PRESCOTT -- A lot of pilots have never learned how to ditch their aircraft in water. Especially in Arizona, the "lesson" on that topic is usually a couple of paragraphs in a textbook and a checklist, and that lack of practical knowledge can be deadly.
That's the kind of problem the new Robertson Safety Institute at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is out to solve.
RSI is named for Arizona's Dr. S. Harry Robertson, who has worked to make aircraft safer for most of his professional life. Robertson, who is on the ERAU Board of Trustees, developed a type of fuel tank that would stand up to crashes after he found that many air crash survivors were actually killed in a post-crash fire. So-called "Robby Tank" technology is also used in race cars.
Dr. Jackie Luedtke, chair of ERAU's Safety Science Department, heads up RSI. She said the Institute does more than teach students to how fly safely.
For example, she points to a new program that will train industry professionals as well as students how to escape their crippled airplane or helicopter if it does end up in the water, using a Shallow Water Egress Trainer, (SWET).
RSI will offer a 12-hour online course on that topic and has partnered with Antipodean Aviation of Australia to bring to ERAU the SWET simulator that will be used in the school's swimming pool.
"They will go upside down," she said, to teach escapes and how to survive various water crash scenarios over a daylong session.
RSI also will offer short courses for industry professionals on topics such as aircraft ditching, and escape and survival training.
"Harry used to teach an accident investigation and survivability course" at ASU, Luedtke said, and RSI will be starting that course up at ERAU.
Anthony Chan, a master's student in safety science is nearing his fall graduation date, and he's clearly chomping at the bit to take what he's learned at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University into the real world.
Chan wants a career in accident investigation. In the past, that might have meant he would be limited to a government job working for the National Transportation Safety Board, which sends "go-teams" to aircraft crashes. Now, though, there are other options.
"A lot of airlines have investigation teams now," he said. "I already have a lot of prospects."
Luedtke said the Institute already has been approached by an airline — she won't say which — to study why and how airplanes run into each other on the ground at airports and what can be done to decrease those collisions.
And an aircraft manufacturer recently brought a new plane to Prescott for RSI to study and make recommendations on safety improvements.
Luedtke said these kinds of requests show industry support for the program. "They're excited already, and it's only been a few weeks, about the Institute and what we can do to help them.
"We're making aviation safer for the general public," she said.