Read an excerpt from Hover, a thrilling, emotional women’s journey written by a former navy pilot, Anne A. Wilson.
Frigid water fills the cockpit. It seeps into my boots and crawls up my flight suit, slipping through the zippers and finding every seam. I struggle against the straps that bind me to my seat, the water moving steadily upward, flowing around my waist, sliding up my torso, encircling my chest. It is dark. I can’t see the water, but I hear it, sloshing over my shoulders, licking at my neck, splashing and gurgling, inching toward my ears. The cockpit rolls right. I crane my helmeted head upward, stealing one last breath before I’m pulled under.
The aircraft tumbles. I grab at the seat rails, muscles rigid, holding myself in place. My instincts scream to disconnect the harness and free myself. Immediately. But I remember the instructions from my training. Wait until all violent motion stops.
Shivering, I continue to roll. God help me. Seconds stretch to eternity when you’re strapped in and held underwater upside down against your will.
I tighten my face, wincing to keep the water out, but it percolates into my sinuses anyway, stinging like a thousand pinpricks.
With an abrupt shudder, the motion stops. I search wildly for the harness-release mechanism and pull. My arms flail as they maneuver to free themselves from the straps. But once I’m free, it’s worse. Now I’m floating up. Or is it down? I’m already disoriented.
Whack! My hand is ripped from its hold by a swift unintentional kick from my copilot, who, like me, searches in the blind for an exit to the aircraft. Only now, I have no reference point, floating free.
I remember the procedures for egress, an exit strategy ingrained over so many years of navy training. Reach left hand behind you. Grab bulkhead. Right arm across torso to bulkhead on other side. Pull forward. I do the actions my hands have memorized, grabbing two structures I pray are the walls to the passageway, and pull hard.
My helmet crashes into something unmovable. I’ve missed the passageway. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! Where is it? My hands frantically grope, searching for an opening. And already, I feel it—the slow-building pressure that squeezes my chest.
You can do this, Sara. You can do this. Keep it together.
My hand lands on a seat. I’m not sure which one, but the exit must be behind me. I try again. Left hand on bulkhead, right arm across torso, grab and pull. There is no resistance. Still clinging with one hand to the bulkhead, I move to the next steps. Left hand down to crew chief’s seat. Hand-over-hand to main cabin door.
An overwhelming heaviness settles over my body. My chest tightens … constricting … squeezing … searching for oxygen that it won’t find. I know what’s coming next. My mouth is going to open and it’s going to look for the air. I’m going to inhale the moment it opens.
I bolt forward. I don’t remember my route. I don’t remember anything. My hands are swimming and pulling and grasping at everything and anything. My head is getting light.…
I break through the surface with a spastic splash, my lungs heaving with effort to suck in oxygen. I rip the blackout goggles from my face. As I guessed, I’m the last one to surface. I do a sad imitation of a dog paddle to get to the side of the pool, almost kissing the deck when I reach it.
My roommate, Emily Wyatt, waits at the edge, patting me on the back when I arrive.
“Just shoot me, Em,” I say in a spluttered gasp.
“Hey, you did it,” she says. “You always find a way.”
I don’t have the energy to tell her that I didn’t find anything. Some cosmic deity somewhere pulled me to the surface, because I sure as heck didn’t find it myself.
I’ve barely gotten my breath when the clanging that has permeated so many of my nightmares begins again. The helo dunker is hoisted to the surface and into the ready position.
The helo dunker. God, I hate this device. Every two years, I strap into this heinous contraption designed to simulate a helicopter crash landing in the ocean. You can’t fly as a navy helicopter pilot unless you ride this thing, and so, I haul myself out of the pool and return to the holding area to await my fourth and final ride.
The group ahead, aircrewmen and pilots, file into the twenty-foot-long metal drum barrel that mimics a helicopter cabin. Large, square cut-out sections of the barrel serve as windows and, therefore, possible exits. It is through these openings that I watch eight people find their seats and fasten their harnesses.
A metallic clang echoes in the enclosed natatorium as chain-linked metal ropes holding the barrel begin reeling upward, hoisting the dunking apparatus over the water tank. Ten seconds later, the hydraulic pulleys powering the ascension wrench to a halt.
The barrel silently sways, suspended at a height six feet above the surface.
Then, with a quiet click, the chains release, and the drum free falls to the water, a liquid hiss echoing through the chamber on impact.
You never know which way the barrel is going to roll. On this run, it rolls left, rapidly filling with water, continuing to roll until it hangs upside down, completely submerged.
You must wait until all motion stops before you disconnect your harness—probably the longest twenty seconds you will ever experience in your life. Safety divers ensure that no one begins their egress too early, which would lessen the odds of successfully navigating your way out.
In the sudden quiet, those of us on the pool deck hold our collective breath as we wait for helmets to begin popping to the surface.
“Port side—clear!” shouts one safety observer, reporting that all occupants on the left side of the barrel have exited.
We silently count. One head, two heads, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
“Eight souls accounted for!” the lead diver reports. “Clear to lift!”
“Next up, last ride for Petty Officer Legossi, Petty Officer Messina, Senior Chief Makovich…” The names run together, my eyes fixed on the water that spills from the inside of the helo dunker, draining as it ratchets upward. “… Lieutenants Wyatt and Denning!”
I have to choke down what’s rising in my throat.
“Come on, Sara,” Emily whispers in my ear. She knows I struggle with this—the only one who knows why.
On a day-to-day basis, Emily tends to overwhelm—extroverted, extra-loud, extra-everything—but this is one place where she shows a softer side. I think her maternal instincts must take over or something, because she knows how to soothe my fears, just like a mother would. Just like the best friend she is would.
She places her hand lightly on my back. “Let’s get this over with.”
I swallow hard and move forward with her gentle prod from behind.
For these rides, we are clothed as we would be for flying—standard olive green flight suits, black leather steel-toed boots, gloves, and helmets. Emily and I step into the barrel and take our places in front, in the cockpit. As we did for the last ride, I slide into the right seat, Emily climbs into the left. We fasten our five-point harnesses and tighten them down hard.
You would think that taking this ride once would be enough, but we’re required to do it four times in one afternoon. As an added challenge, the pilots aren’t allowed to egress out the cockpit escape hatches—the ones right next to us, less than an arm’s length away. To simulate a jammed hatch, we must instead find a way through the main cabin door behind us. Like before, we must wear blacked-out goggles to simulate crashing at night.
Once I affix my goggles, I sit in darkness, my hands white-knuckled, gripping the sides of my seat.
The clanging starts. With a lurch, we are pulled upward, metal rumbling, seats vibrating, the discordant jangle of chains echoing loudly now. I open my mouth wide, drawing deep, full breaths. Over and over I do this, as if it will make a difference.
And the reward for all of this? Congratulations, you’ve earned your way onto a ship for eight months at sea on a Western Pacific deployment.
The dunker jerks to a stop.
Swinging lightly, we hang.
All is quiet.
Until the bottom drops out …
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