Preparing for the worst, training provides aircrew life-saving skills

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marnee A. C. Losurdo
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Flying 500 feet above the surface of the ocean hunting hurricanes and flying into these monster storms at 10,000 feet comes with some risks.

Preparing aircrew members with the training and skills to survive if an aircraft goes down due to an emergency or other event is Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Specialist Staff Sgt. Ethan Perry’s job.

“My job is to prepare aircrew members for the worst day of their life, and to do that, they need to be prepared for the absolute worst possible situation so they can come out of the experience alive,” said Perry.

Eleven aircrew members with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron completed SERE water survival and emergency parachute training at St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, May 1-2.

Before the storm season even begins, there are numerous preparations that need to take place to ensure the "Hurricane Hunters" are ready once storm season hits. The hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30 each year. The main location where Hurricane Hunters forward deploy to fly storms on the Atlantic side is the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in St. Croix, so they set up the facility and equipment required for operations at St. Croix, during an event they call the “roll out.”

This year, as part of the pre-season preparations, crew members completed some required training. Aircrew complete the Air Force’s SERE course as part of their initial training at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and then a refresher course every three years to maintain proficiency on skill sets such as canopy disentanglement, parachute drop and drag, and life raft boarding and survival.

In addition to the water survival training at St. Croix, the follow on SERE course, Conduct after Capture, which prepares aircrew members for situations in peacetime governmental, prisoner of war or hostage situations, was held at Keesler Air Force Base May 5.

The primary focus of the water survival training is to prepare military members for having to escape an aircraft while over the ocean and how to survive once they get out of the aircraft.

“Being able to conduct this training in the ocean at St. Croix was extremely beneficial,” said Perry. “It’s a realistic environment, and we were able to go over what to expect if aircrew had to bail out of the aircraft over the ocean or if the aircraft is downed in the ocean. We were also able to get the Coast Guard involved in our training, which is what would happen during a rescue situation.”

Capt. Allan Bolton, 53rd WRS pilot, agreed that the training was a lot better than just going over the material in a classroom setting or in a pool.

“It was realistic training in an environment where we are typically flying,” said Bolton, who had not been through water survival training similar to this since his initial course at Fairchild AFB in 2017. “It was very helpful, and the helicopter pickup and recovery was a real-world experience. It was the first time I was hoisted up in a basket by the Coast Guard, 'which is what would most likely happen in a rescue scenario.”

There has not been an aircraft lost in a hurricane since 1974. The Swan 38 crew, assigned to the Air Force’s 54th WRS flying out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, was lost during a reconnaissance mission into Typhoon Bess over the South China Sea Oct. 12, 1974. The crew was flying an Air Force WC-130H, tail number 65-0965 with the call sign Swan 38 and preparing for their second pass through the typhoon when radio communication was lost. No emergency communications were received, and after four days of searching, debris was found but there were no survivors. This was the last reconnaissance flight and the only C-130 lost in a tropical cyclone, according to the NOAA Hurricane Research Division.

Whatever the hurricane season brings, the members of the 53rd WRS train for all scenarios so they can provide life-and-property saving weather data to the National Hurricane Center to improve their forecasts.