There is a series of temporary duties (TDY) that the Air Force sends its flyers to during the two-year training cycle on the way to your first combat assignment. After graduating from pilot training, we attend both land and water survival, Lead-In Fighter Training (now called Intermediate Fighter Fundamentals), and then your aircraft-specific training at a Reserve Training Unit now called Fighter Training Units. These training sessions are scattered based on the timing of formal training.
In 1989, the Air Force was already committed to drawing down the F-4 (Phantom II) and I was assigned to the last class of RF-4C RTU students. Because there were so few students, I had six months before my training was to begin, so my other activities were spaced out; providing some gaps to catch up with personal activities like Christmas with my parents and “eloping” with my fiance.
After being booted from my family residence and driving off to tie my nuptials, I was sent to two weeks of water survival training in Miami in January. Unlike me, most of my pilot training class went immediately to upstate Washington for land survival which should have been called, winter survival. That January, the Spokane mountains had a huge winter storm that brought meters of snow and temperatures well below zero. It was so cold, (so my friends lamented) that the authorities had to remove the students from the field, a rare occurrence.
I couldn’t talk to any of this, because unlike them, I was sitting in my swimsuit at the beach at Homestead AFB, outside of Miami. It was what we called the “wisdom” of the Air Force. It was just dumb luck for me.
I arrived in quarters on a Friday afternoon at Homestead AFB. Because of its prime location just outside of Miami, it was a highly sought-after location for fighter students assigned to the F-16. Unfortunately, Homestead was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And the active-duty F-16s move elsewhere leaving a reserve squadron of F-16s, named the “Makos” (after the shark).
I met another pilot attending training, so we spend the weekend down in the Keys. I remembered the irony of my father having spent one of his spring breaks holidays in Miami. He went deep-sea fishing and caught a large sailfish, which he had stuffed and sent to my grandparent’s house in Missouri. Every time I wandered into their unfinished attic, it hung with authority. My dad had called them in 1959 to ask for the money to stuff his fish. For my unsophisticated farming grandparents, I can’t imagine my father calling up – “Would you please wire twenty dollars down to Miami so I can stuff the giant sailfish I caught?” I can’t help but laugh.
With that in mind, I put off deep-sea fishing for my first snorkeling experience in Key Largo. They had us remove all of our shiny jewelry (which I didn’t have any) and jump off the boat into a large infestation of barracudas. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, and they will keep the sharks away. “Sharks?!” Don’t worry about the sharks, they mostly live up in the Biscane Bay area, by Miami…”
So, on Monday we began academic training to learn about how to survive long-term in the ocean. We were told stories about pilots who had crashed in the pacific and survived for months in a one-man survival raft. We were taught how to distill water, catch fish, attract birds, and avoid the sun. We practiced setting up larger multi-person life rafts and personal, individual rafts. We practiced with the gear from our survival kits. And, after a few days, headed out to sea, so-to-speak.
Luckily, we didn’t start right out in Biscayne Bay, we began in some of the old water pits, just outside the Turkey Point Nuclear Plant. Yes, I did ask the question you are thinking, and I was assured that these ponds held no radiation; which was proved by the lack of fish, algae, or anything else growing in them.
They provided some old boots, but all of the practice was done in our flight suits. After swimming around in the ponds and setting up our life rafts, we moved over to a large structure with a cable extending away from it into the pond. This is where we would practice our parachute landing fall.
I can’t fully remember exactly how we did it, but we jumped off the structure holding a bar & pully while accelerating down to the pond. We let go, fell into the pond, and swam under a parachute. To pass, we had to demonstrate how to get out from under the parachute. This may sound easy, but it is not necessarily so. Supposedly, many have drowned panicking when emerging under the suit. Whether true or not, it scared me enough to pay attention.
If you can imagine coming up from under the water to find yourself covered by a wet parachute, wanting to breathe. As you pull the material, it simply spins over you. Without some rational thought, you could spin that chute over the top of you all day. Instead, you grab a riser and follow it until you emerge from the water-logged sheet.
On the last day, we advanced to Biscayne Bay, as he said, where the hammerhead sharks breed.
We are briefed and ready to put all our lessons to work. We all get in a boat and ride out to the bay. Then, one by one, we are attached to all of our gear, a parachute, and a rope. The boat accelerates and the parachute pulls us airborne. Just like parasailing, it climbs to a few hundred feet. Unlike parasailing, I am in a drenched flight suit and boots, an inflated vest, and have a line hanging from my waist including a survival kit and a “non-“inflated one-man raft.
The boat master signals and I detach from the rope and drop into the bay.
After I clear the parachute, I start blowing up my raft. It takes about 10 minutes and then I squeeze myself into it. I throw the sea anchor, knowing I really don’t need it in the quiet bay. I am surprisingly cold, with the Florida sun bearding down on me. I inventory my survival kit, pull out my radio, signal mirror, water dye, and flares. I’m ready to be rescued, but expect an hour of bobbing in the bay.
The trainers encouraged us with legends of beer given to us from civilian boats. I see a fisherman on the horizon and start frantically signaling him with my mirror. Then I notice four or five mirrors reflecting on his boat. I chuckle. Nobody gets beer.
Then, I see one of my trainees hunched down in his quarter-blown-up raft. I wonder if he has a leak? We actually have a little repair kit with us. But he just sits, partly underwater. I am now warm but think he must be cold. After the session, I ask him about it. He says he saw a couple of big shadows circling underneath him when he hit the water. He decided he’d rather sit in an empty raft than dangle his feet for the hammerheads.
I reflect that I was glad I had forgotten about the hammerhead lore, or I may have been the one in the empty raft.
All of it was part of the memory we share. All of us share these memories, it links us to the pilots of yesteryear and to the ones today. I could go to the fighter bar and talk about Turkey Point nuclear power plant, Biscayne Bay, the hammerheads, and trying to signal for beer.
Unfortunately, after Hurricane Andrew, water survival was moved to Eglin AFB in the panhandle of Florida. Newbie pilots, new location, same stories; at least they didn’t worry about being eaten by a hammerhead!