NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY- PANAMA CITY, Fla: It’s 3 a.m. in Panama City Beach, Fla. The bay looks like black liquid glass as the motor boat filled with combat controllers-in-training cuts through the water.
The boat comes to the insertion point. The controllers sit on the edge of the boat and when the order is given, they fall backward over the side into the water. They begin their 3000-meter swim into the night.
This is just part of one of the training blocks in the Air Force Combat Diver Course that combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, combat controllers and special tactics officers go through at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City Beach.
The NDSTC is the only military dive school in the Department of Defense, and each branch of the armed services and the Coast Guard has a detachment here to train their divers.
Because of the nature of special operations, controllers and special tactics officers are often attached to units from other branches of service and they must be able to infiltrate an area by air, land and water.
“Combat controllers don’t deploy with other Air Force members,” said Staff Sgt. Kaplan Petrik, a pararescueman and combat dive instructor. “They deploy with the Army or the Navy and they have to be able to do everything their Army and Navy counterparts are doing, and that includes diving if they’re working with the (Navy) SEALs or Army Green Berets.”
The AFCDC consists of 20 days of open-circuit training, with controllers and special tactics officers continuing on to a 13-day course of closed-circuit training using the MK-25 rebreather, a bubbleless underwater breathing apparatus.
“During the one-man confidence training (in the open-circuit phase), an instructor will provide harassment, take the regulator away, shake them up a little, tie up the regulator, wrap it around the manifold so it forces them to go back and locate their gear and remove any deficiencies in the gear to recover their air,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Zmijewski, a pararescueman and combat dive instructor.
During the closed-circuit training, Airmen learn the basics of the MK-25 and how to navigate at night under water.
On this particular night, the Airmen had to complete a 1000-meter turtleback swim, or surface swim with full gear, followed by a 3000-meter swim 12 to 20 feet under the surface, with only a compass and physical landmarks to guide them to their target point.
They must also navigate any obstacles they may encounter while underwater.
“Anything that’s above surface is below surface,” Sergeant Zmijewski said. “Everything from the old bridge that was destroyed and placed in the water as an artificial reef to boats, cars, anything you can think of.”
“There’s also dangerous marine life like stingrays as well,” Sergeant Kaplan said.
All of this must be done with approximately 50 pounds of gear including their underwater breathing apparatus, a rifle, simulated full ammunition magazines, an emergency buoyancy control vest, a tactical vest, canteens and more.
“They’re trying to achieve a one-knot swim speed,” Sergeant Zmijewski said. “They should be able to swim 100 yards in three minutes and 1,000 in 15 minutes.”
“So basically times that by 10 and double it,” Sergeant Petrik said. “They have an hour to complete the subsurface swim.”
Soon after the Airmen graduate from the AFCDC, they will be off to their permanent duty stations and possibly in theater shortly thereafter.