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Peter Gibbs. President of Survival Systems Training Limited, Dartmouth, NS. Designed course curriculum for Emergency Breathing Systems for both military and civilian helicopter operations.

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Peter Gibbs

  • President of Survival Systems Training Limited, Dartmouth, NS.
  • Designed course curriculum for Emergency Breathing Systems for both military and civilian helicopter operations.
  • Provided train-the-trainer programs in Aircraft Ditching and Emergency Breathing Systems world-wide for both military and commercial operations.
  • 22 years service in the Royal Navy as a helicopter search and rescue diver and commando helicopter crewman.
  • Commercial divers certificate HSE Part IV (UK), Master Sports Diver ACUC.
  • 31 years in the survival business.
  • email me at

The Principles of Emergency Breathing Systems for Helicopter Underwater Escape

  • Foster broader knowledge and understanding of the differences between a compressed air breathing system and a rebreathing systems used for helicopter underwater escape.

Helicopter Statistics*

In 24 accidents where the cause of death was known

162 fatalities

92 drowned

56.7% of fatalities were the result of drowning (where the cause of death was known).

*World Civil Helicopter Water Impacts: Summary of Occupant Injuries. Courtesy Clifford (1996).


Why People Perish

  • Survival will be determined by an individuals’ breath-hold time.
  • Cold shock (Essentials of Sea Survival, Golden and Tipton).
  • Gasp reflex and inability to breath hold.

The Study

  • Scientific Study. An Investigation of Passenger Evacuation from the Super Puma Helicopter. Brooks, Muir, Gibbs. (March 1999).
  • All participants were underwater escape trainers or divers and each person carried an emergency breathing system for added safety.
  • Study showed under controlled conditions there was a breath-hold requirement of between 23-92 seconds for all subjects to escape.
  • This study proved that there was a need for passengers to carry some form of supplementary air. (Published June 2001, Aerospace Medical Journal)

The Solution

Provide some form of air system (3 systems)

Provide some form of air system (3 systems)


Hybrid Rebreather

Compressed Air

Based on Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA)

Based on breathing air at atmospheric pressure

Based on breathing air at atmospheric pressure plus 3.5 litres of compressed air


Types of Systems

Compressed Air

Demand Valve

1st Stage Regulator

Mouth Piece

Aluminum Cylinder 3000 psi

Low Pressure Hose


Types of Systems


Securing Strap

Mouth Piece and Nose Clip

Flexible Hose

Red Activating Knob

Counter Lung


Types of Systems

Hybrid Rebreather

Emergency Manual Inflator

3.5 Litres Compressed Air

Salt Water Activated Automatic Inflator

Securing Strap


Systems Specifications


  • Working pressure 1800 lbs psi - 3400 lbs
  • Volume 42 litres - 80 litres
  • System weight - approximately 3 lbs.
  • Regulator - first stage
  • Demand valve - second stage
  • Duration of air supply approximately 21 breaths at 21 feet*

*based on an average breath volume of 1.5 litres at a breath rate 10.5 bmp with a starting pressure of 3000 psi.


  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Volume = Lung volume + 3.5 litres
  • System weight - 2.25 lbs.
  • Regulator - not required
  • Demand valve - not required
  • Duration - ?

Compressed Air


  • Instant supply of air underwater. Requires no prior activation
  • Duration 2 - 6 minutes
  • Several types available
  • Purge capability
  • Proven in real accidents


  • Pulmonary over inflation injury
  • Integration difficulties with survival equipment
  • Runs out without warning

Rebreather (Hybrid)


  • Complex procedures to follow to make operational during critical part of flight (I.e. ditching)
  • Must activate the system before immersion.
  • No purge capability (cannot be operated under water)
  • Breathing resistance changes with orientation and depth. May be difficult or impossible to breathe at depth.
  • Requires a full breath of air prior to going underwater (rebreather only)
  • Danger of Hypoxia
  • Hybrid Pulmonary Over inflation injury
  • Integration difficulties with survival equipment


  • Simple design


Many Different Systems



Mounted in Aircraft

Requires skillful human engineering to match air system to equipment and aviation environment


Training Requirements

All Systems Require:

  • Theory Training
  • Practical Wet Training
  • Practical Underwater Egress Training
  • Approximately four (4) hours


Compressed Air System

  • User visual check
  • Recharge
  • 2 year check cylinder and replace O-rings
  • 5 year hydrostatic test if cylinder is greater than 2” in diameter.
  • Hygiene easy


  • User visual check
  • Re-pack
  • 5 year replace gas cylinder, operating mechanism, O-rings and swivel elbow
  • Hygiene difficult and time consuming (training only)


  • It is vital to have some form of air system for helicopter underwater escape, especially flying over water below 150C
  • I have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of three systems - compressed air, a rebreather (with no compressed air) and a hybrid rebreather (with compressed air).
  • It is important that the correct system is implemented and that thorough human engineering has been used to integrate the system so it works as advertised.