Frontier Former Editor

October 20, 2007

Tales from the FFE-side . . .

Thanks to long-term sleep deprivation, I’ve had several little episodes come bubbling to the surface in recent days

9E8E, 9U44 . . . . they are but innocuous terms for the Dilbert dunker. If you’ve seen “Officer and a Gentleman,” you may have wished that Richard Gere drowned in the contraption.

Basically, it was a frame supporting two inclined rails. A set of stairs led up and along the frame to a platform where, waiting for the Naval Aviator-in-training or the old hand requalifying for flight status, was a simulated cockpit with a seat fitted with a standard military aircraft shoulder and lap harness. A roll bar above the seat capped off the tub.

The cockpit tub was attached to a cable-and-pulley rig that held the rig at the top of the rails until released by a hefty latch. With the supposedly-willing occupant strapped in tight, the cockpit would roll about 20 or 25 feet down the rails into a swimming pool and then trip inverted over a couple of flanges at the end of the rail.

The object of taking this ride? To experience the rapid sequence of slamming into a dense medium, have the wind knocked out of you and then try to figure out how to pop the harness’s quick release fittings so you can extricate yourself from the cockpit and find your way to the surface.

In the winter of 1987 and spring of 1988, my part-time job while in grad school and being a teaching assistant was working for a civilian contractor  maintaining and operating the ‘toys’ at Naval Air Station Norfolk’s Naval Aviation Physiology Training Unit, or NAPTU.

That’s how I got up close and personal with the Dilbert dunker while experiencing some full-blown nostalgia. We had two shops on base: the classroom facility which also housed the high-altitude pressure chamber and ejection seat trainer, and the pool facility which housed all the water survival training devices.

Ten years before I worked there, I went to the base pool as a Navy brat. Then I found myself spending four or five hours a day with three other civvies chipping paint and rust, applying ospho and zinc chromate primer and then painting the Dilbert’s frame and cockpit with haze-gray epoxy paint.

At that time, Norfolk’s Dilbert was being freshened up so it could be disassembled and shipped to NAS Pensacola. Turned out that, when the Navy installed it in the old base rec pool, they bolted it to some 1920’s-era brickwork that wasn’t really strong enough to take the stress of a 300-pound cockpit tub falling into the water and jerking at the end of a steel cable.

Our Dilbert had at least three sisters at the time – one in Washington state, one decrepit one in Pensacola (where ours supposedly went), and another at some other facility I don’t recall.

After we spruced her up, I was offered a chance to take one last ride in the Dilbert. I refused – not because I was all that afraid of slamming into the water and fighting my way to the surface, but because I was frightened of a couple of tons of steel framework following me in and pinning me to the bottom.

Turned out that the Navy decided the building could still handle a few more attacks on the architecture that summer, though. We had a group of about 30 Army Cobra gunship helo pilots and gunners arrive for some water survival training. Around this time, the Persian Gulf tanker war was running medium-hot and the Department of Defense decided to send some Army pilots to fly patrols against Iranian Navy gunboats raiding the supertanker traffic

Supposedly, giving the Army types a few rides in the Dilbert would get them used to crashing or ditching in the Persian Gulf. A Marine helo pilot seconded to NAPTU as part of the instructor staff told us that a better simulation would be to send them down the dunker closely followed by a hot gas turbine engine and about 100 gallons of burning jet fuel, because hitting the water in the Cobra invariably would mean having the helo’s engine and ruptured fuel tank crushing and fricaseeing the pilot and gunner.

1988 was an interesting year. I think I’ll write more later.


  1. The need for sleep can make you say, do and think the unusual. I think I would pass on the dilbert dunker, though it sounds much safer than the space sky diving to earth from 60 mile up that I was reading about during a sleepless night a couple of days ago.

    Comment by thescoundrel — October 21, 2007 @ 11:18 am

  2. I was in Naval Aviation “A” school at NAS Norman Oklahoma in late 1954.
    There was a “Dilbert Dunker” there at that time. I was “fortunate?” enough to take that 25 foot (or so) ride in it. I thought it would be a piece of cake, but it was scary as hell after the abrupt stop and flip. It was difficult to remember how to unbuckle and swim down to get up.
    Suggestion, let the CIA set a similar device up and use it instead of “water boarding”!

    Comment by Mac McFatter — May 19, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

  3. Fred Kaneb invented the Dilbert Dunker & plans to visit NAS Pensacola & Whiting Field this month.He thinks the original is still there.Thanks for your stories.

    Comment by Wilfred Kaneb — November 6, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

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