Sink or swim: SERE specialists train Airmen in water survival

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ryan Zeski
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

These Airmen are off the deep end.

But that's okay, it's part of their job.

Survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists at Fairchild train aircrews to endure in a variety of environments in case the fliers have to leave their aircraft. In addition to training to survive in forest, desert and tropical environments, the students also learn how to survive in water.

"The purpose of the training is to save their lives if they ever encounter a life-or-death situation," said Tech. Sgt. Chad Churchill, NCO in charge of water survival.

The water survival course has two parts: SV84 and SV90. SV84 is a one-day course dedicated to underwater egress from an aircraft and primarily focuses on rotary wing aircrew. These aircraft are top heavy and have a greater possibility of flipping upside down in the water. The SV90 course lasts two days and prepares students to survive in open water areas until they can be recovered.

The pool with temperature-controlled water is located inside the aquatics center. The courses are mandatory for most aircrew members, special forces and any other Airmen identified as needing the training. About 3,800 students go through water survival annually.

Students that attend the one-day SV84 course also attend SV90. Students are taken underwater in the modular egress training system, flipped upside down and are required to exit out a window to the surface while using compressed air systems to breathe. SV90 students will not require SV84 as their aircraft has wings which usually prevent it from flipping over if it ever has to crash land in water.

Depending on which aircraft the Airmen assigned determines what training they'll undergo, sometimes both, said Senior Airmen Craig Maertens, who teaches the water survival course.

During both courses, students are loaded into the METS. This is a large box supported by a winch system so it can be lowered and raised in the pool. It holds anywhere from 8 to 16 students and simulates being inside an aircraft as it goes down in water. The METS is able to be completely submerged and rotated under water.

After being dunked underwater students must escape the METS. They hold on to each other to ensure nobody gets washed away, as the team swims to the life raft. From there they begin the recovery portion. Using the crane system, which has two rescue hoists and a main hoist to lift heavy objects weighing up to 24,000 pounds, they are raised back into the METS 30 feet above the pool.

With the opening of the new fitness center last March, the SERE program gained a new training facility for the water survival course. The new facility hosts top-of-the-line equipment and its technology has been the forefront of what makes this training realistic, Maertens said.

"The realism in the old facility was limited -- all we had was sound and fire hoses," said Maertens. "The strangest thing we've dealt with in the new pool is the fact that since it's so realistic, we actually experience sea sickness and the students don't realize they're in a pool."

The pool is capable of draining one and a half feet of water into a holding tank compensating for larger waves so students don't crash over the walls of the pool. A 'wave ball' is used to generate waves - it's a large black sphere that floats in the water with a piston inside causing it to bob up and down to displace water, creating high swells in the pool up to 3 feet high. In addition, a fan capable of creating winds of more than 46 miles per hour. All of this simulates the open ocean.

"The more realistic the training is, the better it will prepare the students for real-world situations," said Church. "We're teaching life saving skills, for situations that will hit them at the worst time."

SERE specialists use radio systems and scuba equipment during the training to ensure safety of the students at all times.

"I was able to experience a realistic simulation of crash landing in the water," said Airman 1st Class Michael Dymtriw, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron boom operator. "The training I received allows me to ensure the safety of myself, the crew and its passengers in the event of an emergency."