Water Survival Training

Hammerhead Sharks | National Geographic

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…” 

“Uh, bummer.”

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!

Nothing has changed

To emphasize, everything said in this video would never be said in a fighter squadron. Most of which would include at a minimum a fine or drive a Friday story…

Before I started writing today, I got squirreled on a question about flying fighters and stumbled on this video. Basically, the book I am writing and the current fighter pilot’s sense of humor is alive and well. Here is the video – I can explain all if necessary, but you had to peel me off the floor I was laughing so hard because I haven’t been in a squadron for 18 years and nothing has changed!

Sh!t Fighter Pilots Don’t Say – YouTube 

Maybe my writing is relevant and current.

Lead-in Fighter Training

The next step in between UPT and RTU was LIFT. In Air Force acronyms … Undergraduate Pilot Training, Reserve Training Unit (later Fighter Training Unit), and Lead-In Fighter Training.

At that time, LIFT was held in the middle of the White Sands National Park, just outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, at a sprawled out Air Force base called Holloman. When I got there in early 1989, there were three squadrons of F-15A and four squadrons of AT-38B aircraft at the base.

For me, the best part of Holloman was that it was owned by Tactical Air Command (TAC) soon to be Air Combat Command (ACC), meaning I was out of Air Training Command (ATC) and officially attached to a fighter unit; but still a student in all measures.

I walked around in awe. These instructors or I dare say “fighter” pilots, were different. They had swagger. Their flight suit zippers didn’t quite get up to regulation and they rolled up or under their sleeves with stars sewed on them representing flying and combat hours. And, they all added this little “crook” in the back of their hats. All the photos of the legends had it: Chuck Yeager, Steve Ritchie, Robin Olds, and so did these Captains.

Since I had a late RTU start date, my training had been delayed; and most of my UPT class was already hard at work. So, I joined a new group of recent graduates and we hung out waiting to for our program to begin. Wanting to get to know each other, we met at the Officer’s club to hang out.

This wasn’t the generic, clean, orderly ATC officer’s club. It was full of history, memorabilia, a strange pool table with just two balls, a dartboard, a foosball table, and a slight stench of stale beer. There were mugs hanging on the walls, it was, we had arrived at … Mount Olympus!

We sat down in a relatively empty bar and started jockeying and one-upping each other with stories from our vast treasure trove of experience (1-year at pilot training). I eventually wandered up to the bar and looked around.

There was a shiny bronze bell behind the bar. Oh, I knew the lore, for I had interned at a fighter squadron in Vegas. “Ring the bell and buy the bar!” I chuckled.

And then, I saw it… there it was, an F-15 Stick Grip sticking out of the bar. YGTBSM! OK – you are right, I didn’t have that language at the time. I think I thought … “Uh – Wow.”

The stick serpent started whispering to me, “Come over here, little baby pilot, you’ve been waiting your whole life to touch me, give me a go.” Something didn’t feel right. What was an F-15 stick doing sticking up out of the bar? My spidey senses were tingling and I heard Admiral Akbar say “It’s a trap.” But I paid no heed. I saw the shot and took it, there was no danger… (Top Gun quote)

So yup, dagnabit, I grabbed that stick. I pulled the trigger, I pushed the buttons, I saw myself bearing down on a MiG-29. And then, I was jolted out of my dream by the loud ringing of the bell. The bartender was up and rapidly serving the appeared masses. Oh shit! The trigger on the stick rings the bell and I was caught, red-handed – so to speak!

“Yup, ring the bell and buy the bar.” And so I did. A hundred-dollar lesson. Needless to say, besides the hole in my pocket, it was an epic night!