FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash: In response to the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Air Force water survival courses have temporarily relocated to Fairchild Air Force Base.
Training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., was suspended indefinitely June 4 when oil was discovered inside the training area used by Detachment 2 of the 66th Training Squadron.
The instructors at Det. 2 teach students how to survive in cases where the aircrew has to abandon their aircraft over water. The course covers a variety of open-water scenarios, from how to land in water with a parachute, to surviving the elements and procuring food. Up to 55 students a week attend the three-day course, held 48 weeks out of the year, said Lt. Col. Christopher Tacheny, the 66th TRS commander.
“Relocating portions of our survival course to Fairchild is a short-term solution,” Colonel Tacheny said. “The Air Force is committed to continue this training. What we’ve had to do is modify what we can teach with our facilities here at Fairchild. It’s the very definition of adapt and overcome.”
In some cases, the instructors have used an academic solution, teaching what they can in classrooms so aircrew members have at least some familiarity with possible open water contingencies. Those Airmen are expected to fulfill the remaining training requirements at a later date at a location to be determined, Colonel Tacheny said.
“There’s simply no replacement for exposure to the practical experience,” he added.
According to the colonel, one of the biggest successes in the effort was how quickly his team was able to divert students from one location and immediately begin training in another. Training in Pensacola Bay was suspended on a Friday and by Monday morning, students were already in place and ready for the course, Colonel Tacheny said.
Tech. Sgt. Toby Stolz, the NCO in charge of the water training flight, has been tasked with creating the alternative solutions for the inbound students.
“We’ve got a lot of creative Airmen who are coming up with answers to the challenges we face,” Sergeant Stolz said. “We’re actively brainstorming to find cost-efficient ways to accomplish our mission.”
Sergeant Stolz’s team has been able to replicate many of the training tools the Pensacola team uses, such as disentanglement rings for getting out from under a tangled parachute to harnesses aircrew students wear while hanging above the pool.
There are still challenges for the instructors, however.
“We don’t have the resources or training areas to conduct parasail operations that simulate an over-water parachute deployment like we do in the gulf region,” Colonel Tacheny said. “Also, we still haven’t found a way to perform the drag exercise, which simulates an aircrew member being dragged by a parachute should it inflate with surface winds once they land in the water.”
Under the command of Capt. Mike Erdley, Det. 2 possesses the largest naval fleet in the Air Force. The Pensacola facility is actually the fourth location the 66th TRS has used. Previously, water survival was taught off the coast of Tyndall AFB on the Florida panhandle, and at Homestead Air Reserve Base, 30 miles south of Miami.
Because of long winters and frozen lakes, the Pacific Northwest is not a viable option for open-water training for several months of the year, Captain Erdley said.
“There’s a reason why we do the majority of water survival training in the Gulf of Mexico,” the captain said.
Because of the situation in the gulf, however, it’s unclear how long training operations there will be suspended.
Colonel Tacheny said efforts are under way to find a permanent location, should Det. 2 have to relocate.
“Our leadership is fully aware of the situation,” Colonel Tacheny said. “Right now my focus is to continue to provide the best training we can, given the limitations we have here. It wouldn’t be possible without the support we’ve gotten from the outdoor recreation manager, Damian Smith. He’s balanced our increased training schedule with normal pool hours, so we appreciate his efforts.”
Overcoming those limitations has been challenging, but “water survival instructors have an admirable passion for what they do,” Colonel Tacheny said.
“Our instructors aren’t satisfied until they know for certain that an aircrew member is ready to operate and endure in every environment imaginable,” the colonel said. “We want every student who sets foot on our campus to have the skills they need to survive so they may, like our motto says, return with honor.”