
"Great," one of the drenched aviators said as he walked toward the mock aircraft cabin dangling above another section of the pool. The dunker -- a slightly gentler version of an earlier iteration, which more closely resembled a tin can -- is notorious among Navy aviators.
"We walk a fine balance between simulating realistic conditions while making it safe enough for training," Cmdr. Nick DiMaso, the director of the survival training center, said while the men regrouped for their final exercise. "We're here to instill confidence."
Cmdr. Patrick Ingman has been through a variation of the water survival course at least eight times during his 28 years in the Navy. He's lost count. The MH-60S pilot initially entered the service as an enlisted aircrew member before going to flight school.
The training is difficult, Ingman said, but it has gotten better over the years. That's partially because the Navy has learned lessons from actual accidents, and partly because of advancements in research related to the physiology of water crashes.
Ingman and the other aviators climbed into the mock helicopter, which includes a two-seated cockpit and a cabin with six seats for other crew members. They strapped themselves in, pulled blinders over their eyes and waited.
In real life, helicopter crews don't always have time to prepare before impact. What if crew members aren't strapped in when something goes wrong? What if the cabin is full of fire or smoke? What if the aviators are knocked unconscious?
"We can't simulate everything," DiMaso said. "But it's better to prepare the best we can than not prepare at all."
The dunker dropped into the water and rotated until it was upside-down. The men inside knew what to do.
Locate a point of reference; wait for violent motion to stop; then egress.
The sailors unbuckled their straps, punched out plastic windows and swam away from the simulated disaster.
They had a few minutes to catch their breath before it was time to get back in and do it again.
It's worth the hassle, Ingman said: "You wouldn't want the first time you do something like this to be when your aircraft crashes into the ocean."
A moment later, the veteran helicopter pilot was back in the cockpit, awaiting the crash.