Military Training:

Observations on Efforts to Prepare Personnel to Survive Helicopter Crashes into Water

GAO-14-615R: Published: Jul 14, 2014. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2014.

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John H. Pendleton
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What GAO Found

The military services and U.S Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have similar water-egress training programs and similar facilities and equipment to teach personnel to escape from helicopters that crash in water, but each organization has specialized training capabilities that it uses to meet specific training needs. For example, Army, Navy, Air Force, and SOCOM training facilities each contain at least one pool and hoists for moving equipment that simulates the interior and exterior of a helicopter, called egress simulators. The services and SOCOM use similar equipment such as egress simulators, egress trainers (equipment that simulates the exit, seatbelt, and window of a helicopter), and emergency breathing devices, and similar approaches in their initial water-egress training. Although the programs are similar, some have specialized training capabilities. For example, the Army and SOCOM use helicopter-specific simulators to more closely replicate helicopters flown by their personnel, and SOCOM uses special equipment to simulate difficult environmental conditions such as wind and waves. Officials also stated that the tasks they require students to complete to graduate from initial training vary by organization. For example, SOCOM requires its students to complete extra repetitions that require students to escape from different exits in the simulator and to practice escaping in different environmental conditions. Additionally, the Navy and Air Force use active-duty personnel as instructors while the Army and SOCOM use contractors. Finally, the Army, Navy, and SOCOM require students to complete continuation training every 4 years and require students to train in both egress trainers and egress simulators. In contrast, the Air Force requires pilots and crew members to complete continuation training every 3 years but requires student to train only in egress trainers and not in egress simulators.

GAO’s analysis found that the military services and SOCOM are meeting their current training needs and have additional training capacity to meet future requirements with their current contracts, facilities, and equipment. According to service and SOCOM officials, they have trained all pilots and crew members requiring training through the end of fiscal year 2013. From fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2013, the services and SOCOM trained about 37,500 personnel. GAO’s analysis found that in fiscal year 2013, the services and SOCOM used approximately 40 percent of their available training spots in graduating about 7,000 students. The military services and SOCOM anticipate needing to train about 6,000 pilots and crew members per year through fiscal year 2018. Given current training capacities, which are expected to remain stable, and estimated future requirements, GAO’s analysis indicates that the services and SOCOM should be able to meet training requirements through fiscal year 2018, while maintaining additional capacity should requirements unexpectedly increase significantly. Officials agreed with the assessment and stated that their programs can meet estimated training requirements with the contracts, facilities, and equipment already in place. Given the unused capacity, GAO discussed with service and SOCOM officials the potential for consolidating their programs to reduce costs. Sufficiently detailed cost data were not available to quantify any cost savings that might be achieved by consolidation. However, GAO recognizes that any potential savings could be limited if facilities are kept for other training purposes; moreover, any potential savings could be offset by increased travel costs as students would have to travel to other service facilities. Officials also stated that consolidation could disrupt other training programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Although military helicopter water crashes are rare, when they do occur they often result in casualties. From 2003 through 2013, the Department of Defense (DOD) recorded 22 crashes of military helicopters into the water, resulting in 55 fatalities and 22 injuries. Each military service and SOCOM requires its personnel to complete helicopter water-egress training to teach personnel to escape from helicopters that crash in water. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and SOCOM each operate their own training program. The Marine Corps requires its helicopter pilots and crew members to complete the Navy’s water-egress training. The House Report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 mandated that GAO assess DOD’s helicopter water-egress training. This report (1) identifies any differences and similarities among the military services’ and SOCOM’s water-egress training programs for helicopter pilots and crew members and (2) assesses whether these training programs have the capacity to meet current and future helicopter water-egress training requirements. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed military guidance, curriculum documentation, and graduation and training data for fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2013; interviewed officials from each of the military services and SOCOM; and observed training.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making any recommendations in this report.

For more information, contact John Pendleton at (404) 679-1816 or

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