Without training, the magic number for survival when belted in a confined space underwater is only 15 seconds.
With that in mind and his own brush with death in a float plane crash, Bryan Webster decided to go into the business of saving lives full time.
The accident he was in was on the Fraser River in 1977. Regaining consciousness at the last second, Webster experienced first hand the disorientation and panic of freeing himself (and the pilot) from the darkness of the inverted aircraft just as it slipped beneath the surface.
“That was terrifying,” recalled the Aviation Egress Training Systems founder who was at the Penticton Community Centre pool this week for a regular training session. “My nose was going underwater and I got out of my belt and went around the airplane and undid his (pilot’s) belt, and literally as his body came out, the airplane sunk. I watched the wheel go by me as I pulled him out the door.”
According to Webster, a veteran commercial pilot of more than 11,000 hours on 35 different aircraft, the 15-second rule relates to time the majority of people must free themselves before going into panic mode.
“If they haven’t got their head out the exit by then, that’s when it (panic) hits, it’s immediate, not another 10 seconds, it’s a fraction of a second and then it’s over,” he said.
What his program, which includes practical and theory exercises, does, is teach people to first of all remain calm and follow a series of procedures to manage their own escape and possibly help others.
And it works.
Since starting the Victoria-based company 14 years ago, he estimates the number of lives saved based on the testimonials he’s received to be in the double digits.
The letters of thanks have come from people like Jason Crozier of Gillam, Man. who was involved in potentially fatal mishap only last month.
“I was the pilot of a float-equipped Cessna 182 that was involved in an accident resulting in being submerged and belted in,” he wrote in a letter to Webster. “I have no doubt in my mind that your training saved my life and the life of my passenger.
“He (passenger) was able to open his door and escape. I was still struggling with my door and realized this is what it feels like to drown. I had one last second left in me and somehow made my way out the passenger door. Thank you Bryan.”
Over 5,000 people from across Canada have taken the seminar, the vast majority being passengers who regularly fly over water for work, such as government employees.
Webster has written a book on the subject and in 2007 received a Transport Canada Aviation Safety Award for his work.
Ditching an aircraft in the water, especially in coastal regions and areas with a large number of lakes, is not a rare occurrence.
Ironically, at just about the same time Webster was wrapping up his Penticton course, two Lower Mainland men were in a similar predicament.
An instructor and his student were practising landings and takeoffs on Pitt Lake when their aircraft crashed and turned over, trapping the pair underwater.
The student was able to escape but the 71-year-old instructor did not and died at the scene. As a result of that accident, Webster has already been contacted by someone about taking the program.
The Penticton session also came on the heels of another float plane accident on Okanagan Lake a month ago near Kelowna.
In that incident, the pilot was also reportedly practising takeoffs and landings when the crash occurred. He managed to escape and was not seriously injured.
According to Webster, at least 15 times a year there are accidents in Canada where aircraft come to rest upside down in water.
What compounds the problem in this country, giving it the highest mortality rate in the world for such incidents, is the cold water, making a quick escape even more critical.
Perhaps the most important thing people learn apart from the emotional aspect is the sequence of steps to take if they find themselves that situation.
“Instinctively most people undo the seat-belt, but they immediately revolve and now they’re totally done,” said the instructor. “They don’t know what’s up or down, they’re lost. And now your heart starts to race and your ability to hold that precious air diminishes rapidly.”
With Webster’s program, students are taught to first open the door and remain in touch with the exit point before unbuckling.
With practical familiarization, he finds people can often extend the time they need to 30 or 45 seconds.
Penticton lifeguard Graeme Naish had an opportunity to try Webster’s specially designed training equipment and even after only a few minutes instruction was able to quickly free himself from the confined enclosure.
“Being flipped upside down disorients you pretty good, especially having the floor above you and trying to find out where you are,” he said afterwards. “But what he teaches sure makes a difference. It’s definitely a life-saving technique.”
Seconds can mean the difference between life and death, and Webster feels if he can give people just a little more time than that magic number, he’s done his job.