Imagine yourself in an F-35 or F-16 fighter jet high over the Russian arctic, and a MiG hits you with enough gunfire to severely cripple your aircraft. You do what you can do to control it, get down to a lower altitude, but eventually realize it’s futile. Now imagine that you have safely bailed out and are under a full parachute canopy floating gently to Earth. Your first thought: I’m still alive! Your second: How will I survive in the dark on the enemy landscape below, where the average temperature is – 40 F and winds can exceed 50 mph?
There’s an answer for that. The U.S. Air Force, in addition to including critical items needed for survival in your ejection-seat pack, offers arctic survival training – colloquially known as the “Cool School” – at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska. From October through March, pilots and other military personnel who operate in cold-weather environs take to the field under the harshest of conditions, and learn to make do with the barest of necessities.
For a taste of the torture, and after pulling 9 Gs in the back of a supersonic F-16D, taking a medical exam and signing a standard waiver form, this reporter embedded in the last class of the season, from March 13-18. Most of the 33 participants were already graduates of SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape – a comprehensive 12-day military survival course, and had a leg up. They commanded a basic understanding of how to attack the wilderness, but the arctic focus hadn’t been part of their SERE training.
I was placed into a breakout group of nine students, mainly pilots. Day 1, a Monday, consisted of classroom training. Pay attention. In 48 hours, students will put into practice what they learn, and it’s not easy. Isolated in subzero weather, you will be asked to build a one-man shelter from a combination of tree limbs you gather, and snow either as powder or packed into blocks. Basic fire-starting skills are also emphasized, for obvious reasons. A graphite “match” stick serves to create an initial spark, the fuel for which are some cotton balls in your pack and wood you gather from dead trees, then chop up into kindling and such. We also learned the use of flares to attract incoming rescue aircraft, if in friendly territory. I was surprised at how powerful some of them were – a few handheld ones launched up to more than 1,000 feet.
USAF Major Preston P. Moon, 35, a 17-year Air Force veteran and Huey helicopter pilot, oversees the Cool School at Eielson. A graduate of SERE, and then the arctic survival course as a student in 2014, he has advice for newbies: “Trust the instructional techniques, because they’ve been vetted and honed since 1946.” That’s a long time, and they work. One example Moon cites of where arctic training helped save lives is when a crew of four Huey helicopter airmen had to resupply a radio tower on a mountain in Montana called Highwood Baldy. After they had finished their mission, weather closed in. They were stuck on the peak for four days. Two members of the crew had been through arctic survival, and Moon says that training possibly saved their lives.
I found sleeping at night the hardest part of the course. Our class had it good, though, with temperatures hovering from a few degrees below zero to a few degees above. Earlier classes this season had experienced – 35 F. With sleeping, it wasn’t so much the cold, it was the claustrophobia. The first night I was squished into a smallish life raft zipped up over my sleeping bag. After about an hour, I called out to other group members nearby to say that I needed the radio to call in for relief. They asked why. I told them, and they laughed, said to undo the raft seal and expose my sleeping bag to the elements. They had done so themselves. Once I followed suit, I was able to brave the night. I think I may have even seen the Aurora, but it could have just been a hallucination. I did see lots of stars, though.
The second night was claustrophobic, as well. I slept in a snow cave no more than three-feet-high inside. I had to slide on my back to get in, hauling all of my gear. Once inside, a kind of stopper sealed up the entrance for the night, and I was left to my own devices to set up everything. Thank God for my headlamp and urine bottle.
The group was always on the lookout for frostbite. We watched each other carefully for signs – a shiny white porcelain-like patch of skin followed by intense redness. Fortunately, no one experienced the dreaded condition, but a few in the group who had had frost nip before needed to take special care with those parts of their bodies.
The Cool School is not all serious all of the time, though. After laying wire snares to catch rabbits for dinner (yes, hunting is involved), our chief guide, Staff Sergeant Sam Ley, 30, who has been with the school for two years, stopped at a small hole in the snow with rabbit dung in it. He picked up one of the pellets, matter-of-factly put it into his mouth and began chewing. “This is fresh,” he said savoring it, “with a hint of pine.” Then he asked each member of our group to sample one. In disbelief, this naive reporter watched as one student after another chewed a pellet. When it came to me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then they all started chanting, “Jimbo, Jimbo.” I became embarrassed, didn’t want to let the group down, but ultimately declined. Then Ley revealed that it was just beads of chocolate they had planted earlier as a practical joke on me. Everyone laughed. There you go.
At the end of the program, we had a graduation ceremony back in the warm classroom. Everyone passed, including me, surprisingly. Then we had chili dogs. They never tasted so good after having military MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) for the past few days.
Did I learn anything? You bet. One, I hope I never need to use these techniques to survive in such a harsh environment, but two, if I do, I will know a few things about ways to do it, and perhaps even save my life.