SERE: Water survival – preparing Airmen for the sea

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Sean Campbell)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. — Everything instantly goes dark as a fuselage rises into the air. Winds stir and the water below begins to churn.

Strobe lights begin to flash and sounds of simulated gunfire and thunder fill the already chaotic room.

As soon as the fuselage is up in the air, it’s back in the water. U.S. Air Force Survival School Water Survival students quickly scramble to remove the door from the fuselage and swim to life rafts that float nearby. Waves smash against them as generated winds spray mists of water everywhere, encompassing the students and blurring their vision.

Students scramble into the life raft, rushing to help their teammates join them.

As the remaining students clamber into the rafts they begin to raise the canopies while instructors drench them with an onslaught of pressurized water.

After the canopies are up and minutes of dizzying motion on the simulated sea have passed, the students climb back out into the roaring waters to be hoisted into the training fuselage above, which has transitioned from a simulated crashed aircraft into a rescue helicopter, completing the training scenario.

Fairchild AFB is the home of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Water Survival Course.

The course is two days long and consists of two parts: parachuting and non-parachuting. Course capacity is capped at 34 students and is primarily made up of flight crew members and battlefield Airmen, but can include members from other career fields and even other branches of service. The primary focus of the course is to prepare military members for having to escape a downed aircraft in open water.

The training familiarizes students with the equipment available to them aboard the aircraft. This includes situations where Airmen have to eject from the aircraft with only the gear attached to their seat, said Staff Sgt. Aaron Smith, 66th Training Squadron S.E.R.E specialist.

This and many other courses taught at the U.S. Air Force Survival School use lessons learned from real-world examples to shape course content.

“There was a man in a one-man life raft, and rescue teams could not get to him right away. A C-130 Hercules dropped a 20-man life raft to him,” said Smith. “He had never seen how to get into a 20-man raft and he almost went into hypothermia trying to board the raft because he didn’t know how.”

Smith went on to say the survival gear available to Airmen depends on what aircraft they are flying in and under what command the aircraft is flying. Different commands pack different items, but a standard aircraft survival kit has a raft, raft canopy, canopy poles, rations, medical supplies, radio, signaling devices and a form of water typical consisting of 40 four-ounce packs of water, or a way of procuring fresh water.

“The abilities of the staff and equipment made the Water Survival Course that much more effective,” said 1st Lt. Casey Horgen, 90th Operation Support Squadron pilot.

The Water Survival Course has developed over the years to meet the needs of Air Force training.

“The instructors learn everything they need to teach this course in technical school, but there is typically around a three-year gap in between tech school and when they become a water survival instructor,” Smith said. “Before becoming an instructor, they go through a refresher course ensuring they know the information and understand the lessons needed to be taught.”

Smith was noted saying in order for the “dunker” portion of the course, S.E.R.E specialists are certified through the Navy Salvage Dive Course due to the fact students will be breathing on compressed air in the form of a Helicopter Emergency Egress Device bottle.

“Helicopters didn’t use to have HEED bottles. It was noticed when people ditched the aircraft they were not surviving, because when a helicopter lands in the water its top heavy so it flips upside down and starts sinking,” Smith said. “The helicopters sink so fast they couldn’t find their way out and get to the surface before they ran out of air. That’s why they started incorporating the HEED bottles.”

“If I ever find myself in a water survival situation I will have something to fall back on,” Horgen said. “I find myself more confident and prepared for what could happen.”

The mission of the 66th TRS is to equip their students with the skills necessary to survive in multiple situations and to “Return with Honor.” The Water Survival course is just one way the 66th TRS accomplishes their mission.