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Crash Course

Aircrew surivival training teaches flyers how to survive in hostile and unforgiving environments. Tech. Sgt. Ava Swedock, a 337th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, practices lighting a rescue flare during the exercise at a beach in Key West, Fla.

Aircrew surivival training teaches flyers how to survive in hostile and unforgiving environments. Tech. Sgt. Ava Swedock, a 337th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, practices lighting a rescue flare during the exercise at a beach in Key West, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tom Ouellette)

NAVY KEY WEST, FL -- Westover Flyers from the 337th Airlift Squadron get water survival in the sunny waters of Florida. This three day training includes pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Thomas R. Ouellette)

Westover Flyers from the 337th Airlift Squadron get water survival in the sunny waters of Florida. This three day training includes pilots, flight engineers and loadmasters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tom Ouellette)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- Members of the 439th Operations Support Squadron spent several days teaching lessons they hope no flyer ever has to use.

The unit's aircraft life support crew hosted water and land survival refresher training at Key West, Fla., Feb. 21-25 to help flight crews overcome their worst nightmare -- surviving a crash.

Staying alive after impact is really just the first step to survival. It can take days to get rescued and the lack of food and water, harsh environments, injuries, etc. can claim the fittest of Airmen.

But the 11 reservists at the exercise brought their expertise to enhance a flight crews' odds.

"For this exercise, which aircrews must take once every three years, we tried new things to meet their needs," said Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Pietrowski, life support NCOIC. "During the water survival training, the aircrews practiced getting rescued by helicopter, the first time we did that in ten years. And we focused the land survival training on desert conditions because our C-5s fly into Iraq."

The first day of training involved dumping the participants into a chilly Atlantic Ocean for about 90 minutes.

Embarking from the Army's Special Operations Dive School, more than 50 Patriot Wing pilots, flight engineers, loadmasters and aeromedical evacuation specialists and a dozen flight crew Reservists from Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio, learned to stay afloat 300 yards from shore while awaiting rescue.

"I've learned you can't over-inflate the life preserver because it restricts your movement and you can't swim. If you under-inflate it, you can't float. It takes awhile to get it right," said Col. Michael J. Marten, 439th Airlift Wing vice commander.

The biggest challenge was battling "rotor wash." As the Navy's Blackhawk rescue helicopter swooped over the trainees, it brought along an unforgiving force of wind.

"It was like being in a mini-hurricane -- I couldn't see and I was swallowing salt water. It was much tougher than I thought," said Lt. Col. Greg Symonds, 337th Airlift Squadron pilot.

Colonel Marten and Colonel Symonds, both with multi-decades of service, are among many of the participants who never experienced this type of live water training.

"I've been with the same unit for 24 years and I've never been hoisted out of the ocean
by a helicopter," said Master Sgt. Richard "Jed" Jedery, 337th AS flight engineer.

"Once the helicopter is overhead you get pelted by water. You have to struggle just to get to the rescue sling," Sergeant Jedery said.

"And I didn't anticipate getting dragged. Once I got the sling on, I was pulled about ten feet before getting lifted, Sergeant Jedery added.

"This was excellent training. No mater how many people explain it to you, it's not the
same unless you actually experience it," he said. "It was a relief to get out of the rotor wash. I was green, but now I know."

"This is why we need hands-on training," said Lt. Col. Steven Thompson, 439th OSS, and the exercise's coordinator and group training officer. "You can talk about survival all you want in a classroom, but it's never the same as actually doing it."

To simulate desert conditions, the Patriot Wing's life supporters took the aircrews to the beach during the second day of training. There they gave eight separate survival classes, covering topics such as finding food and fresh water, evading the enemy, building shelter, and the use of flares and signaling mirrors.

The exercise's participants also learned how to treat injuries on the third day of training.
With the Airman's Manual in hand, members of the 439th Aeromedical Staging Squadron taught self- aid buddy care, required training for all Reservists.

"The three goals of the training exercise were to combine the 439th Operations Group,
provide hands-on training and build morale," Colonel Thompson said. "So having the aeromedical squadron was a plus. It's not often they attend this training with the aircrews."

There is an unstated benefit. Even though the Patriot Wing has never lost a C-5 aircraft, it's clear the base isn't willing to rest on its laurels.

"Anyone in aviation should take this training," Colonel Symonds said.