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Learning survival with the US Air Force (BBC)

Thurday, 24 January
By Frank Gardner
BBC News, Spokane, Washington
USAF training school

In the frozen forests of America's far north-west, the US Air Force (USAF) is busy training its crews for the unthinkable: escaping from a downed aircraft behind enemy lines while being hunted down.

It's midwinter here and this is where the latest recruits are being put through their survival training.

Ducking and dodging between fir trees weighed down with snow, stumbling and falling in their outsize snowshoes, while learning how to signal to rescue aircraft without being detected.

We're dealing with people that aren't conventional, they didn't sign the Geneva Conventions

M/Sgt Stephen Philby

This is what they call "SERE" training - survival, evasion, resistance and escape.

The USAF has been putting its aircrews through it ever since the Korean War in the 1950s.

But since 9/11, with ongoing combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has ordered a new urgency to this training.

Not Vietnam

Master Sgt Stephen Philby has been an instructor here for 17 years.

"I think that due to the current conflict, the global war on terrorism that we're in right now, the battlefield's changed and the people who are getting isolated have also changed," he told me.


I'm not used to the snow. I kinda grew up in the desert in Arizona, it's very foreign to me

Sgt Jol Sanderson

"It's not just that pilot over Vietnam being shot down and held in Hanoi, it's a lot of other things now.

"We're dealing with people that aren't conventional, they didn't sign the Geneva Conventions".

These are not Special Forces or Rangers going through this course, just ordinary aircrew. Some look barely out of high school, others have never seen snow before.

"It's very challenging, very challenging. I'm not used to the snow. I kinda grew up in the desert in Arizona, it's very foreign to me," says Sgt Jol Sanderson, one of the trainees.

Some of the participants are clearly ill at ease in the wilderness of the forest and are having trouble getting their fires to light.

But the whole point of this course is to get them to fend for themselves in the wild.

Lives owed

Senior Airman Leonard Clarke is in charge of introducing the recruits to the more repellent delicacies you might need to survive.

"Some of the less attractive things you'll eat could be insects and bugs," he says.

"Probably the worst in my opinion would be slugs, just for sources of protein.

"A lot of slugs, a lot of bugs we like to get these guys eating, just sort of tearing down those aversions, so they've done it once and it's not as bad the second time when they try it."

The USAF is cagey about just how many servicemen and women owe their lives to what this course has taught them.

One of their returning heroes is Capt Scott O'Grady, an F16 pilot who survived being shot down over Bosnia in 1995.

They are even more cagey about the Resistance-to-Interrogation part of the training, after allegations that it has been used to extract information from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Life rafts

But back at Fairchild Airforce Base, they did show us an alarming rite of passage many aircrew must now endure. It's called "stress inoculation".

Above a darkened indoor pool, 20 recruits are hoisted up in a mock-up of a helicopter fuselage.


The whole jumping into the water, in the dark, in the storm, it just reminded me a lot of when I had experiences with near drowning

There's a simulated storm building and the chopper is losing power. The crew have got seconds to pull on their survival suits.

A recorded soundtrack announces that there is no option but to ditch in the sea.

The mechanical hoist dumps the trainees underwater where they must escape from the submerged cabin and swim to the inflated life rafts.

But now high-pressure jets are spraying cold water on them from high up on the ceiling while the instructors are blasting them with high-pressure hoses.

A man has gone overboard and has to be rescued. It is all terrifyingly realistic.

Almost fun

But the exercise is stopped early. One of the trainees, Airman First Class Julia Diagidio, has had a panic attack, believing she was drowning.

She has had to be pulled out of the water; now her future as aircrew is in doubt.



Being able to survive until backup comes is the key

"The whole jumping into the water, in the dark, in the storm, it just reminded me a lot of when I had experiences with near drowning and I just completely and totally could not even think of anything else than getting out of the water," she says.

Outside on the airbase, it is -8C and a biting wind is tearing down from the nearby Rocky Mountains.

The next batch of recruits is being winched up one-by-one into a hovering helicopter, learning how to be rescued from the air.

It almost looks like fun.

But these days America has no shortage of enemies around the globe, and with nearly 250,000 US troops deployed on operations worldwide, the instructors at SERE School look set to remain busy for a long time to come.

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Added: Jan-26-2008 
By: bellava
In:
Iraq, Afghanistan, News, Other
Tags: BBC, USAF, survival, SERE, training
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