For Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialists stationed at Edwards, they’re not only trained to survive in austere conditions, but they train aircrew members to do the same.
As part of a course called Initial Survival Training, both military and civilian aircrew members undergo three and a half days of intense and fast-paced training that puts their survival skills to the test.
“Initial Survival Training is primarily geared towards flight test engineers who must meet this requirement but do not qualify to train at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., for their basic combat survival school,” said Staff Sgt. David Watters, 412th Operations Support Squadron SERE specialist and IST instructor. “The course we teach here is at a non-combat level that encompasses the basics that aircrew will need if they have to bailout or ditch in an unknown environment.”
Additionally, the SERE instructors teach the aircrew members who attend the basic principles of survival in a remote wilderness location, according to Tech. Sgt. Joe Monreal, 412th OSS SERE NCOIC.
“This course is intended to be a confidence-builder, so that when they do fly, the last thing they have to worry about is what to do on the ground if something should happen to the aircraft,” added Monreal.
Prior to students entering their survival surroundings, Watters said that participants go through a half day of instruction in a classroom environment which prepares them for the field and gives them some basic background information on the five basic principles of survival, which are signaling and recovery, medical, personal protection, sustenance and navigation.
“During that first day, we teach them how to organize their packs, get them familiar with their equipment and we give them the opportunity to learn about things they may want to bring on their own,” said Watters.
Once the class is sent out to the field, Day 1 starts with the instructors teaching them basic signaling and recovery.
“In a real-world situation, this is something that starts when an accident occurs and it never ends until an aircrew member is rescued,” Watters said. “The sooner you can have a signal on the ground, the sooner you can be found.”
Immediately, instructors go into training crew members about personal protection, which involves building shelters out of equipment they already have.
“One of the most available resources that aircrew will have is their parachute, so that’s primarily what we use to build shelters, but we also teach them how to improvise shelters out of large pieces of plastic or ponchos, as well as identify natural shelters found in the environment,” added Watters.
After their shelters are built, one of the three SERE instructors teaches the crew how to collect water, how to set snares in order to catch animals and teaches them all the principles of fire building.
“Without water, you can’t eat food, and without food and water you can’t survive, so integrating all that with fire building is essential, because in order to eat red meat you have to cook it,” Watters said.
After the students learn these survival techniques, the team is taught how to prepare food they may acquire while in that environment.
“I’ve prepared and eaten a variety of things, but this portion of the instruction really teaches you how to use the entire animal you may catch if you were in an austere environment and what not to eat,” said David Tao, 418th Flight Test Squadron flight test engineer and IST participant.
Upon the waking at first light on Day 2, SERE instructors typically designate this as a day to instruct on navigation, according to Monreal.
“We bring the map and compass back out and apply it real-time to the environment they’re in and teach them how to use the compass in order to go from point A to point B and how to circumnavigate obstacles that may be in the way,” Monreal said. “California is unique because we have some pretty extreme terrain and this gives them the opportunity to really test their navigation skills and give them the confidence to know that they can use a map and compass if they had to.”
To add to the navigation training, IST participants during this day are not only tasked with finding their way around a wooded area but traversing mountain ridges at an altitude of more than 8,000-feet high.
“This course is pretty demanding in a lot of ways physically and mentally. Physically-speaking, we’re putting in long days, we’re building shelters and we’re attempting to catch and prep our food. That, in itself, can be very tasking without the hiking,” said Watters. “The hiking, on the same hand, is challenging, because not everybody is physically doing this everyday and you’re out in the open, sleeping under the cover of the stars. Part of the course is creating the environment and isolation that some people have never experienced and that can be mentally challenging as well. To combat all the demands, the 95th Medical Group provides medical technicians who come out and support us in the event of an emergency.”
During the completion of day two, all crewmembers go through additional training on different fire building techniques, different ways to collect water and the different types of natural shelters they could build and use, so they can prepare for their final survival test on day three.
“Day three is the final and solo day, where they do their own hike,” Watters said. “In order to graduate the course, IST participants have to navigate to a final point and set up their own shelters and show us that what they have learned while they’ve been out here.”
After all the training and the three-day survival test is said and done, most IST participants say the training is only a part of what they take away from the experience.
“There are a lot of things you think you know what to do when you’re out in a situation like this, but a lot of things are overlooked especially when the instructors point them out. With this course, I definitely feel more confident if I were to ever confront something like this,” said Juan De La Fuente, safety technician on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy next generation airborne observatory. “It’s not only a confidence booster, but it teaches you how to work as a team. More than likely, if a situation like this ever did happen, you’d be forced to work with the people you have right there and then, so this course facilitates that.”
“A lot of people assume that this is like a camping trip until they come out here, then they figure out that there is a lot of survival knowledge that they may not have known,” added Staff Sgt. Christopher Lindsay, 412th OSS SERE and IST instructor. “We get the satisfaction of knowing that if they were to go down, they’re going to be prepared and that’s what we’re shooting for – making sure they put their best foot forward, survive and return.”
The IST course is normally held once a month during the May through October timeframe and can accommodate a maximum of ten students per class.